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Alberta and the Mackenzie River Basin

Map of sub-basins of the Mackenzie River
Sub-basins of the Mackenzie River
Click to enlarge

Mackenzie River Basin Facts:

  • The Mackenzie River basin is the largest river basin in Canada, covering 1.8 million square kilometres. The Mackenzie River is also Canada’s longest river at 1,802 kilometres.
  • The Mackenzie delta is the 12th largest freshwater delta in the world.
  • Alberta’s Athabasca and Peace Rivers and their sub-basins are part of the larger Mackenzie River basin. Approximately 2/3rds of Alberta’s land mass drains into the Mackenzie river basin.
  • The Peace River alone brings approximately 58 billion cubic metres of water per year into Alberta from British Columbia.  That is three times the flow of all rivers in southern Alberta combined.
  • The British Columbia portion of the Peace River is regulated by the Bennett Dam, which is one of the largest in the world. It is approximately 200 times the size of the Oldman River dam in southern Alberta. 

Major elements of the Alberta-Mackenzie River Basin relationship include:

  • The Mackenzie River Basin Transboundary Waters Master Agreement, 1997
  • The Mackenzie River Basin Board

Mackenzie River Basin Transboundary Waters Master Agreement, 1997

In July 1997, the governments of Canada (represented by the Minister of the Environment and the  Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development), British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories, and the Yukon entered into the Mackenzie River Basin Transboundary Master Agreement.

The agreement commits the six governments to work together closely to create a cooperative forum to inform about and advocate for the maintenance of the ecological integrity of the entire Mackenzie River watershed.

The Agreement has four guiding principles for cooperative management:

  • Equitable Utilization
  • Prior Consultation
  • Sustainable Development
  • Maintenance of Ecological Integrity

The Master Agreement requires neighbouring jurisdictions to negotiate detailed bilateral water management agreements to address water issues at jurisdictional boundaries on transboundary streams and to provide parameters on the quality, quantity, and flow of water.

Alberta’'s Involvement

The Peace, Hay, Liard, and Athabasca rivers, which flow through Alberta, are all sub-basins of the  larger Mackenzie River basin. The Athabasca River originates in the Rocky Mountains and flows northeast into Lake Athabasca, which straddles the Alberta-Saskatchewan boundary. Downstream of Lake Athabasca it joins the Peace River flowing from British Columbia to form the Slave River, which travels north into the Northwest Territories. The Hay and Liard rivers flow from north western Alberta into the Northwest Territories where they join the Mackenzie River. Because these rivers flow across all of these provincial boundaries the Master Agreement requires that Alberta develop individual bilateral agreements with the Northwest Territories, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan.

The Mackenzie River Basin Board

The Mackenzie River Basin Board was established to implement the Master Agreement.

The Board is not a regulatory or licensing board, and has no legal or policy basis to regulate resources used in any of the jurisdictions. However, the Board may influence regulatory decision made in the jurisdictions in a number of ways:

  • By providing factual materials, such as the State of the Aquatic Ecosystem Reports, to inform development decision makers.
  • By participating in and influencing pre or post regulatory processes, such as planning, regional or cumulative environmental impact assessments process, or ministerial reviews of sensitive decisions.
  • By appearing as “friend of the tribunal” in deferral, provincial, and territorial public hearings to advocate for the principles endorsed in the Master Agreement.

The Board’s key responsibilities include:

  • Providing a forum for communication, coordination, information exchange, notification, and consultation among all six jurisdictions and the public;
  • Considering the needs and concerns of Aboriginal people through provision of culturally appropriate communication and incorporation of their traditional knowledge;
  • Recommending uniform objectives or guidelines for the quality and quantity of water resources;
  • Encouraging consistent monitoring programs;
  • Monitoring the progress of implementing the bilateral water management agreements between neighbouring jurisdictions;
  • Reviewing the Master Agreement at least once every three years and proposing amendments to the Parties;
  • Submitting a report on the state of the aquatic ecosystem to the federal, provincial, and territorial Ministers, and;
  • Carrying out studies and investigations, as required.

Current priorities of the Board include:

  • Facilitating development of bilateral water management agreements;
  • Preparing a second State of the Aquatic Ecosystem report;
  • Improving the inclusion of traditional knowledge and encouraging greater involvement of aboriginal people in Board activities; and,
  • Developing a basin hydrology run-off model to better model water movement.


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Updated: Dec 16, 2015