Canada Excellence Research Chairs-funded research aims to improve ecological health of the Saskatchewan River Delta

Photo: Testing the Saskatchewan River Delta ecosystem

It took years for the Saskatchewan River Delta to be degraded, and it will take generations to restore its ecological health, according to researchers at the Global Institute for Water Security (GIWS), a research centre at the University of Saskatchewan.

The delta, one of the country’s most important wetlands, receives flows from the Rocky Mountains. Located near the community of Cumberland House in northeastern Saskatchewan, this area is home to a vast number of plants, fish, mammals and birds.

But, due to industry and the demand for irrigation and drinking water, less water is now coming downstream. This means that wildlife, such as moose and, muskrat once found in plentiful numbers, have almost disappeared from the delta.

Supported by Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) funding, GIWS researchers are working with Cumberland House residents to better understand how upstream developments impact water flows and the downstream environment.

And, while the Saskatchewan River Delta is out of sight and out of mind for most residents of the province, Howard Wheater says decisions on water management, in both Alberta and Saskatchewan, affect the ecology of this internationally vital wetland, as well as the lives and livelihoods of its Indigenous inhabitants. Wheater is the University of Saskatchewan CERC in Water Security and the director of the GIWS.

“The Global Institute for Water Security is working to improve our understanding of this important part of the province’s natural heritage,” he says. “We hope our work will provide new insights into the impacts on the delta of changing climate and river flows, and hence inform options to improve the health of the delta and its people, while supporting the vital water resources that the province needs for its economic development.”

The Saskatchewan River Delta ecosystem is declining because the flows are reversed from what used to make the delta flourish—namely, high flows in the spring, slowly declining into the summer, with very little flow in fall and winter.

GIWS researchers are also looking to share the stories and traditional knowledge of delta residents.

University of Saskatchewan-hosted events, such as Delta Days, which brought together a number of stakeholders, including participants from 15 Métis and First Nations organizations, are helping to share the experiences and lessons learned about changes the delta is facing—such as climate change, upstream development and water flow regulation.