NEWS: Nunavut May 23, 2017 - 4:00 pm

Nunavut water reservoirs at risk of running dry, researchers say

Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet could deplete freshwater sources in five to 10 years

SARAH ROGERS

Water reservoirs in some Nunavut communities could run dry over the next decade due to shifting weather and climate patterns, a group of environmental researchers have found.

In their study, the researchers sound the alarm on access to fresh water in Nunavut, saying Iqaluit alone could exhaust its freshwater supply within the next five to 10 years.

Iqaluit’s end-of-winter supply could be completely used up in any given year, said York University geographer Andrew Scott Medeiros, during the period before the ice melts when the supply has already been drained and no more rain or run-off can enter the system.

The issue is one of climate change: Arctic regions are seeing decreased precipitation and increased evaporation with warmer temperatures.

The City of Iqaluit has estimated that its freshwater source, the Lake Geraldine watershed and reservoir, is at or near capacity.

While the city looks at options to supplement its water supply, Medeiros fears Iqaluit could run into the same problems that smaller hamlets have run into in recent years.

In 2015, for example, the hamlet of Igloolik’s main water reservoir was temporarily depleted in the late spring when residents used water faster than the ice in the open reservoir could melt.

“But if a source like [Iqaluit’s] Lake Geraldine runs dry, you can’t ship bottled water to a population that large,” Medeiros said.

Medeiros and a team of researchers have spent the last several years looking at freshwater quality and quantity issues across the territory, including an analysis of Government of Nunavut-commissioned studies and proposals for supplementary water sources.

The group’s latest study, soon to be published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Pollution Research, focuses on Iqaluit where the capital’s fast-growing population—estimated to consume about 352 litres of water per capita, per day—is quickly outgrowing its water supply.

That’s prompted Iqaluit to look at alternative sources to supplement the city’s freshwater supply; the city’s general plan identified the Niaqunguk or Apex River as a potential source, backed up by a 2014 study prepared by EXP Services Inc.

Iqaluit’s engineering and public works committee voted in 2015 to pursue a more in-depth review of that source.

Municipal staff told Nunatsiaq News last week that the city is currently working with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on getting approval for this water source, with plans to begin tapping the Apex River as early as 2018.

The report looked at two potential extraction points from the river at their highest flow rate, July, August and September, to see if they could potentially supply the 845,000 to 1,853,000 cubic metres of water the city estimates it will need to meet its annual demands.

Over that three-month period, the study estimated the river’s flow volume at some 6,900,000 cubic metres at its highest rate.

But York University researchers say that flow isn’t consistent with the river’s typical conditions.

At a pump rate of 1,853,000 m3 over the summer months, there’s a one in three chance each summer that the Apex River would be depleted, Medeiros said—not to mention that the rate exceeds DFO’s guidelines for water extraction.

“There isn’t enough water in that river to supplement Iqaluit,” he said. “And I’m sure people who use that water traditionally would not appreciate it. Yet they’re still moving forward.”

But Medeiros notes the problem of vulnerable water sources isn’t limited to Iqaluit: “This is s territorial problem,” he said.

The issue extends to Rankin Inlet, which recently tapped into the local Char River to supplement the community’s freshwater drinking source at Lake Nipissar.

Medeiros said a previous study of the Char River miscalculated the amount of freshwater available in the river, a source that has also been known to run dry naturally.

In a 2016 study, the same group of York University researchers predict end-of-winter shortages could occur in Rankin Inlet as early as 2020 unless “substantial efforts are employed immediately.”

But since Medeiros and his colleagues flagged their findings to the Government of Nunavut earlier this year, they said they’ve had no response. And it’s not the first time GN officials have been warned.

Part of the problem is that the territorial government has no freshwater management plan, nor is there a department or employee responsible for freshwater policy in Nunavut, Medeiros said.

“In Nunavut, it’s not even on the radar,” Medeiros said. “There is no mechanism to deal with water issues. It’s often left until it becomes a Department of Health issue.”

The GN has yet to respond to a request for more information about how, or whether, the government is addressing the territory’s freshwater needs.

Medeiros doesn’t suggest there’s any easy answer for Nunavut. The group’s upcoming study looks at other options for Iqaluit like snow fencing, designed to extend the snow and ice melt period, as well as reverse osmosis, a process of desalinating ocean water.

“There is no simple solution,” he said. “It will require serious thought and cold weather engineering.”