Hope for the diminishing Saskatchewan River Delta?
The first thing a visitor from southern Canada might notice about Cumberland House is the almost complete absence of commerce. There’s no Tim’s, no car dealership, no dentist’s office, no strip mall and no service garage. The buildings along the main street look abandoned. The second thing you notice is the mud. The soupy clay that covers the unpaved streets here paints every vehicle the same khaki shade and splatters the lower walls of houses in this remote village on the Saskatchewan River, 450 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon.
Welcome to the true North. Cumberland House, Sask., population 2,200, is mostly typical of a thousand First Nations villages across the North. However, it’s the oldest permanent settlement in Western Canada, British explorer Samuel Hearne having founded the town in 1774. Like Montreal, it’s an island community. And most importantly, it’s at the centre of a unique North American wilderness that’s as vast as it is unknown, as rich as it is threatened.
At 10,000 square kilometres, the marshes surrounding Cumberland House form the largest inland river delta in North America — the Saskatchewan River Delta. One of most biologically diverse places in Canada, the delta is more than 80 per cent wetland, which makes it a veritable water bird factory. Yet you’ll have a hard time finding anyone on the streets of Saskatoon or Regina — affluent cities that draw power and water from the very same river — who has ever heard of it. Even the Canadian government has no official name for this wilderness that’s nearly the size of the Mississippi River Delta.
Sadly, the flow of water that gives life to the marsh is gradually diminishing. Humans divert an ever-increasing share — to the lawns of southern cities, for expanding irrigation and industry. Scientists predict that climate change could reduce levels far more. What flows remain are interrupted by hydro dams that play havoc with downstream ecosystems. The only real stewards of the delta are the impoverished citizens of Cumberland House.
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