After completing a Rural Waterline Feasibility Study in 2017 and an On-Reserve Source Water Protection Plan in 2018, the Saddle Lake Cree Nation retained Urban Systems Ltd. to complete a Climate Change and Source Water Vulnerability Assessment of the Nation’s water source, Saddle Lake, to understand the viability of the Nation’s water supply under impacts from climate change, and increased water demand due to population and economic growth. In October 2019, the Climate Change and Source Water Vulnerability Assessment was released.

Saddle Lake Cree Nation began this project by engaging our youth, elders and general membership in a dialogue about water, climate change and perceived adaptability to address water security. In past projects we have engaged our community in a similar way but have found it difficult to extend the results of the engagement and the project itself beyond those in attendance at the sessions. Because we are a community that traditionally shares knowledge through oral teachings, the idea of documenting the project in a video was proposed. The scope of this project included community engagement sessions, projecting future climate change events related to Saddle Lake, a water quantity assessment, a water quality assessment, and a documentary with the intention that this video will be used to educate our members about our impact assessment of climate change on our ability to fulfill our growing community’s basic need for water, as well as our efforts to preserve the lands, resources and culture of our people.

The community engagement sessions brought forward knowledge that validated historical hydrological modeling which informed future climate change projections. The Assessment revealed that increasing temperatures will magnify the negative impacts associated with contaminants entering the lake. To protect Saddle Lake from such impacts, the Saddle Lake Cree Nation recognized the need to implement the strategic plan previously identified in their 2017 Protection Plan. The Assessment found that Saddle Lake water levels are expected to increase, ensuring adequate water quantity for the community. Another outcome of the Assessment revealed that the water treatment plant is equipped to handle changes in water quality however additional funding is required to invest in the water treatment system and to train the next generation of operators (a vulnerability noted by this study).

Overall, the Assessment revealed that Saddle Lake will remain a viable long-term water source for the community. However, due to the importance of Saddle Lake as a water source for the community, a number of adaptation strategies were outlined for consideration and implementation to increase the resiliency of Saddle Lake and to ensure the continued supply of clean drinking water to the community. These adaptation strategies included:

  • Implementation of a buffer zone around the lake
  • Raising awareness of the Source Water Protection Plan in the community
  • Eliminate wastewater outfalls around the lake
  • Development of a water quality monitoring program
  • Development of a formal Water Treatment Plan performance monitoring program
  • Development of user-friendly summaries of day to day operations
  • Development of a standard operating procedures for the Water Treatment Plant
  • Confirmation that pathogen reduction recommendations are being met
  • Assessment of the environmental impacts of the Water Treatment Plant residual disposal
  • Hiring of an additional Water Treatment Plant operator
  • Conduct a full analysis of operations and maintenance costs for the Water Treatment Plant
  • Conduct a cost benefit analysis of continuing to operate and maintain the Water Treatment Plant
  • Completion of floodplain mapping for the lake
  • Investigation of the influence of neighboring communities and beaver damns on the inflow to Saddle Lake
  • Collect a depth profile of Saddle Lake to improve the understanding of the lake’s storage volume
  • Continue to pursue the rural waterline expansion project to improve water delivery to our homes
  • Engagement with the youth on source water protection, water treatment, and climate change
  • Conduction of a feasibility study for developing an emergency back-up water supply
  • Decommissioning of old groundwater wells

By commissioning the Climate Change and Source Water Vulnerability Assessment, the Saddle Lake Cree Nation were able to gain a better understanding of the future of their water supply, Saddle Lake, under climate change and could begin developing plans on how to address such changes.

Saddle Lake Water Treatment Plant

Figure 1. Saddle Lake Water Treatment Plant


Blog Article by: Saddle Lake Cree Nation

Indigenous-led watershed planning is crucial for Indigenous communities to adapt to the fast pace of climate change. A watershed is a physical area that absorbs rain and snow into underground sources of water, such as, rivers, creeks, and streams, and catches the elements in lakes, oceans, and other bodies of water that are all aboveground. Watershed planning involves the decisions that people make to determine what happens to water in an entire physical region, as well as what happens to it at the local community level.

Target 15 of the 2020 Biodiversity Goals and Targets for Canada states: “By 2020, Aboriginal traditional knowledge is respected, promoted and, where made available by Aboriginal peoples, regularly, meaningfully and effectively informing biodiversity conservation and management decision-making.” Although Indigenous inclusion in state-driven biodiversity planning, such as planning for watersheds, is important, it is not at the heart of Indigenous-led watershed planning.

Values behind Indigenous-led watershed planning, which can include interconnectedness, self-determination, education, and resilience, among others, are what make Indigenous-led watershed planning different from dominating non-Indigenous watershed planning practices. For example, water is a sacred life-source and holds cultural significance for Indigenous peoples. As noted in the First Nations Integrated Watershed Planning guidebook, created by the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources (CIER), First Nation-led watershed planning asks different questions than non-Indigenous-led watershed planning – questions such as: “if water is alive and represents life – if we are all connected and embody an ethic of reciprocity in our decisions and daily lives – what would be the different outcomes of a watershed planning process?”

Stewardship is integral to Indigenous-led watershed planning. The National Indigenous Guardians Network (NIGN) is an Indigenous-led and Canadian federally-funded pilot project – a network of Indigenous stewards of the land, water, and ice. Inspired by a similar network of Indigenous environmental stewardship in Australia, the NGIN has engaged in watershed planning projects across Canada. Furthermore, Indigenous communities, on their own, or in partnership with universities, are creating climate adaptation plans that include watershed planning. For example, the Karuk Tribe has created its own Climate Adaptation Plan which includes practices to protect rivers and riverbeds (i.e., riparian practices). Furthermore, the Tribal Climate Tool, a partnership among Indigenous communities, including the Swinomish, and the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington, provides data to help Indigenous communities make their own climate adaptation decisions, by including measurements, such as rain fall and temperature.

Indigenous-led watershed planning can strike a balance among diverse cultural values, as well as needs of the natural environment, and of Indigenous communities. Some communities may consider including economic development priorities in their watershed plans too, such as energy conservation and generation projects, while protecting Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). Climate adaptation plans that are rooted in both present needs and values and future aspirations, enable Indigenous communities to adapt to environmental changes as they happen, and hold the potential to enable Indigenous people to adapt to climate change better than ever before.


By Leela Viswanathan