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EDITORIAL (JUNE 2017): A watershed moment

June 30th, 2017 · No Comments

At 150, Canada has much to celebrate. We are, relatively speaking, an open, democratic, tolerant, and welcoming nation set amongst a vast, beautiful landscape that has few peers. Indeed, called upon to describe Canada, many among us may point to our pristine lakes and rivers. But such an image may yet prove to be a mirage, for a recent nationwide assessment of Canada’s watersheds found significant disturbances to their quality and sustainability.

“With just 0.5 per cent of the world’s population Canada has jurisdiction of 20 per cent of the global freshwater supply.”

Canada has 25 watersheds, each made up of 167 sub-watersheds. And, according to a WWF-Canada study released this month, all of the watersheds are under threat. The first national effort of its kind in decades, the report chronicles how pollution, habitat loss, fragmentation, alteration of flow, climate change, and invasive species are having an impact on the nation’s freshwater supply.

This isn’t just a national issue. With just 0.5 per cent of the world’s population Canada has jurisdiction of 20 per cent of the global freshwater supply. In an increasingly thirsty world, it is incumbent on us to understand the impact on our population, our industries (including transportation and energy production), and climate change is having on our finite resource. We have a duty to be stewards of our planet — something that strikes us as downright Canadian.

Pollution remains the most serious threat to our water resource, with wastewater effluent, industrial discharges, and urban runoff being the largest contributors. In the Prairies and in southwestern Ontario, agricultural contamination includes pesticides, phosphorus, and nitrogen. Pipeline incidents and pollution from transportation accidents affect water far outside areas of population density. The Canadian National Railway Company was recently fined $2.6 million for spilling 90 litres of diesel fuel into Edmonton’s North Saskatchewan River. The fine was higher because the company failed to report the spill, and only admitted to it after authorities traced its source back to CN, whose name is now on the list of the federal Environmental Offenders Registry (oh that it had the same weight as the Sex Offender Registry).

Alteration of flow — installing large dams and reservoirs — disrupts the flooding cycles and variations that are natural to all river systems. The Churchill River in Labrador was highly altered to permit the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric facility. The largest such installation in Canada is located in the La Grande sub-watershed in Quebec.

As Canada tries to find ways to meet its greenhouse gas emission goals, we must be cautious about developing more hydroelectric power projects, as they will no doubt have a commensurately higher impact on our waterways and the ecosystems that they support.

The WWF-Canada report also attempted to identify the quantity of water used for drinking, mining, and manufacturing (except for oil and gas production). Significant habitat loss was found in the 167 sub-watersheds as natural habitat adjacent waterways have been converted to farmland or cleared for lumber extraction, both of which add to the polluted run-off.

What may have started as a four-year long comprehensive analysis of the state of our water may soon yield a realization of the massive depth of our data deficiency: we only have data on 67 of our 167 sub-watersheds. Of the 67 we do have data on, 42 have poor or merely fair water quality, not exactly a promising predictor about the health of the rest. And, we are still ill equipped to understand the wild card effects of climate change more broadly.

We lack a national standard for measuring various stressors and a need to bring existing data to a common place that is open to everyone. Data collection, analysis, sharing, and updating should be an initiative that is bolstered. It’s not that provincial, regional, and municipal authorities should stop doing what they are doing, but it should be a coordinated effort led by the federal government.

The watersheds themselves transcend boundaries and Canadians need to work together to make informed decisions about how we use and protect our freshwater ecosystems and wildlife.

Imagine that as a legacy to the next 150 years: a freshwater monitoring system.

 

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Tags: Annex · Editorial