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Feds Not Standing on Guard for Canada's Water: Experts

As threats mount, lack of science and legal recourse 'cripple' officials.

Chris Wood 15 May

Regular Tyee contributor Chris Wood is author of Dry Spring: The Coming Water Crisis of North America.

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Volume of renewable water available to populous areas of Canada is falling report finds. The Rose Valley reservoir near Kelowna, B.C. Photo by Jason Drury from Your BC: The Tyee Photo Pool.

A report to be released Tuesday catalogs a rundown in Canada's capacity to defend the safety and security of its water that, the expert authors say, will have "serious repercussions" for economic and human health.

In a report that mentions water exports only in passing, the independent, non-profit Forum for Leadership on Water, a group of academic, NGO and retired public sector experts in water policy, find that decades of policy and spending neglect have left the federal government "crippled" in the face of mounting threats to Canada's water.

Those mainly arise from climate change and Canadians' own economic, regulatory and engineering decisions, the authors of the report, which appears as special issue of the Forum's online Policy Watch Monitor, say.

In one alarming detail, they note that the volume of renewable water available to Canada's most populous regions declined by nearly nine percent between 1971 and 2004, and continues to fall. The report notes evidence that the effects of climate change are being felt as well in the decline of rivers in the Prairie west, where additional water can no longer be withdrawn in some basins; in the recurring floods in Manitoba; and the decline of both water levels and water quality in the Great Lakes.

Daily choices at every level of the economy also emerge as home-grown threats to Canada's water. The report notes that in Montreal, for example, the failure to maintain water mains allows as much as 40 per cent of that city's expensively treated drinking water to leak into the ground.

No legal teeth

At the same time observes Simon Fraser University law professor David Boyd, one of the report's authors, "Canada does not have legally enforceable national drinking water standards," with the result that one watchdog group has estimated that more than 1,000 drinking water advisories -- and three dozen "do not consume" warnings -- were in force on an average day in Canada.

"Canada is behind the curve," Boyd charged. Compared to other countries, and particularly the European Union, Canada has lagged in efforts to eradicate exotic synthetic chemicals -- linked to health effects including a world-wide epidemic of genital deformities and altered gender ratios at birth -- from water supplies.

Thousands of suspect chemicals await testing, while others that have been determined to be toxic continue in use because regulations have yet to be written to control them, Boyd says in the report.

Meanwhile known pollution problems persist in areas under Ottawa's jurisdiction. The report says, for instance, that nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) of water systems on Canadian First Nations reserves are at "high" or "moderate" risk of delivering contaminated water to homes.

And while the United States earmarked $475 million to clean up highly contaminated hot-spots on the American side of the Great Lakes, Canada has budgeted just $8 million for its share of the remedial work. (By coincidence, that was the same amount the federal government budgeted recently to audit charities suspected of illegally funding environmental groups and others regarded as critical of its policies.)

Years of federal retreat

While they note some positive signs -- the intergovernmental Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, for example, has moved recently to bring common national standards to waste-water treatment across the country -- the experts catalogue a history of federal retreat from critical aspects of water protection.

Most have to do with crucial questions of science and law that under Canada's constitutional division of federal and provincial powers fall clearly to Ottawa.

A requirement identified as long ago as 1985, for example, that "Canada should develop a national program for determining in-stream flow needs," to ensure that aquatic and riparian ecosystems are protected from excessive human water withdrawals, has never been met, the report says.

A 2010 audit by the federal Commissioner of the Environment denounced Ottawa's management of the country's shared federal-provincial system for monitoring stream flows and water quality as inadequate and poorly designed to detect risks. Maps locating the boundaries of the 30 major regional aquifers that supply millions of Canadians with groundwater, meanwhile, will not be complete for "another two decades."

The shortfall in water science has been worsened by recurring cutbacks in federal lab capacity. Between 1992 and 2007, Liberal and Conservative governments cut the science and research capacity of key federal departments including Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, "by at least 30 per cent," the authors estimate. Further cuts to both departments were announced again last August.

Cross-border tensions

In addition to science, the experts say, Canada's government is falling behind in water law. A Vancouver Island case, in which the Halalt First Nation is at odds with the municipality of North Cowichan over rights to the Chemainus aquifer, highlights the "liability" for authorities of not clarifying aboriginal water entitlements proactively in law, argues Merrill-Ann Phare, legal counsel to the Winnipeg-based Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources.

Other authors deplore the federal government's neglect of the century-old International Joint Commission (IJC) on boundary waters to defuse a growing number of tensions with the United States over waterways that cross or form the border.

"Boundary waters management is one of the clearest areas of federal responsibility," the study groups' experts on inter-jurisdictional issues declare. "Yet the Government of Canada is... failing to meet its obligations in this area."

The report's dozen authors included legal experts from inside outside of universities and think tanks, independent water consultants, two senior directors of environmental NGO WWF-Canada, and Robert Sandford, the Alberta-based chair of the Canadian initiative supporting the U.N. Water for Life Decade. Its work was supported by Tides Canada, which also contracts with The Tyee and Tyee Solutions Society for journalism that educates in the public interest. (Note: this report was unrelated to those contracts.)  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Environment

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