Canada's water crisis 'escalating'
By Andy Riga
CanWest News Service
Published February 23, 2008
Canada is crisscrossed by innumerable rivers, some of which flow into three oceans.
Yet Canada's fresh water isn't as abundant as you may think. And it's facing serious challenges and the looming menace of climate change, which is expected to exacerbate Canada's water problems and leave more of the world thirsting after our precious liquid resource.
"They say you need a crisis before people get jerked into taking responsible action," says Chandra Madramootoo, a water researcher and founding director of McGill University's Brace Centre for Water Resources Management.
"When are we going to finally say, 'Jeez, we're not as water rich as we thought we were and maybe we better start doing something?' Is it going to be the day when we [must] ration water?"
Some think the crisis is already here. They say it's time to take action -- by, for example, conserving water, cracking down on polluters, preparing for the effects of climate change and coming to the aid of waterless poor in the developing world.
The map of Canada certainly has a lot of blue on it.
Flanked by three oceans, graced with the grand Hudson Bay up top and part of the sprawling Great Lakes Basin down below, and pierced by the St. Lawrence from the east, Canada is a water titan.
With six per cent of the world's "renewable" fresh water (water replenished by precipitation, runoff or groundwater recharge), Canada has the third largest collection of fresh water, after Brazil and Russia.
But the map doesn't tell all.
You can't drink ocean water, of course. (Desalination is costly and energy-intensive.)
And 60 per cent of Canada's fresh water drains northward, away from where it is needed most -- along the band hugging the U.S. border where the vast majority of Canadians live.
Also unseen on the map are Canada's many water troubles.
"The problem is there are new threats coming down the line and we have all these ongoing issues that we haven't dealt with," said Tim Morris, national water campaigner for the Sierra Club of Canada, an environmental organization.
In Quebec, blue-green algae plagues lakes. St. Lawrence water levels were so low this fall that water had to be pumped in from Lake Ontario.
Montreal's crumbling pipes leak 40 per cent of their valuable cargo en route to taps. Water that reaches some Montreal homes has lead levels deemed potentially hazard to children under six.
Upstream, the Great Lakes Basin, the planet's largest continuous body of fresh water, is surrounded by a huge population: 40 million people -- one in three Canadians, one in 10 Americans. The lakes face growing demand from industry, power plants, farms and urban sprawl. Water levels are at historic lows in some Great Lakes.
On the Prairies, farmers have struggled with severe droughts over the past decade.
Alberta's oilsands industry is a water glutton, using two to four barrels of fresh water for every barrel of oil extracted.
Other Canadians don't have to look to Alberta to see water hogs. A mirror will do.
Per capita, Canadians are the planet's second-biggest water consumers, behind Americans. The average Canadian uses 335 litres per day -- more than double Europeans' usage. And Canadian water use is growing (by 25 per cent over the past two decades), while other developed countries, including the U.S., have seen consumption drop.
Canada's water gluttony is starker still. Most of the 1.1 billion people worldwide who are water poor must survive on five litres per day. That's less than a Canadian uses to flush a toilet -- even of the low-flush variety.
Canada is in the midst of an "escalating water crisis," according to the Gordon Water Group, an organization of environmentalists, scientists, policy experts and former federal policy advisors. In a recent report, Changing the Flow, the group points to more water worries.
For example, some Canadians, mostly in native reserves and rural and remote communities, don't have access to clean drinking water. Across Canada in December 1,174 boil-water advisories were in effect, Health Canada says.
Raw sewage is still dumped into lakes and rivers by towns and cities. Twenty Canadian and U.S. cities flush about 90 billion litres of untreated sewage into the Great Lakes each year, according to Ecojustice, a Canadian environmental law organization.
Fish populations are being decimated by contaminated water, excessive water withdrawals, and dams and diversions that also disrupt communities and affect recreational water use.
Climate change is the most ominous threat on the horizon.
Global warming caused by human activity -- largely by the burning of fossil fuels -- is being blamed for an alarming increase in the melting rate of glaciers in Western Canada, leaving less water for drinking, crop irrigation and other uses. Climate change may also be causing the higher evaporation rates that are leading to low water levels in the Great Lakes.
Warming from 1900 to 2003 led to a decrease in total precipitation as snowfall in the West and Prairies, says a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international group of scientists set up by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization to assess climate change.
Cold and cool-water fisheries, especially salmonids (salmon, trout and chars) have declined as warmer, drier conditions reduce habitats. Other cold-water fish, such as walleyes and brook trout, are experiencing reduced productivity, the IPCC noted.
Across Canada, "climate change is expected to directly affect both the quantity of water available and its quality, creating competing demands for this resource from multiple sectors," Environment Canada says. Changes will affect lakes, rivers, groundwater, glaciers, permafrost and wetlands, says Threats to Water Availability in Canada, an Environment Canada study to which about 70 scientists contributed.
Wetlands -- which absorb and store greenhouse gases and naturally regulate the atmosphere -- make up 14 per cent of Canada's territory. Climate change may cause more evaporation, which might, in turn, dry up wetlands.
Extreme weather events like droughts, storms, floods and ice jams are expected to be more frequent and severe.
"Some experts say a temperature increase of two to four per cent could lower the average flow from Lake Ontario by 24 per cent," because of higher rates of evaporation and drier soils reducing runoff, Environment Canada says. A decrease of that magnitude in Lake Ontario, the major source for the St. Lawrence, "could result in a one-metre drop in water levels in some areas of the" river.
Unusually low water levels -- which can impair navigation, stimulate growth of noxious weeds and kill fish -- would require more dredging of waterways, in turn harming organisms and spread contaminants.
In total, fresh water is estimated to contribute up to $23 billion annually to the Canadian economy, Environment Canada says.
Large swaths of the Canadian economy rely on fresh water -- from agriculture and energy production to manufacturing and shipping, all of which could be hurt by climate change, according to the Canadian Climate Impacts and Adaptation Research Network, a government-university initiative.
Climate change isn't the only emerging threat to Canadian fresh water. Others include:
- Growing pressure on Canada to export its fresh water in bulk (as opposed to via bottled water) as populations balloon in increasingly arid areas such as the southern U.S. At least 36 American states could face water shortages by 2013 due to rising temperatures, increased evaporation, droughts, urban sprawl, waste and overuse, the U.S. government says.
- The growing presence in waterways of pollutants such as pharmaceuticals and personal-care products -- antibiotics, birth control pills, soaps and sprays, many of which are not removed by sewage treatment.
- The spread of invasive species. In the Great Lakes, they slip in as stowaways in ballasts of ships, threatening indigenous species. The most notorious invaders are zebra mussels and sea lampreys.
With Canadians installing more efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs and turning down furnaces, the spectre of climate change is spurring people to cut energy use. But experts say they should think about water, too.
McGill researchers hope to help cities collect rain falling on roofs and on highways, then pass it on for light industrial use such as cooling buildings.
Another McGill team has developed a system allowing farmers to cut water use by up to 40 per cent. Sensors in the earth transmit moisture levels to a computer, which calculates how much water is needed.
Some cities are cutting waste.
"There's an opportunity to find new water supplies without piping it in from somewhere -- finding new water supplies from conservation," said the Sierra Club's Morris. "You save money on infrastructure, you save on energy use from pumping and treating water."
He pointed to Durham Region, just east of Toronto. It's investing $17.2 million over 10 years on water efficiency and conservation. Building infrastructure to provide the amount of water that will be saved would have cost $125 million.
Montreal is in year two of a $4-billion, 20-year plan to fix water infrastructure and install water meters in non-residential buildings.
A 2002 study found decaying pipes cost the city tens of millions of dollars a year.
Thanks to water-conservation efforts, Calgary uses the same amount of water now as it did 25 years ago, though its population has jumped by 400,000.
Individuals can do their part by installing flow reducers on taps, taking shorter showers, switching to low-flush toilets and not dumping dangerous domestic waste and prescription drugs down the drain.
Water experts hope the focus on water brought on by climate change concerns will also encourage governments to act.
They saw a ray of hope in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Throne Speech last month. He promised a water strategy to clean up lakes and oceans and improve access to safe water for first nations.
He said he would bolster protection of water and land through tougher enforcement that will make polluters accountable. The Conservative government has yet to provide details.
The Gordon Water Group hopes its recent report will be a blueprint for federal action. Its 25 recommendations focus, among other things, on securing safe drinking water for all Canadians, responding to climate change and promoting a culture of water conservation.
Debunking the myth of limitless water is a starting point.
"We have this tendency to just turn on our taps and think, 'Well, there's an endless supply there,'" said Morris of the Sierra Club. "But it's coming from somewhere and it's having an impact. Our water resources are not infinite and they do have a point where they're going to end up in trouble unless we do a better job of stewarding them."
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FUTURE OF OUR WATER
How climate change could affect our water supply.
- Warm temperatures cause glacier retreat. (Glaciers supply water for irrigation, drinking and hydroelectric power. Runoff also maintains river habitat.)
- Precipitation is more intense, with greater winter rainfall.
- Lack of water resources lead to water conflicts.
- Declining water resources due to melting glaciers and less snow cover in Rockies.
- More droughts, affecting crop irrigation, soil quality and wetland habitats.
- Changes in water quality due to low flows.
- Lower water levels in Great Lakes lead to increases in shipping costs and problems launching, operating boats.
- Water-borne pathogens carrying infectious diseases proliferate in higher water temperatures.
- Flooding affects over 80 per cent of municipalities located on the waterfront.
- Extreme precipitation events and flooding overwhelm municipal sewer systems.
- St. Lawrence River fluctuations affect fisheries, wetlands, water supply, hydro power, navigation and marinas.
- Rising sea levels cause erosion, flooding of coastal habitats.
- Storm, tidal surges increase, leading to more frequent flooding.
- Droughts affect quantity, quality and allocation of water for agriculture.
Canwest News Service