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Great Lakes Article:

Our water is at risk, climate study finds


08/14/2002Globe and Mail

Ottawa Global warming could wreak havoc with Canada's prized freshwater supply over the next 100 years, sapping some of the country's hydroelectric power potential, lowering lake levels and paving the way for more severe drought, a new report says. The paper from Natural Resources Canada details a horror show of potential problems that could result if global surface-air temperatures increase between 1.4 to 5.8 degrees C by 2100 as climate-change researchers predict. "Changes of this magnitude would significantly [affect] water resources in Canada," says the water resources section of a bigger study called Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation: A Canadian Perspective, which cautions that predictions in this area are inexact. The paper is released as the federal Liberal government tries to decide whether it can afford to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on reducing global warming. Public consultation on the controversial accord continues this fall.

The report says potential effects of climate change might include: Increased likelihood of severe drought on the Prairies, parts of which are suffering through their second or third consecutive drought this summer; Stranded docks and harbours because of lowered lake or river levels; A shrinking supply of potable water and more illness from contaminated water; Ruined fish habitat and spawning areas and possible loss of species; More financial pain for farmers caused by losses in agricultural production; A complete drying-up of some lakes in the Arctic and sub-Arctic region.

The paper, which summarizes the past five years of research on climate change, warns that warming temperatures could shrink the supply of snow-melt-generated freshwater available during summer months when water is already in high demand. "Across southern Canada, annual mean streamflow has decreased significantly over the last 30 to 50 years, with the greatest decrease during August and September," the report says. "The continuation of this trend would exacerbate water shortages that are already apparent across many areas of Alberta and Saskatchewan owing to drought." The paper also points out that Ontario already suffers from frequent freshwater shortages and that more than 17 per cent of British Columbia's surface-water resources "are at or near their supply capacity for extractive uses." Separately, a growing number of "extreme events" such as floods might also unleash too much water at the worst possible times for Canadians, the federal-government report says. Warmer winters are expected to boost the frequency of mid-winter thaws, which could "increase the risk of winter flooding in many regions as a result of high flows and severe ice jams." Similar circumstances could lead to more flooding and avalanches in the Rockies, which might hurt tourism in the region.

The quality of Canada's freshwater may also suffer from more extreme conditions brought on by climate change, the report says. "Lower water levels tend to lead to higher pollutant concentrations, whereas high-flow events and flooding increase turbidity and the flushing of contaminants into the water system." Hydroelectric power in southern Canada, where most of the population lives, might also be hit by climate change, the report says. "Studies suggest that the potential for hydroelectric generation will likely rise in northern regions and decrease in the south, due to projected changes in annual runoff volume," it says. "In Western Canada, changes in precipitation and reduced glacier cover in the mountains will affect downstream summer flows and associated hydroelectric operations." The added pressure on hydro power might be greatest during warmer summers ahead when water levels are lower.

Then, "more frequent and intense heat waves" will "increase air-conditioner usage and therefore electricity demand." At the same time, Americans will be clamouring for more Canadian hydroelectricity exports because of "increased summer cooling needs" south of the border, the report warns.

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