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Water sources do not obey political boundaries
September 3, 2010
By Thomas S. Axworthy
President and CEO, Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation
Reprinted from the The Windsor Star
The plight of Canada's sixth Great Lake is just one example of why the water charter endorsed by Canada's premiers in Winnipeg last week is so timely. The charter emphasizes the need to improve conservation and monitoring of Canada's precious fresh water resources and the premiers should be commended for responding to Canadians' growing concerns about the state of their rivers, lakes and swimming holes. In a recent Ipsos Reid poll, two-thirds of Canadians said they believed conditions in Canada's lakes were getting worse. The dramatic decline in the health of Lake Winnipeg suggests these concerns are entirely warranted.
And it is not just Lake Winnipeg that is facing water woes. Flowing through our nation's capital, the Ottawa River reached its lowest levels in almost a century following an unseasonably dry winter and spring, causing cancellations to canoeing competitions and threatening fish and crops. Water has receded nearly 30 feet in some areas.
On the other side of the Ottawa River, the City of Gatineau experienced a water shortage in May so severe that the municipality instituted a temporary ban on all outdoor water use, including filling swimming pools and even drinking from outdoor taps. Residents who disobeyed the ban were heavily fined.
On the west coast, British Columbia is so dry that water bombers are struggling to find enough water to put out hundreds of forest fires.
Regions such as the Okanagan in B.C. are facing water crises due to reduced mountain snow pack and rising human consumption.
As water levels drop, the concentration of pollutants in the water increases, as does the temperature. The sun heats shallower waters more quickly, contributing to the growth of toxic algal blooms, which are, unfortunately, not unique to Lake Winnipeg.
And Ottawa is far too familiar with the issue of raw sewage overflow from aging combined sewer systems, closing beaches on occasion after a heavy rainfall. Though the city is taking steps to address this, the problem is again, not unique to Ottawa, but is common among many older cities in Canada.
Yet, with freshwater problems accelerating across Canada, it was left to the premiers to call for a pan-Canadian approach to water stewardship. Where is the federal government? Why isn't it calling for and implementing a national water framework to complement the premiers' push for improved water governance?
In the 1970s and '80s the federal government played a critical role in supporting provinces in their efforts to monitor, understand and manage water. The necessity of such a role is no less critical today. Water does not obey political boundary lines; the Ottawa River is a perfect example. One province's waste becomes another province's pollution and there is a desperate need for nationally co-ordinated monitoring of surface and ground water.
Yet over the past two decades the ability of the federal government to act on water has been systematically cut and programs that used to support our national capacity to protect water no longer exist. The absence of a federal role leaves a troubling vacuum in the ability of this country to effectively safeguard our precious water supply.
As the premiers state in their new water charter, preserving our fresh water "can have both environmental and economic benefits and is essential to a healthy, secure and prosperous Canada."
It is now essential that the federal government step up to assist the premiers in realizing these benefits. When it comes to water there have been too many failed promises and short-lived commitments. It is time to move beyond words, and when the premiers meet again next year Canadians should demand to see meaningful action and accomplishments on the water charter from both levels of senior government.
Canadians consider water to be their most important natural resource. It is time our governments treated it that way and worked together to protect it.
Thomas S. Axworthy is President and CEO of the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation.