The Fraser Institute recently released the report, Evaluating the State of Fresh Water in Canada. The report concludes that “...there is no shortage of freshwater in Canada as a whole. Despite concerns about water usage and the unequal distribution of freshwater across the country, freshwater resources in Canada are abundant and Canadians consume only small fraction of the water supply.”
The information in the report and its conclusions paint an inaccurate and dangerous picture of water security in Canada. Information about long-standing drinking water advisories in First Nations, droughts and other climate events, and extreme energy projects like the tar sands is missing from the report. This gives a skewed view of water quantity and quality in Canada.
Drinking water advisories in First Nations
Council of Canadians chapters flagged the lack of information on Drinking Water Advisories (DWAs) in First Nations. Nowhere in the report are DWAs in First Nations (or municipalities for that matter) mentioned.
At any given time, there are more than 100 DWAs in First Nations throughout Canada. Despite the Trudeau government’s promise to end DWAs, the total number of DWAs remains largely the same. As of early December there were 105 DWAs including both “long-term” and “short-term” DWAs. (This categorization of “long-term” and “short-term” is misleading. Read why here.)
In 2015, the Council of Canadians released a report that found there were 1,838 DWAs in municipalities and First Nations. The number had increased from a 2008 report that found 1,766 water advisories.
In the 2015 report, the Council found that most provinces and territories make information on DWAs publicly available on a website but Ontario, Prince Edward Island and Nunavut do not. The number of advisories was not exhaustive as several health authorities note that not all DWAs are reported. However, the Council report does show that access to clean drinking water is tenuous in many municipalities and First Nations and that information and reporting requirements for water advisories need to be more consistent and rigorous.
“Fair” is not Good
Based on Environment Canada’s Water Quality Index (WQI) and 178 monitoring stations, the report concludes that “82% of the monitoring locations was found to be fair to excellent suggests that water quality in Canada is well protected.” The breakdown is 5% of monitoring stations rated excellent, 35% good, 42% fair, 16% marginal and 2% poor.
However, Ann Pohl from the Kent County Council of Canadians Chapter points out that fair, good and excellent are blended together to give a rosier than accurate picture of water in Canada.
The number of monitoring stations for each province or territory varies from 10 to 62 stations. Most provinces have roughly 30 stations including Ontario, Quebec and B.C. despite being the most populated provinces.
Ontario has roughly 250,000 lakes and over 100,000 kilometres of rivers in the province. Ontario's 28 station only provide a minute glimpse of the state of waterways in Ontario. Le Regroupement des organismes de bassins versants du Québec’s (or the Quebec Watershed Organization) website notes there are 430 major watersheds in Quebec. The province includes more than half a million lakes and 4,500 rivers yet the report is based on information from 34 monitoring stations. BC has 20, 000 lakes but only 22 stations to monitor waterways.
The number of water monitoring stations in Canada needs to be significantly increased to have a thorough understanding of the state of the diverse waterways and watersheds from coast to coast to coast.
Harper’s legacy on water & Trudeau’s Bill C-69
Pohl also points out: “Almost all their data comes from the Harper period, and we know what was happening to environmentally-minded public servants and their departments during that time. So: how valid is the data?”
In 2012, the former Harper government gutted the Fisheries Act, changed the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act in a way that cancelled 3000 environmental assessments and removed protections from 99% of lakes and rivers and exemped pipelines under the Navigable Waters Act.
Justin Trudeau’s 2015 election promise was to restore and modernize the environmental and water legislation gutted by the former Harper government. This year the Trudeau government tabled Bill C-69, a 400-page bill that makes sweeping changes to Canada’s water, energy and climate laws. The same week, in February 2018, the Trudeau government also tabled Bill C-68.
Bill C-68 restores many protections from the Fisheries Act. Bill C-69 was supposed to restore other protections that were stripped by the former Harper government in 2012. Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna said that the Trans Mountain pipeline would have been approved under BIll C-69. Disappointingly, neither Bill guarantees the right to water, nor does either one require free, prior and informed consent as outlined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Read the Council’s concerns about Bill C-69 here.
The Trudeau government has also cut an estimated $82 million annually from three key water programs since it took power in 2015, raising grave concerns about how the government will protect water with even less funding than the former Harper government.
Extreme energy and polluting industries
It is crucial to examine adequately the impacts that polluting and thirsty industries have on water security. The focus on residential use and its purported decline are misleading because as the report itself notes, households make up only 9% of total water use in Canada.
The Fraser Institute report entirely overlooks the impacts that tar sands development has had on water sources and people’s health. It says: “ In 2012, the federal government, in collaboration with the Government of Alberta, launched an integrated water monitoring program to assess the impact of oilsands contaminants...The results show that there was no exceedance in any of the 1,300 samples for 19 of the parameters (pH, two nitrogen nutrients, five total metals, methylmercury, alkalinity, and nine organic substances). Of the remaining 20 parameters, the majority of exceedances were associated with metals. Given that these waters are known for having high concentrations of naturally occurring iron, the observed high concentrations and exceedances of metals were not surprising (ECCC, 2018c). Overall, total iron, aluminum, and copper had the highest exceedance rates in this area, meaning that their concentrations most frequently exceeded the guidelines. These high metal concentrations and
the percentage of samples with exceedances were found to be consistent with historical data since the early 1990s (ECCC, 2018c).”
There have been numerous studies conducted, including by governments, that have shown that tar sands development is polluting waterways including studies in 2010, 2013 and 2014. A 2014 study showed the links between tar sands development and cancer rates among people in Fort Chipewyan.
Richard Hagensen of the Council of Canadians’ Campbell River chapter pointed out that the report mistakenly says that the Quinsam River - which is on Vancouver Island - connects to the Fraser River.
Hagensen also said the report omitted to address: “The Quinsam River has a fish (salmon) hatchery a short distance upstream on the Quinsam from where it runs into our Campbell River. The Quinsam River has an underground coal mine (Quinsam Coal) near its watershed and a local environmental group Campbell River Environmental Committee (supported by our Council of Canadians Campbell River chapter and others) has for years expressed to the local City and to the Province of B.C. concerns about a high level of arsenic sediment in Long Lake in the Quinsam River watershed - which CREC and others felt was caused by the sulphates associated with the Quinsam Coal mine nearby. Testing was done and Quinsam Coal continues to maintain that the heightened sulphates were not caused by its mines.” It’s unclear the degree of monitoring and testing that the Ministry of Environment is currently conducting on the Quinsam River water quality and the sulphates pollution in the Quinsam River watershed.
(Photo: Bow River. Threat to the Bow River are high)
Sheryl McCumsey from the Edmonton Council of Canadians’ Chapter raised concerns about water in Alberta and the use of pesticides across Canada. She warns: “In Alberta we do not have one single county that does not have some kind of serious water contamination. See Jessica Ernst's reserach for more info. Forestry sprays herbicides in every province except Quebec. We have increased pesticides in Canada by 40% in 5 years and doubled synthetic fertilizer since 2000 according to the 2017 OECD report. A French scientist remarked on how neonicotinoids are 5-10,000 times more toxic than DDT which is found in water before spring planting. In White Rock, they had problems with arsenic, manganese and glyphosate where they obtain groundwater that is underneath agricultural land. Very high rates of bowel cancer in the area maybe linked to this contamination.”
In early October, a consortium of big energy players made a final investment decision that approved LNG Canada, a $40 billion dollar fracked gas project, paving the way for more fracking in B.C. This decision was made on the heels of water restrictions for fracking companies in the northeastern corner of the province due to drought. The decision gives the green light to a very thirsty industry that will abuse even more water at a time where water supplies are unpredictable.
The threat that megadams pose to freshwater systems in Canada is also overlooked in this report. In addition to strangling rivers and threatening water quality and quantity, megadams increase the risk of methylmercury exposure to wildlife, aquatic and human health.
Bottled water and virtual water exports
The Fraser Institute report also fails to adequately examine the impacts that bottled water exports and virtual water exports has on water availability.
Bottled water exports have increased dramatically in the last decade. Bottled water exports from Canada to the U.S.have increased by 383% since 2009. Leaky Exports - A portrait of virtual water trade in Canada reports that Canada is a major net virtual water exporter, second only to Australia. Canada’s net annual virtual exports (exports minus imports) amount to just under 60 Bm3 (billion cubic metres), enough to fill the Rogers Centre in Toronto 37.5 thousand times. The report also warned that, “The increase in virtual water exports to the U.S. is closely related to the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and NAFTA, due to the post–trade agreements’ increase in water-intensive exports to the U.S. and the integration of key parts of the North American agriculture and energy sectors.”
As Council of Canadians’ Trade Campaigner Sujata Dey has noted, “there is a side letter on water [in the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement (the new NAFTA),] but it is very unclear how enforceable that is. And it only applies to natural water, not to bottled water, or any other water that has been made a commodity.” The recently passed Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership promote commodification of water by defining water as a “tradeable good,” “service” and “investment”.
Drought, climate change and the right to water
Last but certainly not least, the Fraser Institute’s report concludes, “There is no reason to believe freshwater shortages will occur in the short term.” But water shortages and droughts are already happening. This summer there were droughts or extreme weather events that affected water availability - and consequently food security - in every region. Counties in Alberta have declared states of agricultural disaster from droughts. In 2016, wells in Nova Scotia ran dry. Forest fires in interior BC were so severe that people’s activities in Vancouver were restricted for health reasons.
Threats to water sources continue from extreme energy projects, thirsty industries, climate change and inadequate water regulations. Ignoring the impacts only further threaten water security and the human right to water. Communities and governments must take swift and bold action to protect the world water sources. Governments must take steps to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples including obtaining Free, Prior and Informed Consent on decisions or policies affecting water. Indigenous communities and municipalities in Canada are already experiencing water crises and if we don’t quickly change course, we could see an increase in water shortages and threats to water security. Water is the foundational building block of all life on our planet.