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Gov’t attack on water safeguards regrettable

This commentary, co-authored with David Schindler, professor of ecology at the University of Alberta and founding director of the Experimental Lakes Area, was published in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix.

Unless a buyer is found within mere weeks – a prospect that’s looking increasingly unlikely – Canada’s Experimental Lakes Area will be closed.

The ELA is an internationally renowned freshwater research centre that has been studying what makes water sick and what makes it well for more than four decades.

Located on dozens of freshwater lakes in a remote area of northern Ontario, the ELA has conducted groundbreaking work on acid rain, algal blooms, climate change and mercury contamination.

Scientists and governments around the world have recognized and used its findings in their research and policy making. The ELA has given Canada a stellar reputation in freshwater research, and closing it would be like France closing the Louvre.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government claims this move is part of a cost-cutting exercise. Yet Fisheries and Oceans has run the ELA for a mere $2 million a year, a tiny amount compared to the $30 million spent by the government to propagandize the War of 1812.

The far more likely reason for closing the ELA is that it was conducting research into the effects on freshwater of endocrine disrupters, mercury and other byproducts of extractive industries the government promotes, and its findings were beginning to show serious, but preventable, damage to Canada’s freshwater heritage.

The ELA is just one battle in the Conservative government’s war on aquatic and environmental science. It is also killing the Global Environmental Monitoring System, an inexpensive project that monitors more than 3,000 freshwater sites around the world for a UN database Canada has proudly hosted for decades. The Harper government is systematically dismantling almost every law, regulation, program or research facility aimed at protecting freshwater in Canada and around the world.

It gutted the Fisheries Act, the most powerful tool Canada had to protect water. The new law no longer protects habitat and is limited to “serious harm” to fish that have commercial, recreational or aboriginal purposes. It killed the Navigable Waters Protection Act, stripping protections from 99 per cent of lakes and rivers in Canada.

Major pipelines and interprovincial power lines now have the green light to cross over and under more than 31,000 lakes and 2.25 million rivers without federal scrutiny.

To hasten energy exploration and development, the government repealed the existing Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and replaced it with a weaker version that will give final decision-making over a project to cabinet, regardless of what the assessment panel recommends. Under the new rules, 3,000 environmental assessments are now cancelled, 500 in British Columbia alone. Many involve Canada’s waterways.

The Harper government has singularly targeted independent science and scientists, shutting down dozens of research projects and facilities conducting basic scientific research on water.

Of paramount concern for basic science is the elimination of the grants programs administered by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, which funded operations at experimental research facilities.

Gone, too, are the 24-yearold national roundtable on the environment and economy, an independent source of expert advice, the National Science Adviser, and funding for the 34-year-old Canadian Environmental Network that acted as a link between 640 small environmental groups and Ottawa. Deep cuts to federal departments and agencies threaten Canada’s freshwater and public health. The Action Plan on Clean Water, which funds water remediation, was hit hard. Others targeted for cuts include the chemicals management plan and the contaminated sites action plan, both of which are crucial to source water protection.

Fully cut are the urban waste water research program and integrated monitoring of water and air quality. Parks Canada no longer has the staff to protect waterways inside national parks, and Environment Canada had to gut the unit that responds to oil spill emergencies. It also has deeply cut staff at the Canadian Centre for Inland Waters, the most important science monitoring agency for the imperilled Great Lakes.

In eliminating the Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission, the government has scrapped the independent agency that ensures that fracking companies, which dump chemical contaminants into waterways, comply with disclosure and worker safety requirements. The government has also invited energy companies to begin drilling for oil in the ecologically fragile Gulf of St. Lawrence, having gutted the Centre for Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research – the only agency with the ability to assess offshore projects.

Governments and communities around the world are moving to protect their precious water systems to ensure they will be here for future generations. What a travesty that Harper has decided to sacrifice our freshwater heritage to please his industry friends. We will all live to regret this.