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Water quality advisory

Suspending water quality monitoring: oversight or disaster capitalism?

This week, the Council of Canadians learned that the federal government has suspended water quality monitoring activities since the beginning of the pandemic. At the same time, the Canadian Press also shared news about a deal between the federal and Alberta governments to slash funding for water quality monitoring of the oilsands. Added to an already long list of environmental protection regulations and activities that have been put on hold during the pandemic, these latest revelations suggest our governments are putting industries’ best interests above the environment and community health.

Federal suspension of environmental monitoring directly affects communities

Since March 2020, Environment and Climate Change Canada has stopped collecting data and monitoring water quality, citing workplace safety due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal government is responsible for monitoring freshwater quality on federal lands, inland waters, while also having joint responsibility with provincial and territorial governments over transboundary watersheds. The suspension of water quality monitoring directly affects many downstream communities.

Former Northwest Territories Environment Minister, Michael Miltenberger, has recently raised concerns about the suspension of monitoring. Failing to capture data on the debris, pollutants and chemicals entering the water as a result of high water levels directly affects communities in NWT. Chief Gerry Cheezie of Smith’s Landing First Nations has expressed frustration with the suspension of water quality monitoring as “a breach of people’s trust,” highlighting the resulting threats facing water in his community and the complete lack of consultation by governments.

Even when the government is monitoring freshwater in Canada, it is not as comprehensive as it should be, due to a fragmented approach to water management, the lack of strict regulations to mandate monitoring and surveillance, difficulties working across jurisdictions and lack of Indigenous involvement and consultation. For example, water quantity monitoring by Water Survey Canada was deemed an essential service at the beginning of the pandemic, but not water quality monitoring by ECCC. By scaling back on one of their significant responsibilities, the federal government also signalled to provinces, territories and industries that it does not prioritize environmental protection.

List of environmental deregulations grows in Alberta

On top of the federal suspension of water monitoring, Alberta has continued with its long list of environmental deregulations. In July, leaked emails revealed that Alberta has  unilaterally stopped monitoring or regulating critical environmental measures despite its 2015 agreement with the Northwest Territories. Recently, the Canadian Press shared an agreement between the federal and Alberta governments to significantly cut back on the program to monitor water quality in the oil sands. These cuts amount to a 25 per cent funding cut and end monitoring activities in the Athabasca River, downstream of the oil sands. Among other dropped programs are field studies on fish, wetlands and insects, water quality assessment in the Wood Buffalo National Park in response to international concerns, and an evaluation of the impact of tailing ponds as Alberta considers proposals to let water from tailing ponds into rivers.

Since taking office, the Alberta government has been continuously expanding its industry-friendly agenda with environmental deregulations, and have ramped up during the pandemic. Now, the federal government is contributing to Alberta’s agenda with their own suspension of critical monitoring programs that protect the water, fish and ecosystem health in the region. This latest move will only enable more reckless and environmentally destructive activities by the oil and gas industry while threatening the water and livelihood of downstream communities.

Environmental deregulation and disaster capitalism

While the COVID-19 pandemic has put tremendous strains on working-class Canadians, corporations and their lobbyists have wasted no time taking advantage of this crisis. In a secret memo obtained by the Council of Canadians in May, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), an oil and gas lobby group, sent the federal government a long wish list of regulatory rollbacks, suspensions and delayed deadlines citing the pandemic. This disaster capitalism has nothing to do with COVID-19, and everything to do with furthering their agenda of continued extraction and expansion of the oil sands. Rolling back water quality monitoring under the Fisheries Act was on CAPP’s secret wish list.

This latest discovery of the federal suspension of water quality monitoring revealed our federal government’s priority when it comes to the environment vs. the corporate agenda. While communities are loudly calling for a just recovery from COVID-19 and boldly reimagining a society that puts people, the ecosystem and democracy first, the federal government is caving to corporate influence and putting the environment and communities at risk.

The federal government has failed to take a leadership role in protecting water and community health. The federal government’s limited role in water monitoring allows provinces and territories to drop their environmental protection responsibilities with little to no consequences. On top of that, the federal government is neglecting its own water monitoring duties and actively making deals with provinces to allow them to abandon theirs. In the middle of the pandemic, this lack of federal control presents polluters with an opportunity to put communities and waterways at risk.

The federal government is currently soliciting public input into the mandate of a Canada Water Agency, with a stated goal of better protecting and managing water across Canada. The Agency must urgently address the gaps in water quality monitoring with stronger and more consistent monitoring requirements, better coordination across jurisdiction and an enforcement mechanism to prevent provinces from unilaterally abandoning their commitments. Ultimately, the federal government needs a new approach to water governance that is grounded in respect for Indigenous rights, recognizes water as a human right, shared commons and public trust and involves local communities in the protection, stewardship of this resource.

We must continue to hold our government accountable, push back on industry influence and demand stronger policies to protect water and communities. Send a letter to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change to call to resume water quality and other critical environmental monitoring and better regulations to protect and enforce these monitoring requirements in the future.