By Jim Harding
On June 22, 2013, the Fort Qu’Appelle KAIROS group hosted a regional forum on water quality. Over one hundred people came – scientists, indigenous and settler residents, cottagers, municipal and provincial officials, watershed protection volunteers and many others came to hear talks, music and carry on conversations during the barbeque. The event was moderated by local United Church Minister Sharron Bodnaryk.
The gathering was welcomed to Treaty 4 Territory by Edmund Bellegarde from the File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council (FHQTC). He reaffirmed the theme that water is sacred, that water is life, drawing an analogy with how the blood flowing through our bodies maintains our life, with waterways being the “veins of mother earth”. He expressed FHQTC’s concerns about both quality and quantity of water in the Qu’Appelle River system, highlighting increasing demands for water from industry, and called for collaboration to address these matters.
The keynote speaker was Dr. Marley Waiser, retired water scientist from Environment Canada. She outlined the findings of her 2005-07 study on the impacts of Regina’s sewage on Wascana Creek, which flows into the Qu’Appelle system. She focused on pharmaceutics as well as the nitrogen nutrients that lead to toxic algae, mentioning other research showing heavy metal contamination in the waterway.
More sensitive detection shows “widespread presence” of residues from pharmaceutical and personal care products flushed into Regina’s and Moose Jaw’s sewage systems upstream, including everything from antibiotics to anti-infective hand soaps to birth control drugs. Past sewage treatment plants weren’t designed to remove these and there is now scientific concern that “chronic exposure of low concentrations” may alter the aquatic food chain. Studies have shown that some contaminants lead to sex changes within fish.
The research site 105 km downstream from Regina detected contaminants. Waiser noted that you can’t depend on dilution from high water flows to flush the system; sometimes effluent from Regina can be “100% of the flow in Wascana Creek”.
Waiser advocated stringent monitoring while noting that there aren’t water quality objectives for pharmaceutics. She noted the importance of the Experimental Lakes Project which Harper’s government has cut, in doing pioneering research on threats to Canada’s water quality. During questions she expressed concern about the “politicization of Environment Canada” under Harper, and noted that 80% of its water monitoring budget is now for Alberta’s oil sands, leaving little for the rest of the country. Science shouldn’t be used to manage political perception.
The first panelist, Chief Todd Peigan from Pasqua First Nations raised the warning about increasing demands for water from the potash industry. He noted that other than the Western mine near Milestone, which wants to use Regina’s waste water, all proposed mines plan to get water from Buffalo Pound. Buffalo Pound is the source of water for both Regina and Moose Jaw.
In March 2012 a FHQTC Summit on water and industry noted that the province’s new mines are around Moose Jaw, Regina and Melville. The Summit estimated that, excluding some “Mosaic requirements”, existing and proposed potash mines could use over “62 million cubic meters of water annually”.
The province proposes a new channel from Lake Diefenbaker to Buffalo Pound, which the FHQTC Summit said would increase the flow from 17 to 25 cubic meters a second. There’s also talk about creating an irrigated agro-business corridor along this channel. Chief Peigan continually raised the question of “availability”; “where was all this water to come from?”
Lake Diefenbaker provides water for nearly one-half of Saskatchewan’s residents. It already provides water for several potash mines and irrigation projects and was even considered as the location for a nuclear plant. The vast majority of its water comes from Alberta. Yet researchers from the University of Saskatchewan’s Global Institute for Water Security recently raised concerns about the levels of phosphorous coming along with that water. Also global warming has already reduced by one-fifth the Alberta glaciers that help replenish Saskatchewan waterways and there are bound to be periods of future drought. Serious questions about upstream water quality and quantity remain.
Ken Hutchinson, chair of the Calling Lakes District Planning Commission (CLDPC), spoke of the negative impact of degraded lake water on the recreational economy. The CLDPC is a regional planning body in the making and includes Fort Qu’Appelle, Lebret, Fort San, B-Say-Tah, Katepwa and the regional Rural Municipality, as well as several Associates, including Lipton and the Treaty Four Tribal Council.
Hutchinson has raised regional concerns about poor water quality with both levels of government. The federal government says it has “bigger problems”, such as raw sewage from big cities still going into oceans. Because of the impact on the valuable commercial fishery the federal government is however concerned about the serious state of algae, fish-toxicity in Lake Winnipeg, and this ultimately relates to what’s happening in the upstream watershed, including the Qu’Appelle lake chain. There are no shortcuts to restoring eco-system health.
Hutchinson expressed concern that there was “no government leadership” and called on government and First Nations to quickly resolve outstanding issues over control structures. He also raised concern that the non-governmental group established through the WSA, the Lower Qu’Appelle Watershed Stewards (LQWS) had set as its water quality objective only “to prevent a decline in quality from current levels”, which would mean accepting the high toxic algae that Pasqua residents experience in late summer. He also noted that in correspondence from the provincial Minister about “how priorities (were) established” in drought years, the Commission was told “Licensed users are accorded fist priority to water”. The Minister also said in “extreme drought years, lakes within the Qu’Appelle basin will fall below their desirable operating range for recreation”, which presumably means because industry will get first dibs. Water may still be seen as a property right, which does not abide by the United Nations’ view of water as a human right.
TOWARDS WATER QUALITY
John Mark Davies, researcher with the Water Security Agency (WSA) which monitors these lakes, reported that though nutrients in the system had “come down since the 1970s and 1980s”, they were “still high”. He said the WSA was starting to model the Qu’Appelle lakes to gain better predictive understanding to help manage the system. He acknowledged that Regina is a major source of nutrients but did not respond directly to questions raised earlier about the implications of growing industrial demand for water or about the need to seriously target lower levels of contamination. Along with keynote speaker Wasier, Davies advocated careful monitoring and setting achievable targets as one means to enhance water quality.
The other panelist, Duane Mohn, who has worked with wetlands protection, reminded us that water was excluded from the NAFTA agreement with the U.S. and that there were still water diversion plans “on the table”. He raised concerns about agricultural practices that degrade waterways, noting that he knew examples where property rights (“my land”) was used as an excuse to dump leftover farm chemicals into local sloughs. Mohn called for a “buffer zone” to protect Saskatchewan waterways and noted the importance of the Indian Head tree nursery, which Harper had also cut, for reducing erosion and enhancing biodiversity, which protects water quality. He also called for public access strips along shorelines, such as exist elsewhere, to help protect lake fronts from overdevelopment.
The last panelist, Jessica Gordon arrived late from a long trip and a workshop was organized to discuss how Idle No More activities relate to the protection of water. Event organizers failed to get a spokesperson from the newly formed LQWS, but people attended from the Saskatchewan Associations of Watersheds (SAW), Saskatchewan Environmental Society (SES) and the Regina group organizing to keep water treatment in public hands. This was likely one of the most diverse gatherings on protecting water quality yet to be held in rural Saskatchewan. The Fort Qu’Appelle KAIROS plans to coordinate some follow-up.