BY Jim Harding
The summer flooding came as we tried to celebrate Canada Day. But no one was celebrating sewage in their basement or in the lakes they love.
As if unprecedented, prolonged rainfall wasn’t enough, or Regina dumping untreated sewage into the Qu’Appelle watershed. Then low lying communities flooded and eighty of them ended up in states of emergency. But, it wasn’t over; we soon found that the Qu’Appelle lakes were contaminated with dangerous E coli. Beaches closed at the height of summer.
It started to sink in that ongoing drainage of agricultural lands compounded the flooding and that Regina could get away with things that smaller municipalities could not. Our minds and hearts opened to the new reality, but will our heads-in-the sand governments get the bigger picture?
Soon the calamity was exposing cracks in watershed management. Those overseeing environmental health have not been high on the list of priorities of a government so bent on the unfettered growth of the extraction industry.
By July 3rd, after sampling 28 beaches, Sask Health was reporting “elevated E coli levels” in the Qu’Appelle lakes. This was said to be associated with the flooding, a no-brainer. A spokesperson later clarified, while not pointing fingers, that “It is known that sewage from municipal and private sewage systems as well as waste water from cattle areas has entered the lakes.”
But the Water Security Authority (WSA) was already saying that Regina’s releases of untreated sewage wasn’t involved; it would be “too diluted”, they asserted. By July 9th the tune had changed somewhat; the WSA admitting that Regina’s dumping “may have contributed to the issue”, while mentioning that “runoff from agricultural land can also contribute.” Then on July 11th, on a CTV report, a WSA spokesperson said he was “unsure where it is coming from” and speculated it could be coming from “agricultural operations… unplanned releases from communities… and flooded septic systems”. But then he claimed Regina was only responsible for “2% of the sewage flow” into the Qu’Appelle system.
This just added to the confusion and further displaced responsibilities. The flow from Regina may be 2% of the total flow into the Qu’Appelle system. But if this is loaded with untreated sewage it will contribute far higher amounts of E coli into the system. Furthermore, while some septic tank pollution might have happened at Crooked or Round lakes where cottages flooded, this wouldn’t explain any contamination of upstream lakes.
And does WSA do sufficient monitoring to be able to isolate sources of contamination in such detail? If they did and had the support of their political masters, wouldn’t we be able to take much more effective preventative action to restore our watersheds?
Will we find that the WSA is covering up for Regina’s irresponsible dumping of untreated sewage into the most contaminated watershed in the province? There are jurisdictions where governments would already be laying charges against such a large urban polluter. Will we be able to find out the details about the volume and nature of the sewage releases? Or about the political authorization for this? And just why is Regina not required to have a Plan B that doesn’t rely on this magnificent though increasingly vulnerable recreational lake system as its back-up sewer? It was notable that after it began dumping Regina reassured its residents that sewage wouldn’t be flowing through city limits.
WETLANDS AND SLOUGHS
When glaciers receded they left thousands of prairie sloughs which could store massive amounts of water. These “oases” helped nourish life through prolonged droughts and unique prairie habitats resulted. It’s now estimated that we’ve lost 70% of the wetlands which has degraded watersheds and biodiversity to the detriment of future generations. These simply must be restored.
The WSA says addressing the widespread drainage of agricultural lands is part of its “25-year plan”. It clearly should be part of its one or two-year plan. Complaints about farm drainage escalated after the 2011 flood; there apparently were still 161 active files in August 2012. What will the number be after the 2014 flood?
We’ll soon see whether the seriousness of the problem truly sunk in for Premier Wall, after touring the southeast areas hardest hit. Today’s “open for business” governments generally prefer rhetoric over evidence: economy trumps ecology and the present trumps the future. Yet knowledge has been building for decades that the “almost anything goes” approach has been destroying vital prairie wetlands, helping set the stage for the massive flooding we’ve recently experienced.
John Pomeroy of the U of S’s Centre for Hydrology has studied the Smith Creek Basin, a 400 square km area east of Yorkton by the Manitoba border. In the 1950s, 25% of this basin was still wetlands but it is now down to 11%. Since 1958 the flow has increased by 29%; in the 2011 flood the peak flow was up one-third. Their modeling suggests that if drainage ditching was allowed throughout the complete basin, the 2011 peak flow could have increased by nearly 80%. So there’s really no doubt that ongoing “ditching contributed to the deluge” we’ve just experienced.
But will governments abandon the laissez-faire approach where you ditch first and perhaps ask permission later? Environment Minister Cheveldayoff now says they’ll “crack down on illegal drainage”, something that SARM has been calling for. But the “rights” of big property owners have become normalized in our political era. And with the huge equipment available to some farmers, they can easily take the matter of “protecting” their own property and crops into their own hands.
The view that big land owners have inalienably property rights and shouldn’t be held accountable by common standards just compounds environmental and social problems for the rest of us. There are even U.S. jurisdictions where the notion of “right to farm” has been manipulated to imply the “right to harm”. Such a view has steadily gained ground in Canada, reaching a crescendo in the Harper government. Not willing to provide positive federal governance, important regulatory roles have been gutted or off-loaded, ultimately frustrating rural and urban municipalities. Did it really save the taxpayer money when Harper cut federal hydrology, climate and flood management budgets? As Ralph Goodale put it so well, where is the PFRA, another casualty of Harper, when we need it?
Pomeroy refers to “Canada’s woeful flood forecasting and management systems”. While climate science has been predicting new patterns of extreme weather, the WSA has been making plans based greatly on old realities. This is somewhat justified in view of the record-breaking 2011 spring flood and the close call we had of a repeat in the spring of 2013.
But weather shifts from climate change are clearly part of a new reality that summer flooding reflects. The steadily warming atmosphere holds more moisture, and the jet stream is relocating. Our deep-freeze winter (the Arctic Vortex) and our recent record summer rainfall can reflect this, as can prolonged heat waves and mega-fires such as are occurring in California and the NWT.
Getting rainfall equal to our annual amount in a few days is one thing. Getting this after the soil is already saturated from record-breaking snow-packs is another. Add in the impact of decades of ditching and drainage which accelerates agricultural run-off, sewage contamination from inadequate urban infrastructure and you get a “perfect storm”. You can probably also add in the recent assault on air quality from the huge forest fires to our north. It was only a matter of time before such a convergence occurred. Fasten your environmental seat belts!
But has the Wall government really got the message? I suspect not. So far more concern is expressed about one-year crop losses than about the long-term “costs” to the watershed. $ 1 billion dollars is already being projected for crop damage due to the 2-3 million acres affected.
Of course I’m sympathetic to a farmer with 40 acres flooded who may lose $20,000, especially if the farmer couldn’t get last year’s bumper crop to market. These however are calculations from the strictly short-term economic model. Now we have to think of natural systems as having their own value. And we have to bring the Golden Rule and concern for impacts on our neighbours back into governance. And people downstream from us in Manitoba are also our neighbours.
Even if high carbon emissions can be justified as part of job-creation and government revenue, there are great costs that will come as blowback, as this flood shows. The Premier is already predicting that the bill from this summer’s flood will outdo the 2011 spring flood.
Even if wetland drainage can be justified as cost-effective for a big agricultural enterprise, it’s not “economic” in any ecological sense. And it’s not neighbourly. Nor is Regina dumping sewage into the Qu’Appelle watershed.
There is a real cost for a high carbon economy, and Saskatchewan still leads the country and much of the world in per capita emissions. There is a real cost for creating ditches that drain wetlands, even if these are excused on a case-by-case basis. And there are real costs for our capital city not proactively building an infrastructure that will stop it from contaminating the irreplaceable Qu’Appelle Valley watershed.
We simply must insist that our elected officials get their acts together. It’s way past the time for a wakeup call. It’s time polluters were held responsible for their actions.