By Jim Harding
On August 20th nearly 200 people who reside along the Qu’Appelle Valley gathered at the Treaty 4 Governance Centre to share concerns about the continuing degradation of the watershed. From the energy in the room you knew there was more anguish than anger. This was not going to be a protest meeting; something deeper was taking shape.
I realized this could be a watershed event as we drove up to the Centre and saw the cars lining up along the highway, spilling over from the parking lot. The large turnout reflected the steady regional evolution of awareness about the water crisis. Some of the seeds could be traced back to conversations from KAIROS’s public forum “water is life” held locally the previous June. They could even be traced back to when First Nations issued warnings about water quality through the Qu’Appelle Valley Indian Development Authority or QVIDA back in 1998.
The event was jointly organized by the Friends of Katepwa Park, which recently added “water protection” to its objectives, and the File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council (FHQTC), which also participated in the 2013 public forum. It was triggered by the unprecedented July 2014 flooding, Regina dumping untreated sewage into the waterway and the closure of many beaches due to high E.coli. Those impacted were still looking to understand how these events interrelated and could be prevented.
A show of hands indicated that most were from cottage country: the turnout was highest from Pasqua and Katepwa lakes. A decade before, a few cottagers were blaming First Nations for not being able to get their boats into the low lake water. This was in the aftermath of PFRA dams being found illegal, after the Charter of Rights acknowledged treaty rights in our constitution. Now, sitting in the wide circle of chairs where Chiefs often deliberate, and lined in tight rows in the centre under the spectacular high ceiling designed as a giant tee-pee, were cottagers and residents from an array of nearby communities. Creation would be pleased with the coming together.
Several resource people were invited, including renowned U of R water researcher Peter Leavett, who provided much basic information about the state of the lakes. The chair of the Calling Lakes Planning Commission, Ken Hutchinson, who has played a lead role advocating for restoration of water quality, Edmund Bellegarde, head of the FHQTC, and Todd Peigan, Chief of Pasqua First Nations and long-time advocate for water quality, also spoke; as did Dawn Pratt, who has worked with the nuclear waste industry. I participated as mayor and retired professor of Environmental Studies. Katepwa’s Auralee MacPherson moderated.
I’ve been investigating the sources of the recent E.coli and other contaminants. Doing public interest research for decades, I’m ready for any “spin” that may be forthcoming from bodies that are complicit in contamination. Also, I’ve learned unless you are dealing with exceptional journalists who are committed to investigate and learn, you aren’t going to get much insight from the mainstream media. At the same time, there are many well-educated, well-meaning people within government and non-government agencies who want to contribute to positive change, even though their political “masters” may not yet be so inclined.
Spokespeople from the Water Security Agency (WSA) have been giving slightly mixed messages about the role of Regina’s untreated sewage, including that its sewage flow was “only 2%” of the total flow into the Lower Qu’Appelle. Overall Regina’s effluent is a much higher percentage, and the WSA has confirmed an average flow of 18% of the total after Craven. So where did the 2% come from? After going back and forth with several agencies over two days, it turned out that this came from an estimate of Regina’s effluent flow as a part of the flow at Craven during the peak flooding. However, while this would dilute the untreated sewage and higher levels of phosphorous, it all would still end up in the Lower Qu’Appelle watershed.
I also found the really high E.coli levels were in Last Mountain and Katepwa lakes, but all of the beaches were rightly closed as a precaution. But then the argument was made that because it was estimated that Regina’s E.coli would take over 5 days to get to Pasqua lake, it couldn’t be in the July 3rd sampling that led to the beaches being closed (Apparently there was some UV treatment still operating until June 29th). But, though the initial E.coli may have come from runoff, Regina-originating E.coli would still be in the lakes after that.
We need to remind ourselves of the trend-line, which was confirmed by the WSA. Overall Regina’s effluent contributes more than one-half (52%) of the flow in the Wascana Creek. Sometimes, during winter or severe drought, it accounts for almost all the flow. And Regina’s releases are responsible for about 80% of the contamination of that system. This flow then becomes nearly one-fifth of that going into the Lower Qu’Appelle. Over decades this pollution has definitely been a major source of the contaminants degrading the Lower Qu’Appelle.
When I found out that back in Regina’s 2013 Utility Budget the City already admitted that “The existing wastewater lagoons are overloaded and under review”, their sewage dumping in the summer 2014 flood became even more of a concern. To my knowledge no such overflowing occurred from Moose Jaw’s lagoons. Why?
THE BIG PICTURE
No party involved in the degradation of our precious watershed should get off the hook by pointing the finger at others. The two main culprits here as elsewhere are urban sewage, which has come in large amounts from Regina for decades, and agricultural runoff, which has increased as corporate farming practices have replaced the family farm. Add extreme weather flooding from climate change, enhanced from decades of wetland destruction, the growing threat to water quality from encroaching fracking and solution mining, and you can see why this watershed is the most vulnerable in Saskatchewan.
Where success stories exist about restoring sick watersheds such as in Europe, contamination from both urban sewage and agri-business has been stopped. That is why the letter to Premier Wall circulated at the August 20th gathering called for government leadership on these two fronts. That letter, available for any citizen to sign, reads: “…most scientists agree that the biggest polluters are agricultural and urban waste…we need resources, expertise and resolution before it is too late. I invite you and your government to work on the pollution problem now in a coordinated effort and instead of assigning blame, we need to work together to find out and identify a plan of action on how to make our water clean.” The letter and water resources are available at: http://www.4calling lakes.ca
THE ACTION PLAN
This single gathering couldn’t devise the parameters of such an action plan, but these are taking shape. The provincial regulators must ensure that after decades of irresponsible dumping, Regina’s wastewater treatment upgrade removes the maximum nutrients and contaminants so that the lengthy period of lake restoration can begin. We want clean water coming downstream from Regina.
Agriculture will also have to become ecologically-sustainable. An organic farmer at the gathering told me that his land didn’t create runoff into the lakes during the flood because the soil could absorb more moisture. But we can’t wait until agriculture changes; the government can immediately instigate a wetland restoration program, which would be a great gift to future generations. The government can and should also help facilitate an effective non-polluting buffer zone along the valley walls.
The needed paradigm shift includes seeing access to safe water and well treated sewage as a human right. Water can’t continue to be treated as a commodity and waste stream for the benefit of polluters. Future generations will continue to suffer if this view persists in the economy. As Peter Leavett stressed, the long-term build up of nutrients in some lake sediment will slow the restoration process down. And as Chief Peigan stressed, it doesn’t help that the Harper government deregulated this waterway as part of its notorious Omnibus bills. But, to achieve inter-generational justice, the responsible thing is to quickly get on with the process of protecting this watershed. In that sense the August 20th gathering was about the emerging politics of survival. Let us hope that all of this soon begins to sink in.