By Jim Harding
From R-Town News, June 26, 2015
We aren’t very conscientious when it comes to protecting water. We’re neither respectful nor effective in this. This is not a case of “what you don’t know won’t hurt you”. We need to have the best knowledge possible and be willing to use it if we are going to avert a deepening water crisis.
The Environment Minister called last year’s unprecedented flooding a “500-year event”. Actually it was the third extreme weather event in the last five years. It was a huge wakeup call for many when Regina dumped 900,000 cubic metres of untreated sewage into the Lower Qu’Appelle, and another when we found that this was allowed under the Water Permit and that there were no consequences for Regina. Regina officials tried to justify the dumping by saying that dilution would make the impact “negligible”. This is wrong-headed; sewage is one source of some of the contaminants that the federal government highlights in its water quality guidelines.
Just as city officials were reassuring us that everything would be fine once the water treatment plant finally got upgraded, Regina faced yet another water crisis. An early and warm spring had built up so much algae that it was plugging Buffalo Pound’s filters and reducing its ability to treat water by 50%. Regina’s Director of Water stated, “it isn’t a circumstance we had a plan in place for because it’s not a circumstance that we’ve experienced.” City officials called for a 25% reduction in water consumption. Luckily they had 8 backup wells to draw on while this water supply crisis was managed. The aquifers that feed these wells simply must be protected.
DILUTION NO SOLUTION
The immediate solution was to “flush out the problems”. The flow of water from Lake Diefenbaker into Buffalo Pound was increased, as was the flow of water going out of Buffalo Pound Lake into the Qu’Appelle River. Like city sewage last summer, the high algae water got flushed downstream.
There’s no wisdom in constantly relying on dilution to manage water pollution; the problems need to be addressed at their sources. Both urban and agricultural contamination must be curtailed. University of Regina biology professor Chris Yost has wisely recommended “cleaning up the rivers and lakes rather than using chemicals in the distribution system” (Metro, June 3, 2012). At present, Buffalo Pound must use high levels of chlorination to disinfect highly polluted water for drinking purposes, which itself creates toxic byproducts.
Meanwhile the province has grandiose plans to use Buffalo Pound not only for Moose Jaw and Regina drinking water, but for a rash of new potash mines. A new channel to increase agricultural irrigation from Lake Diefenbaker is being considered and a 200% increase in water use is being projected in the Upper Qu’Appelle by 2060. You can see there’s really no sustainable water protection plan in place.
It is long past time to take a clearer look at the deepening water crisis. Optics and spin won’t help, nor will save the water clichés, cozying up to authority figures or pretending that things will change if we just celebrate the water. Most certainly we have to value and respect the water, but fundamentally we need to understand the sources of water degradation and press for the policy and behavioural changes required to restore watershed health. We need knowledgeable, community-based coalitions for effective change to occur and we need them soon. This will require lots of listening, learning, negotiating and consensus-building.
Regina’s ongoing water crisis is a wakeup call for us all. Earlier and warmer springs and extreme weather swings, such as from flooding to drought as we saw from early spring to early summer this year, will continue to threaten water quality. Flooding, unregulated drainage and erosion bring more contaminants into the watershed and when water becomes scarce, such as at Buffalo Pound this spring, these contaminants can directly threaten water supply. Whether or not you believe that the extremes have to do with climate change, you can’t deny that the threats to our water are getting more serious and that protecting water quality is getting more challenging. So what do we collectively need to do?
NO NATIONAL STANDARDS
We first have to face how far Canada is behind other countries. The World Health Organization rightly calls for member countries to have binding national standards to protect water. This isn’t just for the protection of human drinking water but for the protection of aquatic habitats. Ultimately environmental and human health are the same thing.
We shouldn’t be smug about this. Yes, unlike the U.S., we have a national Medicare system. But, unlike us, the U.S. has mandatory and enforceable national water standards, as do most EU countries. Canada only has water quality guidelines and each province decides what to test. The province’s priorities have not been about water protection but about resource extraction, including mining the soil. Meanwhile we know that many industry-originating carcinogens and other toxins are entering our waterways. While some contaminants may meet some guidelines, the cumulative toxic mix will most certainly undermine human health.
No wonder Regina can get away with dumping raw sewage into a recreational watershed. No wonder that we see unfettered expansion of environmentally-risky agricultural practices, including the use of toxic chemicals and damaging drainage practices. No wonder that there has been such disregard for marshes, wetlands and floodplains that naturally clean water. In an era of climate change these practices will inevitably degrade watershed health.
We act as though water contamination is collateral damage: it is a consequence of water being used as a commodity for economic growth. The mindset, lack of policies and disrespectful behavior are all threats to watersheds. Water simply must be respected as a natural system, always remembering that “water is life”. Since 2010 the UN has called for a “human right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation”. We have neither in Saskatchewan or Canada: we don’t have a right to safe drinking water but guidelines which may or may not be followed. And we don’t have a right to safe sewage disposal, as Regina’s sewage dumping so blatantly shows.
Health Canada has water guidelines for 75 contaminants. In its recent investigative report the CBC found that only one city, Ottawa, did complete testing. Regina tests for 52 contaminants; Saskatoon tests for 61. The contaminants that Regina tested for include 13 pesticides, which is a good thing in such an agriculturally-intensive region. Yet another 11 pesticides were among the 23 contaminants that were not tested for, as were five radioactive elements.
Provinces and cities will argue that some contaminants couldn’t be a problem because they aren’t used regionally. So why test? In the U.S. all states have to test for all contaminants and if they find some aren’t present they can apply to exclude these from further testing. It is better to be safe than sorry. We know that contaminants move with global weather systems; Canada’s north has pesticides from plantation farms in South America. Radioactivity can spread across oceans and continents.
The pesticides that Regina doesn’t test for have been linked to such things as nervous and neurological disorders, kidney damage and cancers. If the province has tested for these and found they aren’t present, then at least let us know. Why aren’t we testing for radioactive elements like Ceseum-137, Iodine-131, Lead-210 and Strontiumn-90? Some of these come from nuclear weapons testing and catastrophic nuclear accidents. Some come directly from the natural radioactive decay series. Saskatchewan is known for having high levels of uranium and uranium mining here has greatly increased the bioavailability of radioactive elements.
At present there isn’t full transparency about water quality data. And there should be. We don’t want unnecessary fears and anxiety nor do we want risks to be hidden or downplayed.
Having only water quality standards, with provincial discretion about testing, will not guarantee environmental or human health. Guidelines will never be an incentive to seriously address the unfolding water crisis. This is even more the case with Harper’s deregulation of waterways. If we wish to see watershed protection and restoration of water quality there simply must be national, enforceable water quality standards. Regina’s ongoing water crisis exposes the inadequacy of the national and provincial status quo. This matter deserves to be a major issue in the fall federal election.