Canadians are among the world’s top water guzzlers, with each person using enough water, on average, to fill almost 13,000 bathtubs each year, and pay little for the privilege. For example, in B.C., oil and gas companies pay pennies on the dollar compared to regular users for their water usage.
But just how healthy are the lakes, rivers, and streams in B.C. that supply us with drinking water and H2O for industrial uses such as fracking?
No one really knows, according to a report recently released by the Real Estate Foundation of B.C.
The foundation aimed to paint a picture of how B.C.’s freshwater ecosystems are faring against a range of threats, including pollution, climate change, agricultural runoff, and oil and gas development.
Instead, researchers were thwarted by a dearth of critical data, said Real Estate Foundation CEO Jack Wong.
“The data was unavailable, out of date or hard to access,” Wong told DeSmog Canada. “We need good data to make good decisions. How do you respond to threats if you don’t have proper data?”
The foundation’s 44-page report, Murky Waters, said the combined effects from agriculture, forestry, fracking and mining activities have shaken public confidence in the health of B.C.’s freshwater ecosystems, widely regarded (according to the foundation’s survey results) as the province’s “most precious resource.”
It cited the 2014 environmental disaster at Imperial Metal’s Mount Polley mine — where a massive tailings pond impounding toxic wastewater failed, resulting an uncontrolled spill of sludge and mine waste into nearby waterways — as one example.
“With so much stress, it is essential to have sufficient and accessible water health data to indicate the extent of damage these threats are causing,” said the report, which comes as worldwide concerns about freshwater scarcity and pollution heighten.
Oliver Brandes, co-director of the University of Victoria’s POLIS Project on Ecological Governance, said the historic abundance of fresh water in B.C. has created a sense of complacency.
“We all know that water is critically important, but water has not been front of mind for most people.”
The double whammy of climate change and expanding industrial development, in tandem with other threats, means “water is just more important now,” said Brandes, an advisor and early reviewer for the Murky Waters report.
“This report further underscores that we need to revitalize our water agenda, but that we don’t know enough to manage it really well. This is yet another symptom of the conundrum.”
Almost 90 per cent of British Columbians favour stricter rules and stands for water protection, while 87 per cent believe communities should have the right to approve or reject decisions that affect their fresh water, according to polling done by the foundation.
The report urged the B.C. government to improve data collection, noting that the government has already committed to reporting on lake eutrophication — when dissolved nutrients like nitrogen or phosphorous create algae blooms, deplete fish and result in poor water quality in 2018.
It also zeroed in on three actions it says the provincial government can take right away to protect B.C.’s watersheds.
Three Recommendations to Update B.C.’s Water Usage Laws
B.C., for instance, charges natural gas companies and other industries considerably less than other provinces do for water fees and rentals.
Companies fracking for gas pay only a token amount for water they withdraw under long-term water licenses — $6.08 for enough water to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool, according to the B.C.’s government’s latest figures.
If industrial users were buying that water privately, they might pay as much as $11,250, according to a 2013 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the POLIS project.
Quebec charges up to $70 for that same amount of water, while Nova Scotia bills users up to $140, said the report, which called for an accurate assessment of water fees and rentals in B.C.
One single Progress Energy fracking job in B.C.’s northeast in 2015 used 160,000 cubic metres of public water, enough to fill 64 Olympic-sized swimming pools. By current prices, that would cost less than $400.
The real estate foundation also wants the B.C. government to legislate protection for “environmental flows” — the amount of water required by a stream or river to ensure sufficient habitat for fish and healthy ecosystems.
Environmental flows cannot be legally enforced right now in B.C., and decisions to protect water levels for fish can be challenged at the Environmental Appeal Board.
And, thirdly, the foundation said B.C. must renew its freshwater policy, governed by the 2016 Water Sustainability Act.
Brandes said the Water Sustainability Act initiative, which aims to improve water management and decision-making in B.C., is only partly complete. Most of the act’s important components, such as watershed planning and a strong regime to protect ecological flows, have yet to be implemented, he pointed out.
In its election campaign platform, the B.C. NDP pledged to review the Act “to ensure that high volume water users are paying for access fairly, and that drinking water sources are protected.”
Indigenous Co-governance a Possible Solution
The foundation promotes what it calls a “shared stewardship ethic” for freshwater ecosystems, noting that, in its absence, “Communities might feel they have to choose between clean water and resource extraction jobs instead of supporting both clean water and the economy.”
In a September report, Brandes and other researchers at the POLIS Sustainability Project and UVic’s Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources proposed that B.C. manage water resources through a co-governance model with Indigenous communities based on a principle of collaborative consent.
The real estate foundation, too, supports the concept of Indigenous co-governance for effective land and resource decision-making on freshwater resources.
Murky Waters also cited research from the World Wildlife Fund Canada showing data deficiencies for some of the 26 sub-watersheds in B.C. — including the Lower Fraser and the Thompson — in the categories of overall health, state of water flow, water quality, or suitability for fish. When data did exist, it was only for rivers and streams, and not for lakes or wetlands.
Most sub-watersheds in B.C., particularly in the south of the province, face multiple threats, according to the wildlife fund.
“These mounting threats could cause a watershed currently in good health to rapidly deteriorate,” noted the real estate foundation report.
Improved and accessible data sets are necessary to determine if strategies to reduce threats are working, lest efforts to protect freshwater ecosystems become “a guessing game,” the foundation said.
In an emailed statement, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy said it appreciated the real estate foundation’s report, which it is reviewing in greater detail.
A number of the report’s recommendations, including on water sustainability plans and water governance, will be addressed over the next several years through implementation of the new Water Sustainability Act, the ministry said, noting that “protecting healthy freshwater ecosystems is essential to the quality of life of British Columbians and a strong economy.”
Image: Lake Capilano, B.C. Photo: Jason Mrachina via Flickr