Under Pressure

It powers industry and is the lifeblood of healthy communities. But years of reduced federal oversight, Mark Hume writes, have left the government with major decisions about managing a resource we take for granted.

BY MARK HUME originally  appearing in The Globe and Mail 

Canadians, unlike billions of people around the world, see clean water as their birthright. Images of pristine water are rooted deep in the Canadian psyche, from Tom Thomson’s Cold Spring in Algonquin Park, to photos of Pierre Elliott Trudeau canoeing on fresh northern lakes.

As a commodity, water touches every facet of the Canadian economy. It powers industry and washes away industrial, urban and agricultural waste. Without it, turbines don’t spin, croplands become dust bowls, and rainforests burn.

But water resources can’t be protected by our good intentions alone – that takes government policy.

If it is tainted, water can sicken entire communities – as happened in Walkerton, Ont., in 2000, when seven people died and more than 2,000 became ill from E. coli. Across Canada, in a typical month, there are more than a thousand active community drinking-water advisories.

In recent years the federal government has retreated – quietly, and to an unprecedented extent – from the regulation of water. Lawyers, scientists and past federal employees interviewed by The Globe and Mail say that a series of changes made under Stephen Harper have reduced enforcement and weakened environmental controls, putting our water at risk. Even some industry representatives, who lobbied the government for a streamlined regulatory framework, have been surprised at the extent of the changes.

While the Liberals in Ottawa are currently focused on global climate change, an equally compelling environmental issue faces us at home. Canada’s water is under pressure from oil and gas development, logging, hydro generation, and industrial and urban pollution. Glaciers are dwindling, and aquifers are being depleted. We must manage our water, so we can keep using it. Figuring out that balance – one that ensures environmental protection while meeting society’s demands – will be one of the new government’s greatest tasks.

Neither Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo nor Environment Minister Catherine McKenna was available for an interview on how they plan to address these matters. Their staff responded with brief e-mails referring to their mandate letters from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and the party’s campaign platform included several measures to reverse course on some of the regulatory changes, but the details of how the Liberals will proceed on water-related issues are yet to be made public.

Over the next week, The Globe and Mail will examine the many challenges to Canada’s watersheds. From the battle to preserve clean water in the Great Lakes, to the more than 100 boil-water advisories affecting First Nations communities, to large-scale projects that have sparked public outcry, policymakers face critical questions about the future of a resource we assume will always be available. We will explore these questions in depth, consider what solutions technology offers, and report on what individual water users can do to make a difference.

Layers of regulation, and a push to streamline

Standing on a footbridge where Britannia Creek flows through an old mine site, Mark Angelo takes a deep breath and catches the stench rising from the water. “That’s a wonderful smell,” he says.

Below him, scattered along the banks of the stream that tumbles under the Sea-to-Sky Highway, about 50 kilometres north of Vancouver, are the carcasses of 300 salmon. They died naturally, after spawning, but not long ago this water was so contaminated with acid runoff from the Britannia Mine that it was devoid of life. Not only were there no salmon; there were no aquatic plants or insects at all, as a caustic broth from the mine poisoned the cold, bright water.

“It was one of the most toxic sites in North America,” says Mr. Angelo, chair emeritus of the Rivers Institute at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. The stream was killed in the early 1900s, at a time when governments didn’t question resource development and had little concern about environmental damage.

Some of Canada’s oldest legislation deals with water, including the Navigable Waters Protection Act (now the Navigation Protection Act) which was passed in 1882, three years before the last spike was driven to complete the Canadian Pacific Railway.

At that time waterways were still Canada’s primary transportation routes, and the bill was designed to ensure that bridges wouldn’t impair navigation. It was soon expanded to cover dams, docks, piers and just about any other structure that stuck out into the water. In 1906 the Supreme Court of Canada reinforced the scope of the act by defining “navigable water” as any body of water that could float a canoe – broadening the legislation so that it applied to millions of lakes, rivers and streams.

But over several decades, beginning in the late 1800s, successive Liberal and Conservative governments also developed a complex regulatory framework that went beyond these economic concerns, and introduced rules to protect the environment. Inevitably, as layers of regulation built up, they become cumbersome to administer; there were also archaic remnants of the original regulations that hindered many projects.

Mr. Harper’s government cited many examples of this when it broached the need to modernize the regulatory system. Among them: a City of Moncton application to build a culvert under a highway, which took eight months to secure approval; and a Hydro Quebec transmission line that took 13 months to get approved. Then there was the case of Wabamun Lake, near Edmonton, where, over a span of three years, the government was obliged to process 80 applications from cottagers who simply wanted to put in docks.

Reforms were aimed at eliminating that kind of red tape, the Conservatives said. To an extent, that was true: Legislation routinely needs to be updated to reflect changing technologies, priorities and public needs.

But Mr. Angelo, along with many other environmental academics and researchers, thinks the government went too far. As it streamlined processes, they say, it also undermined environmental oversight – both by scaling back the scope of regulations and by reducing enforcement.

Under the Conservatives, a raft of regulatory rollbacks

Canada’s water is regulated by multiple departments and agencies administering several key pieces of legislation. In 2012, the government amended many aspects of that regulatory framework, narrowing the scope of the rules, and revising the processes by which decisions were made. Most of the amendments were buried in sweeping omnibus legislation, which meant that they did not have a chance to be debated, bill by bill, in the House of Commons.

Collectively, the amendments softened regulations protecting water from pollution, allowed the destruction of fish habitat, restricted public participation in environmental reviews, made it easier for pipelines and bridges to cross waterways, gave industry a self-policing role in assessing environmental impact, and reduced protection for species at risk.

… continue reading the original article on The Globe and Mail website.