Water nation

A lake at sunset. Large purple clouds pool along the horizon and a narrow dock with a single Adirondack chair reaches out into the water.

Water nation

More than ever, Canada needs to protect, conserve and manage its fresh water. Fortunately, scientists across the country have devoted their professional lives to the task.
June 23, 2015

Water made Canada possible. Before the days of railways and highways, the lake and river routes of Aboriginal peoples, voyageurs and fur traders linked different people and regions together. Camps and settlements were always located near fresh water. It provided transportation, water for drinking and washing, fish for food and, in time, motive power that allowed grain and lumber mills, textile factories and myriad other pioneer industries to thrive.

Today, the scale and nature of Canada’s water use are vastly different. Our water provides cooling for nuclear power plants, pulp mills and oil refineries. It spins turbines in some of the world’s biggest hydro dams. Major rivers rising in the Rocky Mountains supply drinking water, power and irrigation for farms, cities and towns across entire prairie regions. Other inland waterways are navigated by everything from freighters on the Great Lakes to recreational boaters, fishermen and canoe trippers on rivers and lakes in every province.

While Canadians have always profited from an abundance of fresh water — some 20 percent of the world’s supply — they’re also keenly aware that too much or too little of it can be a cruel foe. The dust bowl years of the 1930s parched the Prairies and showed what economic and human misery ensues when the water dries up. On the flip side, Winnipeggers and farmers in southern Manitoba suffered the opposite type of devastation when the Red River flooded in 1950, 1997, 2009 and 2011. In 1954, Hurricane Hazel showed Toronto how a rampaging Mother Nature can overflow rivers and overwhelm a modern metropolis. That city got a not-so-friendly reminder of this during the flash flood of July 8, 2013.

Canadians also know the dangers of treating lakes and rivers like an open sewer. In 1970, dozens of people from the Grassy Narrows and Whitedog reserves in Northern Ontario were diagnosed with acute mercury poisoning, the aftermath of a chemical company’s dumping of mercury-laden effluent into the river system from which the native residents fished and drew drinking water. In the 1960s and 1970s, aquatic life in Lake Erie teetered on the brink of collapse as a result of toxic pollution spewing from the heavy industry lining its shores.

“We’re almost reshuffling the deck with all of these multiple stressors happening simultaneously,” says John Smol, a Queen’s University biologist and one of Canada’s leading climate change authorities. “Unfortunately, they don’t tend to cancel one another out.”

In the past, floods, droughts and rampant industrial pollution were seen as isolated incidents caused by freak weather, bad luck or inadequate government planning and oversight. But while environmental regulations are more stringent than they were in the 1960s and the open, unchecked disposal of industrial chemicals into rivers is comparatively rare, the threats to Canada’s fresh water remain manifold. Invasive species, agricultural fertilizers and pesticides, municipal sewage, storm water and preventable disasters — such as last year’s train derailment and 5.6-million-litre oil spill in Lac-Mégantic, Que. — pose real and potential contamination risks to potable water, aquatic ecosystems and human health. The wild card in Canada’s freshwater scenario is climate change, which scientists say is causing environmental problems to interact in new and unfamiliar ways.

“We’re almost reshuffling the deck with all of these multiple stressors happening simultaneously,” says John Smol, a Queen’s University biologist and one of Canada’s leading climate-change authorities. “Unfortunately, they don’t tend to cancel one another out. Things tend to be worse when they come together, and that’s one of the biggest challenges we have now.”

More than ever, Canada needs to protect, conserve and manage its fresh water. Fortunately, the country has scores of biologists, limnologists, hydrologists, hydrogeologists, ecologists and others who have devoted their professional lives to the task. A handful of them are profiled here. Click on the stories to the right to learn about some of the freshwater research being done in labs funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation. Read the interview with Daniel Heath of the University of Windsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research to find out what researchers are learning about our largest freshwater lakes. Add the podcast to your playlist to find out what it’s like to swim with 10,000 salmon in B.C.’s Skeena River. Freshwater research will play a central role as Canada develops knowledge, tools and strategies to ensure that its most valuable natural resource is safeguarded for future generations of all species.

Alec Ross is a freelance writer based in Kingston, Ont.

Originally posted June 2014

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