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.
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
Sediments closest to the surface contain information about environmental changes from the most recent decades. These surface materials are obtained using a coring device specifically designed to collect loose, unconsolidated lake mud.Credit: Jason Briner, University of Buffalo No one in the 1970s could deny that certain lakes in Ontario were acid. But were they that way naturally or was their acidity the result of human activity? The only way to know would be to have reliable measurements of lake acidity from the pre-industrial 1800s to compare with present-day readings. But no one was...
The unmistakable outline of the coasts of lakes Erie, Ontario, Huron, Michigan and Superior dominates the geography around southern Ontario and the surrounding American states. The waters in these basins — left there 10,000 years ago as the glaciers of the last ice age retreated — constitute 21 percent of the world’s surface fresh water. As a natural resource, a transportation corridor and an ecological powerhouse, the Great Lakes are a complex natural gem from which research questions abound. Daniel Heath is a professor in the department of biology at the University of Windsor and the...
Mercury levels in yellow perch, or Perca flavescens, have increased in some lakes in Nova Scotia.Credit: Jennifer Thera, University of New Brunswick Mercury was once most familiar as the friendly silvery liquid inside thermometers. Then scientists discovered that the metal causes deformities in fish and birds and can inflict irreversible damage to human fetuses, infants, children and women of child-bearing age. Today, scientists estimate that the amount of atmospheric mercury is three times the naturally occurring level. The excess comes from industrial effluents, coal-fired electricity...
The movement of silver nanoparticles in water and into sediments, plankton, insects, fish and other creatures is being studied at Lake 222 (shown here in the foreground) at Ontario’s Experimental Lakes Area.Credit: Marguerite Xenopoulos, Trent University One of the greatest technological trends in the past 15 years is the rise of engineered nanoparticles. Typically smaller than a virus, these tiny particles can be programmed to deliver cancer drugs directly into tumours, clean pollutants from lakes or create ultrafast computers. Today, nanoparticles are used in thousands of consumer...
John Pomeroy digs a hole for the base of a solid precipitation gauge as part of an automated snowpack and weather station in the high Canadian Rockies above Helen Lake, Banff National Park in October 2013.Credit: Tim Link, University of Idaho The disastrous flooding of Calgary and southern Alberta in June 2013 took many people by surprise. While weather forecasters had predicted a heavy rainfall, few expected the widespread devastation it caused. One reason the deluge caught people off guard is that there are scant detailed measurements of rainfall, snowfall, evaporation, snowpack depth,...
Spindly black spruce cloak the mountains and rise from the banks of the Skeena River, one of the longest free-flowing rivers in British Columbia. But Jonathan Moore is more interested in what lies below the water’s surface — thousands of sockeye salmon charging up these channels in their annual marathon to spawn. Moore, a biologist at Simon Fraser University, studies the complex life cycles of this iconic fish in the Skeena and in its big brother to the south, the Fraser River. In this podcast, he explains the ecology of salmon and why their conservation is essential. But first, he takes...