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25th September 2015
EDITOR
19 Sep 2015
The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition)
ROY MacGREGOR rmacgregorglobeandmail.com

We’ve taken our most valuable resource for granted to such a degree that even the party leaders overlook the economic impacts

Water almost made it to the table during Thursday’s leaders debate.

Justin Trudeau took a swig during an exchange between Thomas Mulcair and Stephen Harper, and the Conservative Leader himself reached at one point for the bottled water under his lectern.

As well, Mr. Trudeau was shown several times on television paddling through the morning mist on the Bow River in the morning before the Calgary debate.

So many opportunities to bring up what should be the topic du jour - yet no one touched it apart from a quick shot from Mr. Trudeau, the Liberal Leader, at Mr. Mulcair over the NDP Leader’s time as Quebec’s environment minister, which Mr. Mulcair instantly dismissed.

That is regrettable, given that the Prairies are coming through a drought, given that Northern California is on fire, given news this week that Lake Powell, which supplies water to Nevada, Arizona and California, has lost more than half its water – and given, most significantly, that the United States is talking about renegotiating the Columbia River Treaty, which, for 51 years, has ruled over the dams and hydroelectric projects of the Pacific Coast’s most important waterway.

And especially given what has been happening to the No. 1 resource in the province where the debate was held. Perhaps it is appropriate here to repeat something former U.S. president George W. Bush once said: “Water is more valuable than oil.”

At his home in Brisco, B.C., on the banks of the Columbia River, David Schindler can only grind his teeth in frustration. The Rhodes Scholar and former University of Alberta professor of ecology cannot comprehend how it is that three ambitious political leaders could speak for nearly two hours on the economy and fail to connect the Canadian economy to its true most valuable resource.

“They dwell on economics,” the retired scientist says. “But what do they think these fires are costing? And the economic impact is even more on agriculture.

“Maybe it makes their heads ache to think about water - nothing else explains it.”

Dr. Schindler is well used to taking on the establishment. It was his team of researchers that showed how the development of the Alberta oil sands was having a catastrophic effect on the Athabasca River.

He recently told the Calgary Herald that “we are going to forget all about the economy when we run out of water.”

Not all scientists are quite so dramatic as Dr. Schindler, whose ability to turn a phrase has often placed him at the centre of scientific controversies, but it would be wrong to dismiss him as a lone, hysterical voice.

“We built Canada on water,” says John Pomeroy, Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change at the University of Saskatchewan. “The fur trade, industry, agriculture - all built on water. And yet we take it all for granted.

“We’re going to struggle if we don’t pay attention to it. We need to stop describing our water as ‘bountiful.’ I’m not so sure it is any more.”

Mr. Trudeau is an accomplished paddler. Had he tipped in the current of the shallow Bow, however, he would have realized instantly that there is something particular about so many of the country’s western rivers: They’re very cold even after a hot summer.

The reason is simple: The snow that fell in the winter and spring has long since melted and water now coming out of the mountains has a significant source in melting glaciers.

“It’s estimated the Rockies will have lost 90 per cent of their glaciers by the year 2100,” Dr. Schindler says. “That has huge implications for late summer flows when the rivers no longer have water from the melting snowpacks.”

In 2006, Dr. Schindler and a former student gathered flow records for all Alberta rivers. The data, covering flow volumes during the critical agricultural period of May through August, went back decades. When they had crunched the numbers, they concluded that rivers in the province had seen their volume reduced by more than half.

“The worst of the lot turned out to be the South Saskatchewan,” he says. “That river supplies 70 per cent of the irrigation water used in Western Canada.”

Dr. Pomeroy considers glaciers the “insurance policy” of a western river. In a hot, dry summer, melting glaciers will still provide much-needed water. But in a long drought - such as that experienced in the American Southwest and often now predicted for Western Canada - the glaciers will melt more quickly and eventually be rendered insignificant.

“It’s sort of like the opera,” he says. “The fat lady has already sung.”

Political leaders, unfortunately, have been tone-deaf to the reality of climate change and its economic impact, the scientists say.

“To me,” says Dr. Schindler from the banks of the Columbia River, “it’s the three blind mice talking about the economy as if it’s an entity unto itself. It’s not. It’s like someone talking about their income and not mentioning their expenses. … Over the next five years or more, this is going to be far more critical than what happens to the oil industry.

“I worry about the United States merely asking for water and our crazy government saying, ‘Sure, go ahead and take it.’ ”