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13th June 2017
The Globe and Mail (BC Edition)
12 Jun 2017

A comprehensive review of Canada’s freshwater ecosystems reveals rising threats from pollution, overuse, invasive species and climate change, among other problems. Yet, the biggest threat of all may be a lack of information that hinders effective regulation, Ivan Semeniuk reports

With a mere 0.5 per cent of the world’s population, Canada has jurisdiction over 20 per cent of the global freshwater supply – a vast and valuable resource that is largely taken for granted by those who depend on it.

Yet, according to the first national assessment of Canada’s freshwater ecosystems in decades, there is plenty of cause for concern. Each of the country’s 25 major watersheds is facing multiple environmental threats, while the data required to track changes and guide policy makers are surprisingly inaccessible or simply non-existent.

“We don’t know the facts,” said David Miller, president of World Wildlife Fund-Canada, the environmental advocacy organization that conducted the assessment. “It’s a recipe for inaction.”

Mr. Miller added that spotty and unco-ordinated monitoring coupled with the widespread image of a pristine Canadian wilderness has left the country ill-prepared to track and respond to the growing pressures that its aquatic ecosystems are now facing.

Four years in the making, the assessment is intended to provide a national snapshot of the state of Canada’s water by assembling and comparing data on 167 subwatersheds. Because such information is neither centralized nor maintained in a systematic way, the organization had to search out scores of disconnected datasets from federal, provincial and municipal sources, water boards, conservation authorities and private companies. The

result is a patchwork mosaic that reveals high levels of disturbance to water in about one-third of the subwatersheds, roughly corresponding to regions with the highest population density, agricultural activity and resource development.

More surprising is a general lack of information on four key health indicators, including flow, water quality, fish and bottom-dwelling organisms that are sensitive to environmental change. The assessment finds that the data are deficient in 110 out of the 167 subwatersheds to form a baseline picture of ecosystem health, including in some relatively populated areas where freshwater is essential to communities, such as in southern Manitoba, Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley or the Bruce region of Ontario.

The situation reflects the glaring absence of a standardized national water-monitoring program in a federal system where water has traditionally been regarded as a provincial or local matter. Yet, Canada’s watersheds are clearly interconnected and facing threats, from climate change to invasive species, that pay no regard to political boundaries. The assessment includes recommendations for filing in the knowledge gap including a community based “citizen science” approach to data gathering. Yet, it also makes clear that there is a clear need for co-ordination and oversight at a national level,

“If this can inspire the federal government to take a leadership role, that would be a good thing,” said Allen Curry, scientific director of the Fredericton-based Canadian Rivers Institute and an adviser on the project.

Canada’s balkanized water-management system makes it especially difficult to obtain data on freshwater that researchers say should be available to the public. Bureaucratic and proprietary barriers to access were the largest obstacles that the assessment’s authors faced in assembling their water report card.

“Despite living in the era of Google, we literally had to phone or e-mail or just beg people to send us data,” said Elizabeth Hendriks, who co-ordinated the WWF-Canada effort.

David Schindler, one of Canada’s most highly regarded freshwater scientists and a professor emeritus at the University of Alberta, said the assessment highlights the problems that stem from Canada’s lax regulation of its freshwater assets.

“We need standards, not guidelines, with some penalties for non-compliance,” he said. Three years ago, Dr. Schindler was among the experts involved in a review of freshwater monitoring in the United States – a national program managed by the U.S. Geological Survey that he suggests Canada would do well to emulate. If things continue as they are, he said, freshwater ecosystems are likely to face unprecedented change while Canadians are left in the dark about what is happening to their country’s most important resource.

“Water – despite its theoretical abundance – is probably the biggest looming problem in Canada,” he said.