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We have lots of fresh water in Ontario, and it is under threat

Deputy commissioner of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario warns of the perils our water faces
20170419 HammondLecture ro
Ellen Schwartzel, deputy commissioner of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, gave this year's Hammond Lecture on Wednesday. Rob O'Flanagan/GuelphToday

The majority of Canadians believe the country is blessed with fresh water. And it is, said Ellen Schwartzel, deputy commissioner of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, during a presentation Wednesday in Guelph.

But at the same time, a growing number of Canadians are justifiably concerned about our water, as they become more aware of the threats to it.

Schwartzel gave this year’s Hammond Lecture as part of the University of Guelph’s School of Environmental Sciences Sustainability Symposium. Water sustainability was the subject of this, the 18th annual lecture. The event is made possible through a legacy gift from the late Kenneth Hammond.

The office of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario advises the Ontario Ministry of the Environment on a host of issues.  

Water sustainability, Schwartzel said, is a challenge for many reasons, especially in Ontario, where urban development and population growth have decimated huge tracts of wetlands, and where municipal water-related infrastructure is in a severe deficit situation.

She began her talk by asking about 40 audience members how many have had the privilege of swimming in one of the Great Lakes. A few hands went up. Those lakes are the fresh water legacy of the last ice age, she said, as are most all of the lakes, rivers, streams, reservoirs, and ground water in the province.

When it comes to water, she said, we are “immeasurably blessed or damn lucky.”

But the idea that our water is essentially limitless has coloured our thinking and made us complacence about water. That attitude must change, and is slowly changing, she indicated.  

The most recent RBC Canadian Water Attitudes Survey found that just over 70 per cent of Canadians feel fortunate about our fresh water resources, she said. But 36 per cent are worried about it.

The very poor quality of drinking water on First Nations across the country, and the boil-water advisories on reserves that last for years, are deeply troubling to a growing number of Canadians.

The loss of wetlands in Ontario – gobbled up by agriculture and urban development – is on the minds of many, and understood more broadly to be a threat to our drinking water, she said. 70 per cent of the province’s wetlands, which provide innumerable benefits to ecosystems, have been lost.

Algae blooms in Lake Erie are now a major problem, evidence of the scourge of agricultural and urban run-off getting into the lake.   

“We thought we had cleaned up Lake Ontario,” she said.

While the province is responsible for regulatory measures related to water, and municipalities beholden to the province to enact those measures, financial resources are stretched thin on the enforcement side.

And growing cities in the desirable southern part of Ontario have trouble keeping up with the water pressures posed by increasing populations.

With more people comes more waste water effluent that is damaging to the water system, more harmful runoff, faster runoff, and more polluted runoff, she said. And with higher populations comes more water pumping from aquifers, to the point where those drinking water sources are not recharging like they once did.

The waste we produce, the pharmaceuticals we flush, and the micro plastics we dispose of, all pose a threat to the water we drink, she indicated.  

All of these issues need to be monitored and regulated, but Ontario’s regulatory capacity is lacking. There are 1,500 permits to take water in the province, and very little is spent on monitoring them.

Add to all of these challenges a changing climate that has resulted in more frost-free days, less ice on lakes, changing precipitation patterns, and a greater number of severe storm events, and it is clear that the water we take for granted can not be taken for granted. It is difficult to predict what the future holds for our water.

Schwartzel said when it comes to rethinking and recalibrating attitudes and actions related to protecting our water, a few things work. Shocks and disasters can have a big impact. The Walkerton E.coli tragedy changed drinking water policy and protection measures.

Severe weather events have changed the way cities think about water drainage and storage. There is much more emphasis today on urban development that has a lower impact on water resources and the environment.

Past measures have significantly reduced negative impacts on the water system, she said. The ban on cosmetic pesticides reduced herbicide concentrations in urban streams by 90 per cent. A measure like charging storm water fees to property owners could force them to reduce harmful runoff.

But, she concluded, without public engagement and political urgency, things like greater legislative oversight and more stringent conservation measures are slow to come.

An engaged public, she said, is absolutely vital to safeguard our water. “We need public engagement more than ever now,” she said.