Ground Water Canada

A new age in water management?

Development of new Canadian policies and technologies on the horizon.

January 5, 2012  By Treena Hein

Caring for our fresh water is a conundrum for Canada.

Caring for our fresh water is a conundrum for Canada. All levels of government and many agencies are involved, and discussions about our most valuable resource seem to teem with indecision, too many differing directions and outdated policies.

 Are we getting closer to better protection for our precious water above and beneath the ground?



Canadian attitudes towards fresh water are also outdated, according to many. A potential answer: adopting a national water conservation strategy where Canadians become serious about how much water they use. That’s the conclusion of a new report titled Climate Change Adaptation and Water Governance by the Adaptation to Climate Change Team based at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

“Canadians are wantonly wasteful of our most precious natural resource, and with climate change impacts already being felt across the country, it is clear that we need to manage water much more carefully,” says the report’s lead author, Bob Sandford. He is also the Canadian chair of the United Nations’ “Water for Life Decade” partnership in Canada. “We must not assume we have an endless abundance of fresh water. Our water security is much more fragile than Canadians generally assume.”

Sandford supports water metering as a way to reduce water usage. This, he suggests, does not have to interfere with water as a human right provided that the amount of water needed to assure human health and dignity is affordable or even free. After that, however, the supply of water should be subject to economic controls that respect its true value.

“We use 329 litres on average per day per person in Canada, there are places like Munich, Germany, where they use 100,” he says. “We have billion-dollar infrastructure projects that enable people to continue the most wasteful water practices in the world. By reducing water use, transport and processing, we save water and energy.”

However, at the municipal level, metering is often an unpopular political move. “The question is, who will have the courage to lead?” asks Sandford. “Calgary is putting in meters, and calling themselves leaders, but Los Angeles did this 100 years ago. We have to realize how far behind we are.”

There are some water initiatives in place. The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) has the goal of developing national strategies for ground water management and protection, and establishing guidelines for use by provinces and territories. However, the CCME typically only meets once a year. The Groundwater Information Network was created last year, a joint federal-provincial project intended to fill water-related knowledge gaps. In late August, the federal government announced funding of $20 million for the creation of the Southern Ontario Water Consortium, a $60-million-dollar project wherein select public agencies and companies will be able to develop new water technologies for both Canadian and world markets. It’s headquartered at the University of Waterloo, with seven other universities, over 70 private companies, municipal governments and not-for-profit organizations involved. Technologies relating to waste water treatment, ground water management and the detection of contaminants will be tested at the Consortium’s platform on the Grand River and adjacent watersheds in the London, Waterloo, Guelph, Hamilton and Toronto areas.

Those heading the project say what makes the consortium so valuable is how it integrates all elements of water management into a single platform; no such R&D arrangement exists anywhere in the world, leaving water research up until this point rather fragmented. It’s hoped that use of the group’s testing platform will lead to the development of innovative monitoring and data collection/analysis technologies, as well as technologies relating to waste water reuse and systems able to treat more challenging types of ground water and surface waters. Priority will be given to companies with research and development capacity in southern Ontario.

Senior advisor Walter Stewart says water conservation was a key idea behind the creation of the consortium.

“Watersheds around the world are under pressure like never before, and better models of water usage are needed to reduce these pressures,” he says. “The Grand River has massive growing urbanization, massive industrialization and agricultural use, and therefore provides an excellent location for the project.”

He adds, “The integrated aspect of the platform is very attractive to companies. We are open for business and collaboration, and adding partners all the time.

Principal investigator Jim Barker believes the need for such an R&D hub has never been greater. “Cities are now spending millions of dollars on upgrading their water treatment plants, and the faster we can have proven technologies developed on the platform, the better. Municipalities and industry want to know it works, so the proven aspect is very, very important.”

Revamping water policies
While Sandford applauds the development of new water technologies that will promote conservation, he says development of effective policies is just as, or even more, critical.

“Water policies at the provincial/territorial or federal level have not kept pace with changing political, economic and climatic conditions,” he says. “The last federal water policy was tabled over two decades ago and remains largely unimplemented.”

The government of B.C. is in the process of modernizing its Water Act, which dates back to 1909, and will address the protection of aquatic environments, improvement of water governance arrangements, the introduction of more flexibility and efficiency in water allocation, and regulation of ground water use. At the same time, however, Sandford notes that at present, out-of-date B.C. regulations put ground water resources at risk through industrial processes such as coal-bed methane extraction. “Better regulation should be put in place first if these activities are to be effectively regulated,” he says. “We also need a better understanding of the link between ground and surface water. Our understanding and managing of water is far behind other countries.”

Sandford says there is also a serious issue in that most infrastructure grants that municipalities receive can be spent as the municipality sees fit.

“Some spend it on politically expedient projects that ignore the need for ongoing maintenance of critical, but often invisible, water infrastructure. Everywhere you look there are deficits of policy and practice.”

In Alberta and other places, municipalities are given total decision-making power over their water supply sources. The provincial government there supports regional water lines where “they make sense to ensure a safe, secure water supply,” Carrie Sancartier, a public affairs officer with Alberta Environment, recently stated, “…[but] at the end of the day, it is up to the municipality to decide based in its own unique circumstances.”

Sandford believes that such policies are in urgent need of reform. “This is why we need true leadership at the provincial and federal levels,” he says.

He is pleased to note that, in his opinion, the government of the Northwest Territories is showing true leadership. It recently created a water stewardship document called Northern Voices Northern Waters (NVNW), which contains massive reforms and a framework for reasonable water conservation measures. “This means other provinces can do it too,” says Sandford. 

He is currently on a 16-city national speaking tour to promote the report’s key recommendations. “I also want to inspire and motivate the provinces to take a look at NVNW and how its principles can immediately be incorporated and used in southern Canada,” he says. “At each stop, we are including local panel reaction to our recommendations. We need to speed up water policy reform in all provinces and at the national level, so we can adapt to climate change challenges that are already beginning to appear. New relationships are needed between the provinces/territories and the federal government. We’ve got 100-year-old water policies, created at a time when there was much less industry, agriculture and population. We have to act fast and act now.”

Treena Hein is a science writer based in Ontario.

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