Ground Water Canada

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Governing ground water

Drilling down into federal priorities for ground water.


September 13, 2011
By Brandi Cowen


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Water is a hot-button issue these days. Pick up a newspaper, turn on the television or tune into the radio, and it won’t be long before you encounter a water topic.

Water is a hot-button issue these days. Pick up a newspaper, turn on the television or tune into the radio, and it won’t be long before you encounter a water topic.

government 
 Monitoring water quality is a top priority for the federal government.

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A series of floods this past spring, followed by an unusually hot, dry summer in many parts of the country, have some Canadians questioning the sustainability and management of our water supplies. Oil sands development and hydro-fracking for oil and gas are contributing to growing concerns about the quality of water available to Canadians, now and in the future.

Although the provinces have primary jurisdiction over many aspects of water management, responsibility for health-related water issues, sustainability, and some national issues deemed significant by both levels of government are shared between the provinces and the federal government. With greater financial and human resources than most provinces have at their disposal, Ottawa can be a powerful force in shaping the national agenda on water issues, driving research and action.

The federal government has dived right in, setting priorities to tackle the complex water challenges facing Canadians.

“Efforts to ensure we understand and improve our ground water range from [applying] leading-edge science, cleaning up federal contaminated sites, conducting specific research into the impacts of industry on ground water and working with the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment,” Mark Johnson, a spokesperson for Environment Canada, told Ground Water Canada in an e-mail exchange.

Bridging boundaries
Addressing the country’s water issues can be a challenging task. Authority is divided among federal, provincial and territorial governments. A seemingly simple question posed to one level of government can launch a back and forth between provincial ministries and federal departments that will make your head spin.

At the federal level, Environment Canada shares jurisdiction with Natural Resources Canada. Both federal departments also share jurisdiction over many water issues with the provincial and territorial environment ministries. It takes a lot of teamwork to make the country’s various regulatory and monitoring systems work together.

Fortunately, there’s a forum designed to help improve communication and build bridges across jurisdictions. The task of developing national strategies for ground water management and protection, and establishing guidelines for use by the individual provinces and territories, falls to the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME). The CCME typically meets once per year, bringing together the federal environment minister with 13 provincial and territorial counterparts in a forum designed to address Canada’s national environmental priorities.

At its last meeting, held this past June in Yellowknife, the CCME reaffirmed its commitment to work together to manage, monitor, protect and remediate watersheds and bodies of water using “scientific, traditional and local knowledge.”

In 2010, the CCME published a report titled Review and Assessment of Canadian Groundwater Resources, Management, Current Research Mechanisms and Priorities. The report presented the results of a survey of federal, provincial and territorial government agencies; municipal governments, conservation authority and water purveyors; academics; and ground water associations and private consultants. Survey respondents identified sustainability and water quality as two of the most significant knowledge gaps when it comes to ground water. Other frequently mentioned gaps included ground water mapping and characterization and monitoring data, including information about water levels and quality.

The Groundwater Information Network (GIN), launched last year, is one tool helping to address some of these knowledge gaps. This joint federal-provincial project, led by Natural Resources Canada’s Groundwater Geoscience Program, offers a one-stop online shop for access to eight provincial and territorial water well databases nationwide. A visit to www.gw-info.net connects users with databases from British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and the Yukon.

“Users can find wells in an area, examine water well records, including a link to the original provincial data or website, view them hanging from the landscape in 3D and download data of interest. This can help drillers select a well site and cost it appropriately,” Line Prud’homme, a spokesperson for Natural Resources Canada, told Ground Water Canada in an e-mail.

Members of the Ontario Ground Water Association (OGWA) offered their input on GIN at their 2010 Annual Convention. Prud’homme says that although no similar consultations are currently on their calendar, additional feedback on GIN is always welcome. Users can go online and submit comments via the GIN website.

This kind of co-operation between and across different levels of government plays a key role in preserving and protecting the country’s ground water supplies in the long run.

Combating contamination
Like water itself, contamination can cross jurisdictional boundaries with ease. This is one of the factors driving Environment Canada’s push to expand study of the country’s ground water.

Johnson cites water quality as “a major component” of Environment Canada’s ground water science program. This includes “assessment of priority contaminants in ground water at the national scale, and investigations of the fate of contaminants in ground water at the watershed or regional scale in various settings (e.g., urban, rural, forest).”

One area Environment Canada is particularly focused on at the moment is addressing knowledge gaps in how contaminants in ground water impact surface water and aquatic ecosystems. The department’s National Water Research Institute is currently involved in research into the sources of nutrients in ground water, the ecological effects of contaminated ground water discharging into surface water, and the natural processes that attenuate the effects of ground water contamination in the Canada’s diverse ecosystems.

Environment Canada scientists are also involved in research on the impact specific sectors, such as agriculture and the oil and gas industry, have on ground water. One major initiative, aimed at better understanding the environmental impact of Alberta’s oil sands, launched last year. In June 2010, the federal government announced a $1.6 million science program to study how the oil sands are affecting several aspects of the environment, around and near the province’s oil sands operations.

“Ground water sampling is being expanded almost four-fold to 100 sites, primarily along the Athabasca River in the vicinity of the oil sands tailing facilities,” Johnson wrote. “The oil sands monitoring program includes an investment in state-of-the-art analytical equipment and research support that will allow scientists to identify unique chemical compounds produced during oil sands processing that can be used as ‘fingerprints’ that distinguish it from naturally-occurring bitumen found in the eco-system.”

Tackling the country’s water issues is no easy feat. Authority over water crosses jurisdictions just like rivers and streams do. With intergovernmental co-operation on initiatives like GIN and open lines of communication across departments and ministries before, during and after CCME meetings, Canada’s federal, provincial and territorial authorities are on the right track to improve and expand understanding and appreciation of our the country’s ground water resources.