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Grappling with ground water

What role can and does the Canadian ground water industry play in protecting this resource?

June 16, 2015  By Carolyn Camilleri

For four years, the World Economic Forum identified water in its Global Risk Report as one of the three most important challenges worldwide. In 2015, that changed.

For four years, the World Economic Forum identified water in its Global Risk Report as one of the three most important challenges worldwide. In 2015, that changed.

 Fotolia_water tap  

“This year, for the first time, it has moved to the top, as ‘the biggest societal and economic risk for the next 10 years,’ ” says Alfonso Rivera, chief hydrogeologist for the Geological Survey of Canada, Natural Resources Canada.


While there is no question that the situation is frightening, it is also multi-layered, complex and fraught with misunderstanding, especially among the public. Here in Canada, there is a perception that we are water-rich – and that is not always true.

“Canada isn’t as water-rich as we like to think,” says Tom Gleeson of the University of Victoria’s civil engineering faculty. “There is a lot of stored water in Canada – water in reservoirs, water in lakes, water in glaciers. But if you look at the renewable water that Canada has – the water that can be used – we are actually the fourth largest in the world.”

The metaphor Gleeson uses is a swimming pool: we have a lot of water stored in the swimming pool, but the tap that fills that pool as the water is used or evaporated isn’t as big as people think.

And while Canada may have less water than people think, the world has more water than people may think.

“At the global scale, water quantity is not an issue. However, there are challenges related to economy, geography, politics and knowledge base relative to water,” Rivera says. “Water consumption has increased by factors 10 to 60 in 100 years due to increased population and geography. With increased population, there is an increased need for food, an increase in agriculture leading to an increase in water withdrawals.”

In Canada, 60 per cent of river runoff drains to the north, whereas 85 per cent of the population is concentrated in the south, Rivera says. In Australia, he adds, most of the water resources are located in the north where precipitation provides a very humid tropical environment; yet, most of the large cities are concentrated in the eastern and southern parts of the country in arid or semi-arid regions.

The south-central and southwestern parts of the United States are other examples of very populated areas located in water-poor regions.

“The limiting factors are water availability where it is needed and water management,” he says.

Solving the challenges, perhaps, starts with a shift in thinking.

“Ground water is a renewable resource and it should be treated that way instead of mining it and depleting it like it is a petroleum resource,” Gleeson says.

But what do these factors and developments mean at a practical level for the ground water industry? And what role can and does the industry play in protecting a natural resource that has become such a hot topic worldwide?

Some signs of progress

How well Canada is prepared for future ground water demands depends on where you look. In some respects, we are making progress. Gleeson describes it as a “patchy situation.”

“There are some real bright spots across Canada, like the source water protection work in Ontario and the new water sustainability act in B.C., and there are some really great ground water assessments being done in Quebec right now,” Gleeson says. “But there are still a number of regions where we don’t even know how much groundwater is there, or how much we can use sustainably.” 

Rivera says that although ground water’s importance is increasingly being recognized in countries such as Canada, Australia and the U.S., substantial research and institutional changes are needed to adequately protect those resources.

“In Canada, ground water’s vulnerability to depletion could lead to future challenges over use, especially in the Prairie regions and the Great Lakes Basin,” Rivera says. “This is why it is important that researchers examine scientific processes, sustainable yield and priority use and how these may be linked to water governance and good resource-management practices.”

More scientific data, widespread education and training, and more clearly defined jurisdictions, are needed to effectively manage ground water at national and international levels, Rivera says.

“Since it is a hidden resource, protecting ground water requires knowledge of the aquifer’s vulnerability against pollution and ground water flow systems, as well as the recharge and discharge mechanisms,” Rivera says.

He adds that having that knowledge in the form of quantitative data – maps, parameters, fluxes, etc. – means governments can regulate ground water in an effort to protect it against contamination and overexploitation.

And advances are being made with regard to research.

“A useful and important direction that ground water research in Canada is evolving to is to look at regional scale – provincial- or regional-scale ground water systems – and that is useful because that is the scale most often that ground water can be managed at,” Gleeson says.

At the upcoming IAH-CNC Waterloo 2015 conference (Oct. 27-30, 2015), the session on regional-scale research, which Gleeson is leading, is the largest and most popular, a clear indication of its significance in Canada’s hydrogeology community.

The federally supported mapping projects are another important step.

“Natural Resources Canada has committed to working with provincial and territorial agencies, industry and academia to map Canada’s 30 key regional aquifer systems,” Rivera says. “To date, NRCan has completed the assessment of 19 key aquifers. It is anticipated that NRCan will have completed the mapping of the 30 key aquifers by 2023.”

Bruce Ingimundson, the British Columbia Ground Water Association managing director, talks about the benefits of the federal mapping program.

“They have been good at that. They just completed a major 10-year mapping program here on Vancouver Island and that information has been extremely valuable for, in this case, the district of Nanaimo to come up with programs and plans as to how to manage that water.”

Other good news from B.C.: they now have regulations in place on how to allocate ground water.

“The new Water Sustainability Act was tabled in the House and approved last year,” Ingimundson says. “Now, the Ministry of the Environment is working on the Groundwater Protection Regulation.”

“Our association has been, and continues to be, very involved with the ministry here on creating those two documents,” he says. “We’ve been lobbying for this for years – the ground water resource is now part of that package. And that’s been good for both surface and ground water. It’s a good regulation.”

Rivera says that now all 10 provinces have regulations on ground water.

“At least there are some sort of rules on how to regulate ground water usage,” he says. “And I think this is a good step in terms of coming to grips with ground water issues that we have in quality and in quantity.”

In part 2 of “Grappling with ground water,” we consider progress at the federal level, the critical role drillers and associations play, and what a central association might look like. Carolyn Camilleri speaks with Alfonso Rivera, chief hydrogeologist for the Geological Survey of Canada; Natural Resources Canada, Tom Gleeson of the University of Victoria’s civil engineering faculty; K.C. Craig Stainton, executive director of the Ontario Ground Water Association; and Kevin Constable, owner of Fred Constable and Sons drilling, former president and board member with the OGWA, and former president of the Canadian Ground Water Association. Look for it in the Fall issue.

Carolyn Camilleri has been a writer and editor in Victoria for the past 15 years and now divides her time between Toronto and Vancouver Island, writing for several trade and consumer magazines across the country.

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