Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Water Abundance Myth

Great story here from the Ottawa Sun's Vivian Song.

The stated abundance of water is a general belief that I've questioned a little over the past few years but much like climate change, it's also one for which I find it difficult to know who and what to believe. So also much like climate change, I'll act like water scarcity is a legitimate threat and err on the side of caution!

The article is quite lengthy so I've trimmed it slightly.

It’s one of the greatest myths to deceive Canadians. While other parts of the world watch their lands dry out and their taps run dry, Canadians rest comfortably in the belief that we possess 20% of the world’s freshwater supplies. But that’s only half the story.

“It’s a crazy number, and it’s not even really true,” says Rob de Loe, professor and Canada Research Chair in water management at the University of Guelph. “Twenty per cent is so misleading because a lot of it we can’t use.”

A common analogy is to compare lakes to a bank account. We live off the interest, experts say, or the renewable water supply.

Freshwater is also compared to a swimming pool. Were we to use the standing water to do our laundry and dishes, for example, we’d just drain it dry and leave a parched hole in the backyard.

“If a community or business starts taking in more water than comes in, we’ll start to wreck the environment, reduce water levels, affecting navigation, shipping and the ecosystem which depend on certain water levels,” de Loe says.

What Canadians consume in water is the rainfall and snow melt which replenish the water system every year.

Canada, however, receives 6.5% of the world’s renewable supply every year — the same amount as both Indonesia and the U.S.

Meanwhile, about 60% of Canada’s water flows north to the Arctic, away from the majority of Canadians who live and work in the south.

That further reduces our share of the renewable supply to 2.6% from 6.5%.


It’s this myth of water abundance that has led Canada to capture the dubious title of being the second biggest water user per capita in the world, after the U.S.

But debunking a long-held myth can be challenging when a quarter of Canada’s population also lives on the Great Lakes, a constant, but delusory reminder of the country’s water resources.

Canadians are just as easily foiled by what we see as we are by what we don’t see, water experts warn.

Linda Nowlan, an environmental lawyer and faculty research associate at the University of British Columbia, calls groundwater our “buried treasure,” an asset Canadians take for granted because it’s “out of sight, out of mind.”

About 30% of Canadians rely on groundwater for their drinking water. Quebec has the greatest number of municipalities reliant on groundwater, while Ontario has the highest population dependent on groundwater at 1.3 million. Prince Edward Island, meanwhile, is entirely dependent on groundwater for its municipal supplies.

And little is known about this resource beneath our feet.

The U.S. Geological Survey reported that freshwater withdrawals in 2000 were 14% higher than in 1985. The U.S. publishes data every five years, Nowlan writes. But not in Canada. Here, data is scarce. Senior government scientists have called our knowledge of groundwater “pitiful.” The amounts stored across Canada’s aquifers are virtually unknown, despite its value.

Groundwater is less prone to contamination and less vulnerable to droughts caused by climate change, for example. In the 2005 report Buried Treasure, Natural Resources Canada identified significant gaps in Canada’s groundwater knowledge, which includes groundwater supply and use, recharge rates of aquifers and how groundwater and surface water interconnect to impact the hydrological system.

“The main message is that we need to look at the whole water cycle, paying particular attention to the environment and the cumulative impacts of all pumping decisions,” Nowlan said in a phone interview from B.C.

Overpumping on the American side of the Great Lakes, for example, reversed the flow of groundwater from in to out of the Great Lakes.

During the Walkerton Inquiry into that town’s E.coli poisoning in 2000 that resulted in the death of seven people, one hydrogeologist described Ontario’s water management again in financial terms: The permitting system was akin to writing cheques on a bank account without knowing the account’s balance.

While “lovely” and filled with forward thinking ideas, the federal water policy is “utterly meaningless,” de Loe says. “It should be in a museum. I find it annoying that you can still find it on the Internet.”

Indeed, the policy, written in 1987, is found easily on Environment Canada’s freshwater site, prefaced with a paragraph in red: “Since no more recent published policy can be offered at this time, the text of the 1987 Policy is offered for information purposes only.”

The problem? The water policy, applauded by many experts and water activists for its ideas, was never implemented.


Canada’s water pricing is too cheap, the policy says. Priorities should be placed in scientific leadership, a watershed approach to planning, legislation and public education.

Despite the recommendations, a few years later the 1990s saw massive cuts to Canada’s world-renowned water research departments that attracted some of world’s brightest aquatic experts, including Schindler. Today, activists and experts say water research is chronically underfunded.


Canadians are the second highest consumers of water per capita in the world, second only to the U.S.

We also pay among the cheapest water rates in the developed world, and experts say there’s a clear correlation between the two.

According to a 1998 OECD survey, Canadian municipal water rates were the cheapest among 12 developed countries — Canadians paid 31 cents per cubic metre. Meanwhile, the U.S. paid between 40 and 80 cents, and Germans paid $2.16 per cubic metre. At $1.62 in 2004, Canadian rates continue to be among the lowest in the industrialized world.

Nowlan’s Buried Treasure report points out the OECD “has repeatedly censured Canada” for failing to implement economic measures to manage water.

Experts blame cheap water rates and the myth of water abundance in Canada for creating a shameful water conservation ethic.

Canada’s laws promote water use rather than curb it, writes economist Steven Renzetti in Eau Canada.

According to a 2001 Environment Canada survey, for example, Canadian households paying a flat rate for their water consumed 74% more water than those who paid volume-based metered rates. In 2001, 61% of Canadian homes were metered.

Right now, Canadians pay for delivery of water services — the wages of public utility workers, water treatment costs and the electricity — but not the water itself, Renzetti explains. But the current prices aren’t enough to cover the operating costs and capital needs of an aging water infrastructure.

“Many agencies don’t make enough revenue to cover the book costs,” he says.

Quebecers, for instance, pay the cheapest water rates in Canada. Meanwhile, that province also has one of the oldest water systems and is in urgent need of repair, he said.

So what’s the gap?

Renzetti estimates those who pay flat rates are paying less than half the rate of metered users.

“Consumers don’t pay the marginal cost of supply,” he says.

Renzetti calls for water pricing reforms that also include the environmental costs related to water use.

While environmental protection may sound “far-fetched” he points to the European Union’s Water Framework Directive, which states that water supply and treatment agencies must incorporate any costs to the ecosystem into their prices. Consumers also need to be educated about the full costs of their water use decisions, he writes.

Critics point out, however, that hiking water prices would do tremendous harm to society’s most vulnerable: the poor. But it’s not the working poor who use the most water, points out Chris Wood, journalist and author of Dry Spring: The Oncoming Water Crisis of North America.

“The poor don’t have three cars and a swimming pool,” he says.

One solution would be block pricing, he says. Ration the same amount of water to everyone, and charge higher rates when consumption passes that threshold.

Water may have slipped through the cracks and crevices among government priorities, but public awareness is starting to gain momentum. De Loe describes the Walkerton tragedy as a “transformative event,” while climate change appears to be locked into the global collective, becoming more than just a trend.

Recently, corporate-funded media campaigns highlighting the realities of our water situation have been springing up everywhere. Bus shelters in Toronto are plastered with cryptic posters which read: “We won’t run out of water. Will we?” The same message flashes quickly across TV screens, directing viewers to The campaign is funded by Unilever, whose product brands include everything from Sunlight, Vaseline, Lipton Tea and Vim cleaning products.

Last year, RBC announced a 10-year, $50 million charitable grant program for the RBC Blue Water Project: “A wide-ranging, multi-year program to help foster a culture of water stewardship in Canada and abroad, so that people have clean fresh water today and tomorrow.” De Loe was chosen chairman of the advisory panel early this year.

“More and more people are starting to make connections they didn’t before with climate change and water. But it’s not there yet in daily practice,” de Loe said.

Under the Constitution, responsibility for water is divided between the provinces and the feds. But provinces are traditionally viewed as the owners of natural resources. So, with the encouragement of the feds, many drafted their own legislation aimed at protecting their water from bulk export. But the result was a hodgepodge of feeble provincial legislation, some of which are toothless under international trade obligations, says Owen Saunders of the Canadian Institute of Resources Law at a public policy seminar in Ottawa in May. And once one province opens their tap and engages in bulk water export — and Quebec and Newfoundland have both expressed interest in selling their goods — experts say we won’t be able to turn off the tap.

“There is no common denominator that runs through our approach to interbasin removals,” he says.

Canadian water legislation is described as a patchwork of provincial and federal laws. At the federal level alone, 19 departments oversee different aspects of water management, Eau Canada editor Karen Bakker says. And while decentralizing water management may be needed because of unique water challenges across the country, many experts say it has continued to the point of absurdity.

What’s needed, experts say, is a national water strategy that would provide provinces with tools like a central database of information that fills in the gaps — and a clear mandate.

“We need a national water strategy that provides vision, identifies core principles like conservation, and develop a water ethic that thinks like a watershed,” says Oliver Brandes, associate director at the Polis Project on Ecological Governance from the University of Victoria. “We need to increase hydro literacy and understand what we have.”


Lynn Sinclair said...

I stopped watering my lawn a few years ago. It's only grass. I don't have potted plants, and I try to have only native plants in my garden. My town uses groundwater, and we are always on alert during the summer. Using water for the outdoor stuff is just greedy and senseless.

T.H.I.T. said...

There are bus ads here that say "Curb your watering, don't water your curb". I thought that was kind of clever, especially for people who live in town homes with two-foot wide strip of grass on one side of their driveway that they absolutely feel the need to run a sprinkler for.