V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Myth of water abundance

Published in The Toronto Sun and Sun Media papers, July, 2008.

Part 1 in a 5-day series

Water is set to become this century's oil. World leaders have been bellicose about the spectre of water wars and global shortages. The UN says one-third of the world's population live in water-stressed countries now and, by 2025, that's expected to rise to two-thirds. Underground pipelines are being built to move, not oil, but water. Canadians, meanwhile, are the second largest water user per capita after the U.S. But we can afford it, we're water-rich. Or are we? As we celebrate Canada Day this week, Sun Media takes a look at a national heritage Canadians jealously guard, but don't fully understand.


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 from 6.5% to 2.6%.

"This is the number that should spring to the minds of Canadians when they contemplate the country's water resources," writes John Sprague in the 2007 book of compiled essays, Eau Canada.

"The glib assurances of water abundance we frequently hear from the media, politicians, and even environmental groups are lies, unsupported by meteorological or hydrological data," writes David Schindler, an international water celebrity and professor at the University of Alberta.

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.

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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.

"By and large, it's quite a good policy," says Tony Maas, of the Polis Water Sustainability Project in B.C. "But it got shelved and didn't get political traction."

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.

"In the mid 1960s, many aquatic scientists, myself included, immigrated to Canada because of new and exciting approaches to water research," he writes in Eau Canada.

At the height of its glory, Schindler describes departments like the now disbanded Inland Waters Directorate and the Experimental Lakes Area as the envy of the world.

Formed in 1968, the ELA is still one of the few sites in the word which dedicates whole-lake ecosystems for scientific research. The outdoor science lab has produced groundbreaking work on acid rain and eutrophication (excess algal growth). Most recently, researchers conducted a study that found synthetic estrogen from sources like the birth control pill in municipal wastewater can decimate fish populations living downstream. Male fish became feminized, developing eggs in their testes and slowed sexual maturation in female fish.

Frank Quinn, a celebrated water expert whose work was pivotal in drafting the water policy, also laments the demise of what used to be a government priority.

"I'm sitting in a building that used to have three and a half floors filled with people from the Inland Directorate," he says from Ottawa. "Now we can't fill even one floor."

Though Quinn retired four years ago, he's occasionally called on by Environment Canada to lend a hand, given the high turnover rate and lack of manpower.

"It's pitiful the way things have turned out," he says.

- - -

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 goblue.org. 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 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."



Mary-Margaret McMahon calls herself the eco-witch of the east.

She runs a tight ship in her water-conscious home. The family of four practices cottage rules: If it's yellow let it mellow, if it's brown flush it down.

The McMahon family has agreed to let a nosy reporter gauge their water consumption at 7:30 a.m., when water usage is normally at its peak.

Husband Jim has hopped in the shower. It lasts six minutes. Son Liam, 11, is using the toilet but there's an absence of flushing.

"We all take a pee, and flush it once before school and work," Mary-Margaret explains. No one takes baths in her house.

"It's so much water I can't bring myself to fill the tub," McMahon says in her dining room on a bright weekday morning in Toronto's east end. A bleary-eyed eight-year-old with golden locks stumbles downstairs and reminisces about the good ol' days, when she could take baths.

"It makes me sad," Becca said shyly. "Because I like baths." Mom, unable to resist her daughter's sleepy, doleful elegy for baths with epsom salts, injects a sparkle in Becca's eye by offering to draw her a bath as a birthday treat.

If she's washing the dishes by hand, Mary-Margaret saves the grey water and uses it to water her frontyard tulips and bee balm. They only drink tap water, use reusable bottles, and balk at plastic water bottles.

The McMahon family is more water literate than your average Canadian family. It's a water ethic that comes from an uncommon understanding of water's finite nature and the abuse it gets around the world.



It's 7 a.m. in the Beaudoin household and another nosy, pseudo-anthropologic study of Canadian water habits is being conducted.

Mom Pauline accepts that her family represents the Everyman, Canuck family.

Her family of four flushes after every trip to the toilet and drinks bottled water -- they buy cases of it in bulk when it's on sale, Pauline says. It's mostly for her, as her workplace shut down the water fountains because of lead concerns. She works at a public library in Toronto and drinks about three bottles a day.

Son Sam, 13, will drink a bottle, and reuse it at school where he'll fill it with fountain water for months.

For about four years, the family used a water cooler in the dining room to provide cold water in the summer, Pauline says. Dad, who's already at work, pulled the plug this year, mostly because it was becoming a drain on their electricity bills.

But they also use aerators on water taps in the bathroom and kitchen and run the dishwasher only when it's full.

"I grew up on a farm," Pauline says. "I had to share the bathroom with two brothers. We didn't have a lot of water and could run it dry."

When she was young, the kids took baths together, or had to use the same bath water.

When asked during a mini water-IQ quiz how much freshwater they think Canada has in the world, the answers vary between 25% an 80%.

But when told that the actual percentage of water Canadians living in the south have at their disposal is 2.6%, it draws a collective "wow" from the family.

Sam seems to be fully alert now from his early morning wake-up call, and says in a sober voice, "We should use less water."

"And I think everyone should take a quiz."

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