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National water crisis forecast

Study blames declining supply on lax attitudes, climate change

by ANDREW NIKIFORUK

Special to The Globe and Mail Wednesday, June 7, 2000
 

Calgary-Pollution, habitat destruction and climate warming will compromise Canada's freshwater supplies so dramatically in the next 50 years that freshwater fisheries could disappear and drinking-water supplies will be in a state of crisis, warns one of the world's leading water experts.  "Without increased funding for freshwater research and a national water strategy, fresh water will become Canada's foremost ecological crisis early in the 21st century", says University of Alberta water ecologist David Schindler.

     In a highly damning and frank science paper that will be published this fall in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, Dr. Schindler squarely blames Canada's "cavalier attitude" toward water on government cutbacks and "the tiresome, juvenile turf war" between federal and provincial politicians for the relentless decline of the nation's water supplies.  According to Dr. Schindler, that steady decline has been accelerated by a warming trend that will not only affect availability of water but will seriously disrupt river flows.  Dr. Schindler, one of Canada's most respected scientists, has impeccable credentials and a reputation for highlighting serious environmental problems with straight talk.  His research on acid rain and the lake-killing properties of phosphates in the 1970s and 1980s helped write environmental legislation around the world and received the equivalent of two Nobel Prizes from Swedish foundations.

     In his most recent study, the 59-year-old ecologist predicts that the combined effect of climate change, acid rain, human and livestock wastes, increased ultraviolet radiation, airborne toxins and biological invaders will result in the degradation of Canadian freshwater on a scale hitherto unimaginable.  John Smol, a prominent freshwater scientist at Queen's University who reviewed the study, says Dr. Schindler hits the nail on the head. "People don't appreciate the impact of multiple stressors on our water supply and we have a history of underestimating problems. And when you put all these things together, nasty things tend to happen," he said.

 

     In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Dr. Schindler said that, "People tend to think that the documented rise in temperature of one to two degrees across the country isn't a problem. What they don't realize is that this rise over a prolonged period can be very dramatic."  His study outlines just how warming temperatures can diminish water quality and quantity even in a nation boasting 10 per cent of the Earth's fresh water.  Recent warm spells have caused glaciers to thin and recede in the Rockies, the source of most of Western Canada's drinking water. Further recessions may jeopardize Prairie water supplies, he argues.  Rising temperatures also enhance evaporation. In fact, the evaporation rate for many Ontario lakes has increased by 30 per cent in recent years. Even shipping has been affected by falling water levels in the Great Lakes.  Wetlands are particularly vulnerable to rising evaporation rates and Dr. Schindler predicts that many lakes on the Prairies will disappear as they did during a warm period 4,000 to 6,000 years ago.  These trends, in turn, will lower the ability of freshwater lakes and rivers to dilute animal waste, pathogens and toxins. Warmer waters will also displace cold-loving fish such as lake trout. Pollution, habitat destruction, overfishing and climate warming have all played a role in almost wiping out sports fishing across southern Canada.

 

     Some studies now indicate that the number of species going extinct in freshwater lakes and rivers is almost equal to the number of extinctions quieting tropical forests.  Climate warming also helps to spread non-native species such as zebra mussels. Many scientists believe these biological invaders have already turned the Great Lakes into a "fish zoo."  All of these events are occurring at a time when funding for Canadian freshwater research, once the envy of the world, has reached all-time lows due to federal and provincial cutbacks.  "Water quality has become another casualty of federalism," Dr. Schindler explained. "Outside of the Great Lakes, there is little federal involvement on water quality." And the provinces just aren't picking up the slack, he said.  "The question must be asked: What agencies today [are doing] science to protect the public interest?"  Ontario's Dorset laboratory, once a world leader in acid-rain research, has been so severely cut that it can't even afford to have someone answer the phone.  "Politicians have hidden the critical nature of these cuts behind the standard caricature of lazy, overpaid and underworked civil servants, causing the public to shout 'hooray,' without questioning what might be lost," Dr. Schindler writes.

"I personally find the lazy civil servant image to be infuriating, for many government scientists are among the hardest working individuals in society."

 

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