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Down the drain: a book about our waters

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drainIt’s been an interesting month in water news. There’s been the pollution of Lake Erie making tap water poisonous in Toledo. There’s been, of course, the on-going saga of the Mount Polley spill. And, closer to home, there’s been swimming advisories. A couple of these were noted by DeSmogBlog (in West Vancouver and Ottawa) because of how it difficult it is to obtain information about these.

Last year Ralph Pentland and Chris Wood wrote a pretty timely book, Down the Drain: how we are failing to protect our water resources, which is quite rich in insights that provide the background behind these issues.

The book is, of course, rife with instances of deplorable water pollution; For instance, they note that there are five times as many records of water borne disease in Canada, per capita, as in the US, and overall three times more than in the UK despite a much smaller population (page 26); or that in parts of the Oldman River downstream from Calgary, all male longnose dace, a type of fish, have disappeared, showing the impact of sewage gender-bending pollutants (page 28).

The book is full of little chesnuts like these, but the key focus is on the role of government, or rather, on the inaction of the government. For instance, where Europe has implemented the REACH program to monitor and phase out toxic chemicals since 2007, there is no comparable program in Canada and toxicity data is lacking for 87% of the chemicals marketed here (about 23,000 compounds identified by Health Canada). As another example, oil and gas exploration drilling are not required to report to the National Pollutant Release Inventory.

The main problem seems to be the complete disregard of the government for diligent monitoring of our water bodies. It has dismissed recommendations from Ecojustice for safeguarding our waters, including vastly improving Canada’s monitoring of water and ecosystems resources, similar to the European Water Framework. To quote the authors:

There is one action, however, repeatedly identified as essential for any subsequent reform, policy, or decision to be effective:…institution of a comprehensive, current, and detailed inventory of our built and natural water infrastructure…This means monitoring water stored in snowcaps and water tables, the conditions and flows of surface waters,, the amounts being withdrawn and returned…these are skills that Canadians excel at.” (page 199)

Arguably the most invidious betrayal of Crown guardianship been the failure to provide for an adequate natural intelligence capacity…Canadians simply cannot know the extent or seriousness of their losses. That, of course, may be one reason no federal government has provided canadians with such an accounting.” (page 212)

It’s not exclusively the government’s doing, obviously; while it is a societal problem, the neglect of water issues by the media (aside from sudden floods) is also remarkable:

One of the most astounding media misses of the past decade was the failure of news outlets to inform Canadians that the most populated parts of their country have been losing water for the past third of a century.” (This is a loss of 3.5 cubic kilometers every year; page 184)

The concept of the public trust is examined in details in the context of safeguarding our waters. Despite the fact that members of the public cannot sue their government for governing, the public trust doctrine claims that governments have a fiduciary duty to protect the common good – and therefore there are grounds for action against a negligent government, and legal standing in court for the public.

If a Conservative ministry believes a whole-scale embrace of free-market remedies can defend national security, let it implement them – so long as it also closely monitors the results and reports them candidly to Canadians.” (page 228)

I have to admit: the book can be a bit of a slog at times. For a more light-hearted and compelling overview of our water quirks and problems, Wood’s earlier book, Dry Spring, 2009, is an easier read. But Down the drain tackles head-on the issues, their causes, and their remedies, and it’s a more important book for that.

Pentland, Ralph & Chris Wood 2013. Down the drain: how we are failing to protect our water resources. Vancouver: Greystone.

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Written by enviropaul

August 16, 2014 at 5:06 pm

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