Okanagan Eco-Noggin  

The politics of water

NDP veteran MP Charlie Angus recently demonstrated everything that is wrong with Canadian politics and First Nations water issues.

While speaking in the B.C. Interior, Green Party leader Elizabeth May floated the idea of having SNC-Lavalin serve community service by providing water-treatment engineering to First Nations communities, according to Huffington Post.

In principle, the idea would solve two problems:

  • improve water infrastructure for First Nations communities
  • punish the engineering firm in a way that would save jobs.

Is this a great idea?

Probably not, but for reasons that Ms. May would not be reasonably expected to realize. As a consultant who has worked for a few companies like SNC, I can tell you that an unintended consequence of this proposal would be low quality of work associated with those projects.

Consultants do their best work when they are fully engaged with a client and they have some long-term ownership over the project.

Assigning engineers and scientists to “punishment” projects would almost certainly result in low-quality work – precisely what needs to be avoided if we are to improve First Nations water infrastructure.

Nevertheless, Ms. May deserves credit for at least trying to come up with novel ideas to address both of these issues. Clearly, the status quo is not working for many First Nations water systems, and the first step to addressing the issue is to open the table for discussion.

Unfortunately, First Nations water is a third-rail topic, and politicians are quick to use any statement about this issue as weapon with which to bludgeon whichever opponent dares speak about it.

Case in point: Angus, who rushed to Twitter to condemn Ms. May’s idea, saying he was “appalled” that Ms. May would propose “privatizing” First Nations water.

His statements epitomize all that is wrong with politics. As a 15-year MP who is heavily involved in First Nations issues, he knows full well that most, if not all, water infrastructure projects in Canada are carried out by consultants.

This applies to municipal and federal contracts, on and off reserves. Having SNC or any other consultant engineer water systems does nothing to “privatize” water. If this were the case, virtually all water in Canada would have been privatized decades ago.

Additionally, it strains credulity to accuse Ms. May of wanting to privatize water. While I don’t endorse or even agree with many of the Green Party’s positions, their platform on water conservation, and not privatization, is unambiguous.

It takes an obscenely high level of political opportunism to suggest otherwise.

If politicians cannot float ideas to improve First Nations water infrastructure without immediately having their ideas distorted for political gain, we will be stuck with the status quo forever – this is not a very progressive approach for the NDP to take.


Jump off plastic ban wagon

Single-use plastic has become the government’s straw-man villain.

When a politician announces a ban on a product and promises science-based recommendations to follow, you can be fairly certain that the science will be a farce.

This appears to be the case with the federal government’s recently announced ban on single-use plastics.

To be sure, some products are rightfully banned on science-based environmental grounds. The Canadian Environmental Protection Act specifies criteria for chemicals that should be “virtually eliminated” due to their high risk to human and environmental health.

However, there is an important difference between banning these toxic chemicals versus the recently announced ban on plastics: For the former group, the ban followed the science, not the other way around.

In other words, scientists knew the chemicals were toxic, and the government took that advice and instituted a ban. In contrast, the government has now decided that single-use plastics need to be banned, and will produce the science to justify this politically motivated ban.

Perhaps that is a cynical view, but consider the statements made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Federal Environment Minister McKenna, who cite the ocean plastics crisis as the reason to ban plastic straws across Canada.

There is an ocean of difference between their justification and reality.

Also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or Ocean Plastic Gyre, there is abundant evidence that ocean plastic is accumulating at alarming rates, in both large visible garbage piles and microscopic particles.

However, there is also abundant evidence that most ocean plastic originates in Africa and Asia, not Canada. Do a Google search for “river of plastic” and you will see appalling images of rivers choked with garbage, most of it plastic.

But you will not find any such thing in Canada.

The problem with plastic is not that we are dumping it in the ocean – it is that we are not recycling enough of the already recyclable plastic that we use. Too much of it goes straight to the landfill, despite having readily available technology to recycle it.

Here is an inconvenient truth about plastic recycling. Noble intentions only get us so far in terms of motivating people to recycle their own waste.

The irony, as explained in the book Junkyard Planet, is that only market forces will ensure that nearly all recyclable waste from a given stream is sent to the appropriate facility.

Two requirements for this to happen, both of which are lacking in Canada, are:

  • a very cheap supply of labour to process the waste
  • a market for the waste materials.

In places like Shanghai, virtually all reusable or recyclable material is removed from a waste stream before it reaches its final resting place.

That is not because the Chinese are devout environmentalists, but because people there are willing or desperate enough to sort through other people’s garbage to recover a few cents worth of value from discarded materials, and because they have a viable re-use market for things that we consider junk.

We could achieve the same rates of recycling here, but it would be incredibly expensive. Even with modern sorting technology, the process is labour intensive and people don’t work for pennies in Canada.

One problem is that we often don’t sort our waste at the point of disposal. Take a look at the picture of the garbage bin, taken in a city park. Do you notice that much of the “garbage” is actually recyclable material?

If a seal is choking on a piece of plastic, the seal does not care whether that plastic was recyclable. None of the recyclable plastic in this picture would be affected by a ban on single-use plastic.

Another problem with the ban:

  • large categories of products will need to be exempted to avoid putting human health at risk.

For example, virtually all medical supplies are wrapped in single-use plastic, as are many food supplies. This is not simply convenient; it is safe and sterile.

If you care about reducing the amount of plastic that ends up in the environment or landfill, there are things that we can all do to reduce our plastic footprint.

First, avoid using plastic bags whenever possible. Plastic bags are a problem for a few reasons.

They are difficult to process in recycling depots and have a poor resale market, so they often end up in a landfill, even if they are placed in the proper recycling bin.

Rather than recycling existing plastic bags, drop them off for re-use at grocery stores that accept them, or at dog parks. If they are going to end up in a landfill, they might as well serve a double duty by quarantining doggy’s doodie.

Second, pay close attention to the sorting requirements of recycle bins. Plastics that are not separated from other materials will end up in the landfill.

Even two materials that could be recycled individually, like plastic and cardboard, will be landfilled if they are not separated before being dropped in the bin.

Third, let producers know that you care about the amount of plastic packaging. Some products still come packaged in gratuitous amounts of plastic. Call or email the manufacturer and let them know you care.

And when the politicians come knocking for the 2019 election, ask them where they stand on this issue. Just be wary of the sort of rhetoric that seems to be driving this ban.

In coming articles, we’ll go inside the world of recycling, one waste stream at a time, to find out what else we can do as individuals to reduce our overall waste footprint.

Smokanagan: New normal?

Given the smoky summers we’ve had for the past few years, it is reasonable to wonder whether we can expect more of the same every summer from now on:

  • evacuations
  • poor air quality
  • cancelled sporting events
  • and so on.

Last August, if you flew from Vancouver to Calgary, the only thing you would see sticking out of a sea of smoke was the tips of the Rockies and Columbia mountains.

So what does the latest science tell us about what to expect in the future?

Predicting forest fire behaviour is a complex science that accounts for:

  • forest fuel load,
  • weather,
  • atmospheric stability,
  • topography
  • air and vegetation moisture
  • forest management practices
  • previous fires
  • ignition sources.

But in terms of the colossal fires that burn the overwhelming majority of forest and cause most of the lingering smoke, these are mainly the result of a few critical days with three combined factors: hot, dry, windy weather.

A simple rule of thumb used by wildfire fighters is the 30-30-30 crossover: when temperatures exceed 30°C, humidity is below 30%, and winds are above 30 km/h, fire hazard is extreme.

One careless toss of a cigarette butt or a spark from heavy equipment in these conditions is a recipe for disaster.

Predicting future forest fires is especially tricky, because although temperatures are expected to increase globally, some factors like rainfall frequency will also increase in some areas.

While most regions can expect more forest fires as a result of global warming, some regions will experience reduced forest fire activity because of localized increases in rainfall frequency.

Scientists at the University of Alberta, B.C. Ministry of Forests, and Natural Resources Canada have modelled future burn probabilities in the Thompson-Okanagan.

They anticipated more ignitions due to lightning and higher temperatures, both of which factors lead to increased forest fires. But these effects may be offset by lower wind speeds, higher relative humidity and a shift to less flammable forest cover over the next six decades.

The net result is an overall decrease in forest fire activity in the region. This may be counterintuitive, but a major factor is a shift from the lodgepole pine trees that are prone to crowning fires to the less flammable red cedar, hemlock and mixed conifer forests.

But because this decline entails a major shift in forest type, it would take several decades to offset the concurrent warming. And because our forests are so heavily managed, the time to realize these reductions will depend on the extent to which forest planners include climate change analysis and fire resiliency in their re-planting strategies.

Dr. Mike Flannigan of the University of Alberta has studied wildfire dynamics for over 30 years. He says wildfire behaviour is all about the extremes, with most large fires attributable to a few days of extremely hot and dry conditions (like the 30-30-30 rule).

As the climate warms, we can expect a longer fire season, more lightning strikes, and more efficient drying of fuels. This year we could encounter such conditions, since the warming effects of El Niño have persisted longer than usual into the summer.

On top of those factors, the warmer climate has allowed mountain pine beetle to decimate much of our forests, resulting in dead, dry lodgepole pine across much of Interior BC – though most of the dead stands are northwest of the Okanagan.

Dr. Daniel Perrakis researches mountain pine beetles and wildfires for Natural Resources Canada. In his opinion, the main thing we can expect from future forest fires is greater variability – a sentiment shared by Dr. Flannigan.

Data from the past few years demonstrate this variability. 2017 and 2018 were extreme years in terms of numbers of fires, area burned, numbers of evacuations, and total cost or suppression.

2016 was typical overall, but unusual in terms of having wildfires early in the season. 2014 and 2015 were unusually high in terms of fire activity. 2011, in contrast, was one of the lowest wildfire years on record, due to cool and wet conditions.

And of course, one only needs to glance at Okanagan Mountain Park to remember the disaster that was 2003 – BC’s worst year in terms of wildfire damage to communities.

The Thompson-Okanagan is one of the most highly affected regions in Canada with regards to Wildland-Urban-Interface fires. Most communities in this region are built right up to and even into the forest.

This is both a feature and bug; the ability to live in the forest draws people to this beautiful region, but it has resulted in over 350,000 people being directly affected by forest fires in the last decade and a half.

With the recent announcement by the regional district that fire hazard is now high and moving toward extreme, all we can do as individuals is to be prepared.

We should have an evacuation plan and maintain a fire break between trees and your house if you live anywhere near the forest interface;.

Do our best to prevent fires and respect the fire bans that are likely to be the norm each summer.

And, for the love of God, don’t toss butts out the car window.

More Okanagan Eco-Noggin articles

About the Author

Jerry Vandenberg is an environmental scientist and owner of Vandenberg Water Science. He lives in the Okanagan region where he is also a paid-on-call fire fighter.

He can be reached at (250) 491-7260; [email protected]; https://www.linkedin.com/in/jerry-vandenberg/

Website: www.vws.ltd


The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.