Water issues need to be addressed across Canada

Clean water needed for all

One important aspect of parliamentary proceedings that doesn’t get too much publicity is committee work.

House of Commons standing committees offer parliamentarians the opportunity to investigate important issues facing our country, put forward suggestions and concerns, and get real answers from the government.

Last Thursday, I took part in the House of Commons Environment Committee hearings into Canada’s freshwater resources. Appearing before us were representatives from Health Canada, Indigenous Services Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Global Affairs Canada. As you can imagine, the issue of freshwater resources is an immense and complicated—but extraordinarily important—subject, so the conversation was lively and illuminating.

Indigenous Services officials were, of course, asked why there were still 28 First Nations communities with boil-water advisories eight years after the government promised to fix the huge problem of neglect they found when taking office.

Most of these problems go back much further than eight years. For example, the Neskantaga First Nation in Ontario has been on a boil water advisory since 1995. While some of these situations face jurisdictional and engineering challenges, we can all agree they would have been fixed much more quickly in non-indigenous communities.

One of the big water policy issues facing the South Okanagan-West Kootenay riding is the renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty. The original treaty, signed in 1964, focused only on hydro power optimization and flood control in the United States, but much has changed since then. Climate change, ecosystem function, indigenous rights, agriculture and industrial water supply are among the new priorities facing negotiators.

I asked Global Affairs officials about the status of these negotiations, highlighting the fact this year’s drought conditions have clearly shown the need for new decision rules around water flow controls on the Canadian portion of the Columbia.

The treaty requirement to send water south to Washington State to fill the reservoirs behind dams there has essentially drained the Arrow Lakes this year, stranding residents of Nakusp and other communities far from their normal access points for swimming and boating opportunities, while their American neighbours enjoy a full pool behind the Grand Coulee Dam.

Longer, hotter summers are also affecting the water supply in the Okanagan Valley. The Okanagan has the smallest watershed supply per capita of any similar sized area of Canada, as it has a very dry climate combined with a small watershed confined to the hills on either side of the valley.

Orchards and vineyards of the Okanagan are an integral and iconic part of the local economy, but they rely entirely on an adequate water supply to irrigate their crops. As summers become longer and drier, the irrigation season expands as well, requiring more and more water with every passing decade. I asked Agriculture Canada about what it is doing to mitigate this coming impasse between domestic and agricultural water needs.

The research station in Summerland has studied both water conservation techniques and climate change for years and hopefully will provide guidance to farmers and water policy makers in the valley with information they need to navigate this difficult issue.

The new Canada Environmental Protection Act, passed last June, introduced the concept of the right of Canadians to live in a clean and healthy environment. Unfortunately, in that act, the right is confined to the protections of that bill alone and lacks accountability measures.

I’ve introduced a private member’s bill—the Canadian Environmental Bill of Rights—that would extend that right across all federal legislation and provide powers to hold the government to account for protecting that right. I asked Health Canada officials in committee about the other pieces of federal legislation that protect our water resources, including the Pest Control Products Act, the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act, the Food and Drugs Act and the Fisheries Act.

It is clear that without this broader approach and stronger accountability, the right to a healthy environment would simply be nice words rather than a meaningful protection for all Canadians.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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