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“The water crisis is essentially a crisis of governance.”

Source protection committees across Ontario are labouring on their threat assessments, the second of three phases under the Clean Water Act. Years and millions of dollars from now, each source protection authority will adopt and implement an elaborate source protection plan. But, in the ongoing fallout of Ontario’s unfortunate response to the Walkerton water disaster, the objective of each of these plans will be too narrow: protecting the immediate vicinity of sources of drinking water.

Watersheds have many “functions” other than providing drinking water, and they cannot be successfully managed with blinders on:

“Establishing limits and recognizing ecosystems as legitimate “users” of finite water resources are critical steps toward sustainable water management…[there is a] need for a broader dialogue on developing sustainability – the process through which ecological principles become embedded in institutions and decision making….”

Why spend so much time and money on narrowly focused drinking water source plans when what we need are sustainable watershed plans?

Some Canadian charities are  trying to change this. For example,  Pollution Probe published its New approach to water management in Canada – vision and strategy in 2008.  The University of Victoria published  At a watershed: Governance and Sustainable Water Management in Canada in 2005.

The Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation is funding a fascinating program on Watershed Governance, to encourage policies and programs that foster an integrated watershed approach that embeds conservation and demand management as the foundation of water management.

Ducks Unlimited and the Calgary Foundation worked with four provincial bodies and Environment Canada to create From the Mountains to the Sea – the State of the Saskatchewan River Basin Report (www.saskriverbasin.ca). More than 3 million people live within the Saskatchewan River Basin, an international watershed stretching over all three Prairie Provinces and Montana. The ambitious report and its maps trace the entire 1940 km length of the river, describing its geology, climate, hydrology, water quality, water use and ecosystems, and the human and other impacts on them.

The impressive Report ends by calling for integrated water resources management for the basin as a whole, recognizing that this will be hard to achieve:

Integrated water resources management cannot be achieved quickly or without difficulty. … Drawing a circle around water-related activity in a basin will inevitably result in a series of intersecting circles around water and other activities, such as land management, energy, wildlife, fisheries and so on. …

Traditional water management emphasized problem solving, but the solution to one problem was often accompanied by unintended consequences. … The water resources of the basin are finite. Meeting future challenges will depend not only on better scientific understanding and technological improvements, but also on institutional development that encourages integrated and adaptive approaches to water management. These approaches require legislative and policy support, appropriate science, monitoring and data, and a basin-scale or sub-basin- scale institutional framework that accommodates various interests.

In 2009, Ontario became the proud possessor of one (1) sustainable and enforceable watershed plan. Lake Simcoe and its Watershed was a 2008 compendium prepared by the Lake Simcoe Science Advisory Committee. They concluded that urgent action was needed to protect the popular, crowded lake just north of Toronto. The province responded with a one-of-a-kind statute, the Lake Simcoe Protection Act, plus a special regulation on phosphorus in municipal effluent.

Because the Lake Simcoe watershed is located within Ontario, the Act allowed the provincial Cabinet to establish and enforce a Lake Simcoe Protection Plan for the entire watershed: http://www.ene.gov.on.ca/en/water/lakesimcoe/index.php. The Plan’s objectives go far beyond drinking water, and include:

  1. water quality and pollution,
  2. natural heritage features and their functions,
  3. hydrologic features and their functions;
  4. a self-sustaining coldwater fishery;
  5. invasive species
  6. capacity to adapt to climate change;
  7. scientific research and monitoring
  8. environmentally sustainable recreation, and
  9. environmentally sustainable land and water uses, activities and development practices.

The plan binds municipalities, developers and the Ontario Municipal Board, and prevails over official plans, zoning bylaws and most other legislation. The Plan may eventually be expanded to cover all or part of adjacent watersheds. Meanwhile, the Lake Simcoe Science Committee is responsible for monitoring the health of the Lake Simcoe watershed. A Lake Simcoe Coordinating Committee “co-ordinates implementation of the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan” and advises the Minister on resolving the many conflicting interests and turfs that collide over the Lake.Meanwhile, source protection committees in other watersheds labour onward, lashed to the single mandate of drinking water protection.

It is probably no coincidence that Lake Simcoe has Ontario’s first sustainable watershed protection plan. The Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority has done an outstanding job studying and advocating for their watershed, and building bridges with other stakeholders. The LSRCA received international recognition for its efforts when it received the 2009 International Thiess Riverprize (details at http://www.lsrca.on.ca/thiess/index.html). And, of course, it got its very own statute.

But Lake Simcoe is not the only watershed that requires such protection, and we cannot  reasonably leave the job to charities.  A good place to start would be federal or provincial laws like the US House of Representatives draft Sustainable Watershed Planning Act. This Act would promote full water accounting, increased water efficiency, better planning across jurisdictions and  more study of the relationships between human needs, hydrologic conditions, climate change and ecological health. The US government would provide funds for sustainable watershed studies and planning, especially to 10 regions willing to pilot regional watershed plans.  Wouldn’t it be ironic if Partners for the Saskatchewan River Basin ran one of those pilot projects. After all, the River runs through Montana….

This article was originally prepared for the January issue of Water Canada magazine, published by the graceful and kind Kerry Freek.

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