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Looking Back at Federal Freshwater Leadership

Ralph Pentland & Richard Farthing-Nichol   |   March 2020

Image by Frantzou Fleurine

Nearly 13 years ago, a diverse group of water experts came together out of deep concern for Canada’s escalating water crisis. United by their affiliation with the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation, they became known as the Gordon Water Group of Concerned Scientists and Citizens. In 2007, they released Changing the Flow: A Blueprint for Federal Action on Freshwater, a landmark report that made a compelling case to renew federal focus on freshwater through 25 clear and concise recommended actions.

This is, in short, FLOW’s origin story. Changing the Flow successfully raised the profile of water issues across the country and provided concrete recommendations to address these challenges. Bolstered by this success, the Gordon Water Group renamed themselves the Forum for Leadership on Water (FLOW) and secured additional funding to continue their important work. Some members have come and gone since then, but FLOW’s core belief in the importance of legislative and policy renewal to protect Canada’s freshwater has remained the same.

As we enter a new decade, we thought it would be instructive to take a look back on what has changed – and what has remained the same – since Changing the Flow was published. We cannot complete this task with the rigor it deserves in this space, but we can at least take a high-level look at major trends and developments since 2007. The 25 recommended actions in Changing the Flow were categorized into seven priority areas; below, we provide a brief overview of each of these areas (recommended actions are indicated in bold). By looking back, we hope to provide historical perspective that can help inform water priorities moving forward.

1. Enhancing National Capacity for Freshwater Protection

Few substantive gains have been made in this priority area. The four recommended actions in this area include developing key federal mechanisms such as a national freshwater strategy and a national water fund. Changing the Flow also called for the implementation of a nested watershed approach and formalizing a process for better information sharing practices. While there has been little movement on these actions, the federal government’s recent commitment to establish a Canada Water Agency could provide the resources and strategic focus needed to significantly bolster national capacity and move forward on these actions.

2. Responding to the Impacts of Climate Change and Energy Production

There has been some progress mainstreaming climate change into water policies and helping communities prepare for increasingly severe droughts and floods. At the very least, these issues, particularly climate change, are much more prominent in public discourse than they were 13 years ago. Additionally, mounting costs from flood damage have brought insurance companies into more active roles. These developments bode well for moving toward substantive progress on these actions in the near future. Water use per barrel of oil produced in Alberta’s oil sands has dropped significantly, although overall production has continued to rise. The Alberta-NWT Mackenzie River Basin Bilateral Water Management Agreement, signed in 2015, was a monumental achievement that helps address some water quality challenges in this oil sands-affected basin, although challenges persist. The federal government strengthened environmental assessment with the new Impact Assessment Act in 2019, though the Act stops short of taking a watershed scale approach to assess proposed developments, as recommended by Changing the Flow.

3. Securing Safe Drinking Water for all Canadians

This remains an elusive goal. The federal government has not taken any action to legislate enforceable drinking water protection and progress on this front seems unlikely in the near future. Significant progress has been made on ensuring safe drinking water on First Nations reserves, although there is a long way to go on this action. The country still lacks a comprehensive toolkit for preventing water pollution. The good news is that federal funding for infrastructure renewal has been fairly robust, including funding streams such as the Investing in Canada Plan that specifically earmark funds for water and green infrastructure.

4. Protecting Aquatic Ecosystems and Aboriginal Water Rights

Much more action needs to be undertaken to enhance federal protection of aquatic ecosystems. Little has been done to support the development of frameworks to maintain instream flow needs, although organizations such as the World Wildlife Federation have been active on this file. Federal enforcement of laws to protect aquatic ecosystems remains weak. There has been some, albeit slow, progress on addressing aquatic invasive species through the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Indigenous water rights would be its own priority area if Changing the Flow were written today, which illustrates how much the discourse has changed in the past 13 years. But discourse does not equate to substantive changes. Recognizing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and striving toward nation-to-nation relationships is a good start, but a lot of work still needs to be done to realize these aspirations and fully recognize Indigenous water rights in practice.

5. Promoting a Culture of Water Conservation

There has been notable movement toward a culture of water conservation since Changing the Flow. While a national education program for water conservation was never established, there is generally higher public awareness about the stressors facing Canada’s water supply. There has also been good progress reducing water use both in urban areas and other major water use sectors, such as agriculture and thermal power production.

6. Preventing Interjurisdictional Conflicts and Bulk Water Exports

This priority area contains a few significant success stories. Most notable was the passage of Bill C-383 in 2012, which banned bulk water exports from boundary and transboundary waters. Financial support for the International Joint Commission has been relatively robust, particularly for programs like the International Watersheds Initiative. The federal government also appointed a strong slate of IJC Commissioners in 2019, including Dr. Henry Lickers, the first Indigenous Commissioner in the 110-year history of the IJC. Moving forward, the IJC could play a more significant role addressing current challenges such as Lake Winnipeg eutrophication and Columbia River Treaty negotiations. While a binding dispute resolution process for interprovincial conflicts has not been established, some key areas of interprovincial conflict – notably the Mackenzie River Basin – have seen significant progress. Here, too, a new Canada Water Agency could play an important role helping define a more comprehensive resolution process.

7. Developing World Class Water Science

Gains have been made in this area, but developing and maintaining world class water science is a big undertaking that could benefit from greater federal attention. While Environment and Climate Change Canada maintains some high-quality water inventories, this task has not been undertaken as systematically as needed. Relatedly, long-term investments in strengthening scientific capacity have not materialized. Once again, a new Canada Water Agency may be able to address these shortcomings. Lastly, while more could be done to facilitate scientifically-informed decision making at the local level, the growth of community-based water monitoring in some areas is an encouraging sign.

Thirteen years is a relatively short time in the world of legislative and policy renewal. While there is clearly much more work to do, there have been a number of accomplishments since 2007 that are worth recognizing. Looking forward, a new Canada Water Agency will be an important institution that could address many of the recommended actions in Changing the Flow. This is one key piece of the puzzle. As we advance the Canada Water Agency and other important water priorities moving into the 2020s, it is worthwhile to think about where we have been to help determine where we would like to go and, ultimately, how we can help ensure progressive laws and policies are in place to safeguard Canada’s freshwater.

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