Friday, October 15, 2010


    I currently live in a temperate rainforest--or what used to be one. I live next to the ocean beside a park that is at or below the high tide level and only survives because of the massive amounts of fill that was trucked in 60 years ago. For six months of the year, we are regularly inundated with rain. And yet...and yet...for at least two months a year, this temperate rainforest does without rain.
Previous to moving back here, my family and I spent 14 years living on a farm north of Edmonton, Alberta. By the time we left, we had watched the land dry out and drift in front of the wind, like snow in winter.
    For most of the time we lived on the farm, the biggest problems were getting water into the house, and getting water out of the house. We had a dug well (as opposed to a drilled well), which meant that we were dependent on water held in the first thirty metres or so of soil. The first five years, I climbed down the well and scooped the dead gophers (technically, Richardson's Ground Squirrels) off the surface of the water two or three times a year. Eventually we re-dug the well and solved that problem. But in the meantime, we just boiled water and tried not to think about it.
    The water we drank, cooked, and generally used wasn't great--it had a high nitrate content--but it was usable. Unlike, say, the Athabasca River running past Fort MacMurray and the oilsands. But the Athabasca River only affects the Northern Cree of Oilberta, so that really doesn't count.
    I had never thought of there being a water problem in Alberta. There had always been water while I was growing up there. The winters had snow, the spring, summer, and fall had rain. And when you turned the tap on, water came out--as much as you could want.
    But there were a few factors that I wasn't aware of, growing up. Like Edmonton hadn't yet reached a million people, as it did a couple of years back. That glacial run-off did a good job of maintaining summertime flow in the North Saskatchewan River, just like it did in the Bow River running through Calgary. And the big one; that we were living through the wettest century in two thousand years.
    Alberta wasn't even a century old as a province back then. All our weather and water information was based on the century we were living through. We had been through six major drought events, including the "Dirty Thirties," but those events were anomalies, unusual, abnormal. the problem wasn't availability of water, but the distribution. And so the provincial government subsidized irrigation projects aimed at the area south of red Deer, and planned a massive water diversion project that would take the water flowing north and re-direct it south. Part of it for southern agriculture, and part of it for export into the United States. As the oil-patch became the primary political driver in the province, permits for water were approved that removed acre-feet of potable water out of the southern river systems to pump down played-out oil wells, forcing the last of the oil out and permanently removing the now-contaminated water from the water cycle.
    And even though Alberta elects its governments for multi-decade reigns, there was, and is, no long-term thinking about resource issues in the province. Especially water issues. There is resource "management," where fair access is managed, but never any thinking about whether water should be used in the ways we use it.
    And getting water in and out of the house is really one of the driving forces of civilization, like access to food and taxation. Here where I live now, in Victoria, there's a major fight going on over sewage treatment--aka getting water out of the house. In Alberta, there's agreements in place with Saskatchewan over how much water can be taken by each province out of shared rivers, but there's no thinking about how much water is needed by the river system.  We don't simply need batter water management in Canada, we need a serious re-think about how we relate to water. After all, without water there's not really much point to anything else, is there?

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