By Scott Harris

Environment North

For The Chronicle-Journal

The song Cool Water came to mind as I think of Canada Water Week, March 21-27. The poor, parched cowpoke in the song could only fantasize about that life-giving elixir.

Water Week will highlight the fact that water is life. As world-renowned Canadian photographer and filmmaker Edward Burtynsky states, “we can look for alternative forms of energy, we can develop new ways to communicate, but there is no go-around, no substitute for water.”

Close to a billion people worldwide do not have access to potable water. Thunder Bay is fortunate, situated next to the Great Lakes, one of the world’s largest reservoirs of fresh water. But even here in Northwestern Ontario, home to thousands of freshwater lakes, many First Nations do not have access to drinkable water.

There is a duty to keep it cool, clear and free of contamination for both our own health, and for the continued use of our children and the natural world. It behooves us to remember that less than 2 per cent of the Great Lakes freshwater is renewable, and hence useable, before we start drawing down on the residual melt waters left from the last ice age 10,000 years ago.

Water, air and soils continue to be dumping grounds. In Canada, 3.4 million tonnes of pollutants were released into the environment in 2014, over 90 per cent to the air. On average about 120,000 tonnes is released directly into the water each year. Eventually much of what is released into the air will come down. There is an increasing public awareness that such behaviours are putting the well-being of future generations at risk. There is also citizen action to address such threats.

Local Elder Josephine Mandamin has underscored the duty to protect with her walk around the Great Lakes, (the equivalent of half the Earth's circumference), to build awareness about pollution. Last month she received the Lieutenant Governor’s Ontario Heritage Award for Excellence in Conservation for this feat.

A huge success story was the recent grassroots movement to preserve the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) research station at Vermilion Bay. The ELA’s track record of identifying threats, as well as helping industry and government find solutions to water-related problems like acid rain and algal blooms is legendary.

A local coalition of environmental groups is currently working to raise awareness of the risks to watersheds posed by the proposed TransCanada Pipelines Energy East project. After a comprehensive review, the Ontario Energy Board concluded that the Energy East project carries too much risk, for too little reward.

A recent Royal Society of Canada expert panel report, the Behaviour and Environmental Impacts of Crude Oil Released into the Aqueous Environment, validates this concern. The report states that high priority research was needed in a number of areas such as the impact of spilled crude oil in high-risk and poorly understood areas including inland rivers and wetlands. Another research area is needed to update risk assessment protocols for oil spills including credible spill scenarios.

Last year, Thunder Bay city council supported a Council of Canadians request to make Thunder Bay a “Blue Community,” one that recognizes access to clean water is a human right, that the water and wastewater facilities shall be publicly owned and operated, and that the city will phase out the use of single-use plastic water bottles at city facilities and at municipal events.

Also last year the government of Ontario passed the Great Lakes Protection Act, which Environment and Climate Change Minister Glen Murray states “should enable us to protect and restore the Great Lakes, and ensure they can withstand the impacts of the changing climate and keep them drinkable, swimmable and fishable for generations to come.”

To celebrate your own appreciation for water visit ecosuperior.org for information on a number of activities this week.

If we are all watchful, and don’t take freshwater for granted, we can help ensure future generations don’t have to, as the song says, “face the barren waste”, where cool, clear water is just a mirage.

 Scott Harris is a board member of Environment North.

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