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ADÈLE HURLEY

ADÈLE HURLEY

Adèle Hurley

Let’s make groundwater an issue of national security Add to ...

Adèle Hurley is the director of Program on Water Issues at the Munk School of Global Affairs

The year 2015 was the hottest year on this planet in recorded history. Drought, heat waves and forest fires were all symptoms of rising average temperatures in North America.

Temperature records invite Canadians to rethink the importance of groundwater. The resource is extensively used by communities, industries and farmers. It sustains rivers and wetlands, plays a key role in replenishing surface water systems and provides resilience in times of unpredictable weather.

The impacts of climate change are highlighting the strategic importance of groundwater in this country. As most Californians appreciate, groundwater, like money in the bank, can sustain societies through lean times of little precipitation. Canadians instinctively understand this.

According to a recent Nanos poll, a majority of Canadians not only view the essential resource as a public commons, but want to see this so-called “hidden treasure” carefully mapped, monitored and protected. They oppose allowing private companies to take as much groundwater as they need to run their businesses at no cost.

Public concern reflects, in part, the public’s dependence on the resource. About 10 million Canadians depend on groundwater for their domestic use. In Ontario alone, nearly 30 per cent of the province’s residents obtain their drinking water from the ground. The nation’s grocery stores would be bare without meat and vegetables sustained by groundwater. These realities help to explain why so many Canadians recognize groundwater as a precious ecological service that keeps rivers, wetlands, municipalities and farming communities in good health.

But on the national stage, groundwater remains an undervalued and neglected resource. To date, only 19 of the country’s 30 so-called “key aquifers” have been properly mapped. And this federal project, key to understanding groundwater behaviour, flows, levels and vulnerabilities, likely won’t be finished for another decade. In the meantime, provinces largely give away this unmapped resource to foreign-owned bitumen miners, multinational water bottlers and water-hungry shale gas fracking companies for little to nothing in terms of fees, rents or royalties.

In many parts of the country, long-term monitoring of vital aquifers is almost non-existent. The governments of British Columbia and Alberta, for example, permit oil and gas companies to fracture shale in regions where groundwater hasn’t been properly quantified, contrary to recommendations made by the country’s environment ministers as far back as 2002. The government of the Northwest Territories is poised to permit fracking in the permafrost, where no groundwater mapping has been done.

To date, no regulatory body in Canada has set up a rigorous program to track methane and other contaminants in shallow and deep groundwater in areas of intense hydrocarbon drilling. Yet science shows us that all oil and gas well casings leak over time and that these leaking wells serve as pathways for contaminants that can put groundwater at risk for thousands of years.

Energy companies can also legally hide groundwater contamination by giving well owners cash for damages and having them sign non-disclosure agreements. Hundreds of such agreements have been signed in Alberta.

At the national level, it is time to close the gaps on basic groundwater science and reset the annual reporting responsibilities of Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) for mapping and monitoring of the country’s aquifers. Enhanced mapping and monitoring is needed to protect and sustain the resource and understand the cumulative impacts of human use and climate change. For this, governments need stable, transparent funding.

A recent paper prepared by David McLaughlin, former head of the National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy, recommended that provincial governments charge groundwater users a specific levy or royalty. He argued that this dedicated groundwater levy should be used to fund mapping and monitoring programs run by independent groundwater authorities. It’s time to launch such programs now.

But more than funding is needed. There is no point inventorying groundwater if governments continue to allow polluters to cover up contamination and other abuses with non-disclosure agreements.

Climate change is breaking temperature records, affecting our water resources and contributing to economic volatility. Investment in the protection of groundwater is a form of national security. Like much in life, this security comes with a price.

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