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This commentary is part of Headwaters, a series on the future of our most critical resource

John Pomeroy is Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change at the University of Saskatchewan; Bob Sandford is EPCOR Chair for Water Security at United Nations University; James P. Bruce is a former assistant deputy minister at Environment Canada.

Canada's water is in crisis. This is partly because of federal neglect of water and water-related climate issues. We face increasingly damaging industrial, mining and agricultural water contamination; increases in flooding brought about by inappropriate land use and development in flood plains and headwaters; and ever-more-damaging extremes of flood and drought brought about by climate changes to which we have contributed by changing the composition of the Earth's atmosphere.

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Algal blooms in Lake Winnipeg are fed by nutrients from four provinces and the United States and now cover up to 15,000 square kilometres, making it one of the most threatened major freshwater bodies in the world. At the same time, Lake Erie, which had been successfully cleaned in the late 1900s, has been backsliding into its previous polluted condition. International perception of poor resource management is restricting Canada's ability to transport or export oil.

In addition to the contamination threat, flood and drought crises along with related storm damage and forest fires are hammering every region of the country, as climate change demonstrates its destructive nature. Economic losses due to the prairie drought of 2000-04 exceeded $4-billion and the Alberta-Saskatchewan-Manitoba floods of 2011-14 exceeded $11-billion. The cost of one day of heavy rainfall in July, 2013, in Toronto was almost $1-billion. The Prairies and B.C. have been hit by drought yet again in 2015 and this time it restricted both food and oil production, resulted in massive wildfires and even affected recreational fishing.

These issues are restricting economic growth in Canada, limiting agricultural and energy production and destroying infrastructure. Appalling water-quality and health conditions are common in First Nations and other downstream communities, putting them on an infamous 'third world' footing – unacceptable in a Group of Seven country. Our federal response to this national crisis shows little foresight, as water monitoring and science have been cut over several decades, and we stand out in the developed world for having neither a national flood-forecast system nor drinking-water standards.

How did we get into this mess? There was a time when we had a world-class reputation for building our prosperity on superbly clean and abundant water and outstanding water science and management. Declining federal water leadership is due to policy choices and institutional decay dating from the breakup of the Inland Waters Directorate in the 1990s, and includes the decimation of federal water science and the withdrawal from flood-damage reduction, drought mitigation, fishery habitat and navigable-waters protection and environmental-impact assessment.

The federal government has essentially left water issues to the provinces. Yet more than 75 per cent of Canadians live in boundary water basins shared with the United States and most of the rest live in multiprovincial-territorial river basins. The lack of federal leadership ignores the reality of water flow and leaves Canada vulnerable to major water crises that can cripple components of the national economy and are already impoverishing regional economies.

Canada could rapidly start to address its water crisis by implementing flood and drought forecasting and management, and improving water quality and fishery protection and transboundary water management through advice based on enhanced water science and observations.

One way to do this is via a co-operatively formulated, comprehensive Canada Water Agency. This would improve our national ability to inform policy, predict and manage water, and provide advice and water engineering services to communities, industry, agriculture and governments, including First Nations.

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The experience of Europe suggests that substantial benefits can accrue from increasing co-ordination of integrated river-basin water management, and drought and flood forecasting. The United States has recently invested massively in a National Water Center to do just this. Australia has instituted science-based transboundary river-basin management to deal with its recurring drought and water shortages.

It is time that Canada joined the rest of the developed world by measuring, forecasting and managing its water to promote our prosperity, environmental health and quality of life and to address threats posed by climate change. The Liberal Party presciently campaigned on addressing many of these issues. Our new government could gain substantial credibility by acting quickly to confront the national water crisis through providing effective science-based leadership.

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