This is part of a series examining the health repercussions for Canadians of a changing climate. Today's topic: Water quality. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change points to a decline in water quality in Canada due to the combined impacts of climate change and development, with floods enhancing the potential for increased sediment and pollutants to enter water supplies, and extreme precipitation leading to sewer-system overflow.
When Ellen Alston fled her home in southern Alberta it was to escape something she never thought she'd fear – drinking water.
"If my husband and I had stayed on that property we would have died. Absolutely, case closed," she said. "We just grabbed our suitcases and got the hell out of there."
Alston believes the well water on her rural property was polluted by E. coli from horse manure on land nearby.
Water tainted by agricultural runoff is an old concern in rural Canada, but one that is becoming increasingly worrisome as the climate changes. Extreme weather events, such as sudden deluges and floods, increase the flow of pollutants into surface waters. Extended dry periods cause industrial and organic pollutants to build up on the land – then an intense rainstorm can wash it all at once into watersheds. Those storms also cause floods and erosion, which can overwhelm water-filtration systems. At the same time, river flows are declining and water is residing longer in lakes, concentrating pollutants.
The results, being seen across Canada, are increasingly tainted aquifers and nutrient-enriched lakes or drinking reservoirs where toxic algae growth is occurring – even in once pristine water bodies such as those that supply Metro Vancouver.
Environmental scientists say deteriorating water quality is a looming crisis and a national strategy is needed to get all levels of government working together. There is, they say, no running away from a problem of such scope.
Alston thought she'd found an idyllic spot in the country when she moved into a new home near De Winton, south of Calgary, in 1997. Then, in 2005, a long drought ended across the southern prairies, and heavy rains brought the water table up so high that Alston's land was soon awash. It also, she now claims in a pending law suit against the Municipal District of Foothills, revealed how polluted water was flowing onto her land from a neighbouring riding stable. She complained, but didn't suspect her well had been poisoned until a series of health problems struck.
"It's now been three years since we abandoned the property, and it's taken three years to get any semblance of our health back. … I had pneumonia three times, bronchitis … my husband had major sinus infections. … I'm 67 years old and I was covered in acne … and my husband was covered in rashes," said Alston in a recent interview.
Her claim that polluted groundwater caused those illnesses has yet to be tested in court and the municipality, which in a statement of claim denies any wrongdoing or liability, isn't commenting.
But Chris Bolton, chief executive of Benchmark Laboratories Group, thinks Alston's case could just be the first of many to come across Canada, if governments don't move rapidly to address drinking-water problems that are being exacerbated by climate change.
"At what point do you start pulling people onto the carpet and saying you were willfully blind?" asked Bolton, who is a lawyer and businessman.
Dr. John Stockner, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia and head of Eco-Logic Ltd., has been studying the deep, clear reservoirs that supply Metro Vancouver with its highly rated drinking water. Even there – far removed from the impact of industry or agriculture – he has seen a deterioration in water quality.
"We are beginning to see the first glimmerings of blue-greens," he said, referring to a toxic algae that has not been seen in the cold mountain lakes until now. The levels are low, but Stockner says it is a concern.
"You have to be head-deep in the sand not to believe climate change is having impact. It's impacting oceans. It's impacting lakes," he said.
Dr. David Schindler, one of Canada's leading environmental scientists, says blue-green algae is spreading widely because of warmer temperatures and increased nutrient loading.
"It seems like the worst of both worlds," he said of the cumulative impact of a warming climate, increased development and extreme weather events.
"All of the lakes are turning into little puddles of green slime and, needless to say, people aren't happy about it," the University of Alberta professor said.
Asked what the solution is, Schindler said Canadians need to engage in a national discussion about the linked problems of water degradation, climate change and population growth.
"I think rather than debating hockey scores and political scandals we should be debating some of these things," he said. "I mean scientists can provide the data but they don't make the decisions. There's [got] to be a prolonged debate with business people, politicians, religious clerics, etc. These are not going to be quick problems to get on top of. It's time we got started."
He pointed to the need for better management of watersheds, such as an end to logging in headwaters, the reduction of pollutants flowing into surface waters.
For Luella and Jim Stephens, the national debate Schindler is urging can't start soon enough.
The couple (she's 65, he's 71) grew up swimming in Lake Winnipeg, where they have a cottage. But they don't like to go near the water in the summer any more.
"The blue algae we have now… is very dangerous. It could kill animals that drank it. It could kill a young child," said Jim Stephens. "You know when it's there because it almost looks like an oil slick on the water. If it washes up on the beach it leaves a turquoise stain on the sand."
Their veterinarian has told them not to let their dog swim in the lake during algae blooms.
Luella Stephens said Canada and the United States worked together to clean up the Great Lakes in the 1970s, and she's hoping a similar international effort can be made to save Lake Winnipeg.
"I think there's hope, but everybody needs to do their bit. If people keep talking and it stays on the agenda, change might happen," she said.
Much is already being done. Across Canada billions of dollars have been committed by governments to build new water- and sewage-treatment plants. But the upgrades are so costly many projects are put off. Winnipeg, for example, which is spending more than $1-billion on its sewage-treatment system, has delayed a $379-million project to reduce the amount of phosphorus getting into Lake Winnipeg. In Victoria, the Capital Regional District is proceeding with a $783-million sewage-treatment program, but only after years of debate. It recently faced a setback when Esquimalt rejected a bid to allow a $230-million sewage plant on the waterfront.
Two years ago the federal government established the first national standards for the treatment of sewage. But the program, which would require more than 800 plants to upgrade, has been criticized for its long rollout. High-risk plants have until 2021 to be in compliance; low-risk plants have until 2041.
Water experts say governments need to move faster than that, and to look beyond local fixes to the bigger problem.
"Turn off climate change. Stop. I mean what else is there?" says Stockner.