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Groundwater is Canada's hidden natural resource. Rich with freshwater lakes, rivers, and streams, we take for granted that this same abundance lies beneath us. Yet, Canada's true knowledge of the state of its groundwater remains spotty and deceptive.

This is not an inconsequential knowledge gap. Nearly 30 per cent of Canadians – about 10 million – rely on groundwater for their drinking water. More than 80 per cent of rural Canadians rely on it for all their water needs.

We do not yet know enough about how much and where groundwater exists across our country or what its condition is. As revealed on May 28, 2015 at a Munk School of Global Affairs for a symposium on groundwater called "Security Underground: Financing Groundwater Mapping and Monitoring in Canada,"much of its behaviour under certain conditions remains a mystery still.

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Despite the ecological and economic importance of groundwater, federal and provincial mapping and monitoring programs are under-resourced. Of 30 principal aquifers across the country, only 19 have been scientifically mapped. It will be at least another 10 years before this process is anywhere near completed at the current rate, years beyond when a Senate committee called for this to finish.

Meanwhile, huge amounts of groundwater are given away to private users for little to nothing in terms of fees, licenses, rents or royalties. And too often, in resource development projects, mapping and monitoring the quantity and quality of groundwater is done after the fact.

At the same time, groundwater stresses are growing due to population growth and urbanization, resource development (particularly in the energy sector), climate change impacts, agricultural intensification and practices, contaminated sites, and more. These stresses mean that local groundwater supplies may be at risk due to the lack of knowledge about this critical resource.

Public concern about groundwater quality and quantity has erupted in locations around the country as a result. From shale gas proposals in Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to massive corporate water withdrawals in Ontario and British Columbia, Canadians are expressing anger and anxiety over government and industry treatment of groundwater.

Is groundwater sustainability a priority for Canadians? Yes, it is.

A Nanos Research survey of Canadians commissioned in May 2015 by the Munk School of Global Affairs Program on Water Issues showed overwhelming concern about groundwater sustainability and clear views on managing it. The research revealed five key conclusions:

First, 96 per cent of Canadians said it was important that groundwater use remain sustainable and not be exhausted by overuse.

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Second, 81 per cent of Canadians think it is important that public access to groundwater be given priority over private access.

Third, 78 per cent of Canadians are opposed to private companies taking as much groundwater as they need to run their businesses at no cost to them.

Fourth, 92 per cent of Canadian think it is important that there be more investment in groundwater mapping and monitoring.

Fifth, 90 per cent of Canadians want private users to contribute to paying for more groundwater mapping and monitoring with 53 per cent saying this investment should be a combination of more government funding and more private company payments through water royalties.

All this suggests an underlying expectation among Canadians that groundwater is a public resource and needs to be managed accordingly. Unlike other natural resources, the essentiality of water to life drowns out other arguments favouring a laissez-faire approach to it. However, like most other industrialized nations, Canada has nothing akin to public trust law to guide government policy and judicial decisions on groundwater management. The essence of public trust law is to preserve public access to important resources such as water, and conserve these resources for the use of the public now and into the future.

We need a new approach if we are to truly make progress on enhanced and expanded groundwater mapping, monitoring and management. Governments need to 'up their game' on how much they invest in these activities, and to view groundwater as part of Canada's natural security. The private sector must contribute more financially to make this happen. Collectively, we need to build better governance mechanisms to gain a stronger understanding of groundwater and create higher, more consistent standards for mapping, monitoring and protection across the country.

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Secure, stable funding of groundwater mapping and monitoring is required. This can be done through new financing systems of water royalties on companies and dedicated government funding. This debate needs to happen in Canada now.

Mark Twain reportedly noted that "Whisky's for drinking. Water is for fighting over."

Canada's blessed abundance of this resource should not blind us to the need to make sure that in the case of groundwater, it never comes to this choice.

David McLaughlin is former president and CEO of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy; Ralph Pentland is former principal author of Canada's Federal Water Policy; Adèle Hurley is director, Program on Water Issues, Munk School of Global Affairs

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