Boiling Point

By Maude Barlow

Boiling Point
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Passionate and cogent, this could be the most important book of the year for Canadians

We are complacent. We bask in the idea that Canada holds 20% of the world’s fresh water — water crises face other countries, but not ours. We could not be more wrong. In Boiling Point, ... Read more


Passionate and cogent, this could be the most important book of the year for Canadians

We are complacent. We bask in the idea that Canada holds 20% of the world’s fresh water — water crises face other countries, but not ours. We could not be more wrong. In Boiling Point, bestselling author and activist Maude Barlow lays bare the issues facing Canada’s water reserves, including long-outdated water laws, unmapped and unprotected groundwater reserves, agricultural pollution, industrial-waste dumping, boil-water advisories, and the effects of deforestation and climate change. This will be the defining issue of the coming decade, and most of us have no idea that it is on our very own doorstep.

Barlow is one of the world’s foremost water activists and she has been on the front lines of the world’s water crises for the past 20 years. She has seen first-hand the scale of the water problems facing much of the world, but also many of the solutions that are being applied. In Boiling Point, she brings this wealth of experience and expertise home to craft a compelling blueprint for Canada’s water security.

Maude Barlow

Maude Barlow is the author of 17 books, including the bestselling Blue Water trilogy. She is the chair of the Council of Canadians and of the Washington-based Food and Water Watch. She is also a board member of the International Forum on Globalization and a councillor with the World Future Council. In 2008–2009, she served as the first senior advisor on water to the Secretary General of the United Nations and was a leader in the campaign to have water recognized as a human right by the UN. She lives in Ottawa, Ontario.



For over three decades, I have travelled the world, learning about water, learning that abundance is not a given, and that the future of the human race and the species with whom we share this planet is literally dependent upon it. I have stood in solidarity with those fighting for water justice in their communities or trying to save endangered lakes and rivers from contamination, overextraction and corporate malfeasance, and I am always amazed at how far away these struggles appear to be to most Canadians when I return home.

For make no mistake, the world is running out of accessible water. On World Water Day 2015, the UN reported that demand for water will increase by 55% over the next 15 years. By that time global water resources will meet only 60% of the world’s demand. A 2016 report from leading scientists warned that two-thirds of the global population currently lives with severe water scarcity for at least one month of every year and almost 2 billion suffer severe water scarcity for at least half of every year. The water crisis could affect as many as 7 billion people by 2075. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon gathered 500 scientists together who concluded that our global abuse of water has caused the planet to enter a “new geologic age” akin to the retreat of the glaciers over 11,000 years ago.

It is no surprise that some parts of the world, such as Australia, many countries in Africa and all of the Middle East, are in water crisis as they had few water resources to begin with. But the crisis has suddenly moved well beyond the expected. Canadians would be wise to look at other traditionally water-rich countries for insight into what could happen to us if we do not plan, if we do not hold our governments accountable to build a coherent water strategy for the future. Brazil, listed by the UN as being the most water-rich country in the world, is experiencing such devastating drought in its southern region that 20 million people are at risk, and the city of São Paulo almost ran its reservoir dry last year. Muddy sludge clogged municipal pipes as residents turned on their taps. In China, over half the rivers have disappeared in just 25 years. The United States, listed as the eighth water-richest country in the world, has been experiencing a multi-year drought rivalling the Dust Bowl of the 1930s throughout large swaths of its south and west. In 2015, California had to impose strict water rationing in many communities, and neighbour turned against neighbour as people battled over compliance. While it is true that El Niño–driven rains have provided some relief to the most drought-stricken parts of the U. S., scientists believe that it is short-lived and that droughts in the arid parts of the U. S. will become both more frequent and longer lasting.

A perfect storm of declining water supplies, rising poverty levels and climbing water rates has brought what we have always thought of as third-world issues to our own doorstep.

Despite our shared mythology of limitless water, Canada is not immune to this, the world’s most pressing problem. We face serious issues of water contamination, eutrophication, overextraction, glacial melt and climate change. Extractive energy and mining projects endanger our waterways. Corporations are eyeing Canada’s water, setting up bottled water operations and bidding to run water services on a for-profit basis. There are even renewed calls to allow bulk commercial water exports to drought-stricken states.

Water protection regulations across the country are uneven and generally inadequate, and federal rules are almost non-existent. They are a patchwork of outdated, vague and even conflicting regulations with no coherent overarching principles or rational planning. Many of our laws were originally enacted well over a century ago for a country that was still largely rural and agrarian and whose population mostly extracted water for their own use. As our economy grew and industrialized, our governments updated laws, enacted new ones and set regulations piecemeal as situations and need arose. There was little understanding, among either the general population or elected officials, of the consequences of pollution, overuse or overextraction. Our forebears genuinely believed that clean water would always be available and that there was more than enough for every purpose.

We have only recently begun to realize how mistaken that belief was.

This book is a cry from the heart. It is time to abandon our erroneous beliefs that Canada has unlimited supplies of water, that Canadians have taken care of this water heritage or that we still have lots of time to do so. We need a strong, national plan of action based on a new water ethic that puts water protection and water justice at the heart of all our policies and laws. The path forward is clear, if not simple.


One: A History of Neglect and AbuseThe 306-kilometre-long system of manmade locks, canals and channels of the St. Lawrence Seaway is recognized as one of the most challenging engineering feats in history and boasts the world’s most spectacular lift system. The 15 locks along the journey lift ocean-going ships twice as long and half as wide as a football field, the height of a 60-storey building, allowing them to move across a vast expanse of water from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Superior. Opened in 1959 to allow international shipping and trading in the Great Lakes, the seaway created one of the most prosperous economic regions on Earth. For the first time, deep draft ocean-going vessels were able to come right into the heartland of North America, and this created huge new opportunities for industrial growth. Major manufacturing operations in steel, paper, chemicals and automobiles set up shop or expanded, all attracted by plentiful water and ships to carry their goods to market. Large-scale farms grew up around the Lakes, now more easily able to use the seaway to export their commodities to foreign markets. The seaway was considered an industrial miracle in its time. But like the massive dams built in the U. S. during the “New Deal” era between the 1920s and the 1940s to create employment and wealth, there are now concerns about the environmental impacts of this project. It changed watercourses and hardened shorelines. It required much dredging and blasting as well as the building of the Moses-Saunders Power Dam at Cornwall and Massena. With prosperity came unforeseen consequences — more effluent dumping from industrial agriculture; more blue-green algae; more sewage from growing urban centres; more pollution from factories; more destruction of wetlands, forests and healthy shorelines; large-scale bird die-offs and invasive species that would come to plague the Great Lakes Basin. It is largely forgotten now that for the seaway to be built, a number of villages and inhabited shorelines along the route were submerged and their people displaced, particularly on the Canadian side. Most of the lands and villages destroyed belonged to the Mohawk First Nation of Akwesasne, which also witnessed the destruction of its fishing grounds, wetlands, arable farming land and access to the river. Like many industrialized countries, Canada has used its water resources to promote economic development without questioning the impact on the natural world. In the post-war era, progress was seen as an unmitigated good, and millions were lifted out of poverty. Water, land, forests and minerals were so abundant it was hard to imagine any serious threat to them. Canada built its economic and development policies on the myth of abundance, assuming that nature would always provide. It is only in hindsight that we can begin to see the impact of industrial development on our water heritage. As a consequence, generations have dumped whatever waste we wanted into water, overextracted it for chemical-laden commercial food production and diverted it from where it was needed to sustain a healthy ecosystem to where it was convenient for industry and urban populations. We dredged wetlands and canals, built mighty dams, hardened shorelines, moderated watershed levels and modified waterways, once in the name of survival, later in the name of economic prosperity. Our understanding of the implications of such wholesale intervention in freshwater sources is slowly catching up to the damage we have caused, both planned and inadvertent, but the time for complacency is over. While it is true that compared to many parts of the world Canada is blessed with plentiful clean water, there are serious limits and threats to it, and too little is known for us to be complacent. Centuries of abuse and neglect are catching up. The First Threat: Water LossLakes and Rivers ~We have all grown up with the statistic that claims that 20% of the world’s water is found in Canada. This estimate is correct only if we calculate all the water in our rivers and lakes, but not all of that water is usable or accessible. Canada’s total annual renewable freshwater supply — the rain and snow that replenish water stocks and that we can sustainably harvest — is about 3,472 cubic kilometres, roughly the equivalent to the volume of Lake Huron. This represents about 6. 5% of the world’s renewable water. But 60% of that flows northward in mighty rivers, leaving about 2. 6% of the world’s total to the 90% of Canadians who live along the Canada-U. S. border. With the growth in population and industry, demands on this surface water are relentless, and water supplies within Canada are in serious decline. Statistics Canada reported that, between 1971 and 2004, water yield — the net income of water received in precipitation over water lost by various methods — fell each year by 3. 5 cubic kilometres in southern Canada, almost as much water as is supplied annually to the residential population of the country. This represents a loss of 8. 5% in just over three decades. 1 In May 2016, Statistics Canada released a preliminary update to this study, covering up to 2013. While the detailed analysis will not be available until the spring of 2017, the basic linear trend line makes it clear that the decline in water yield in southern Canada continues. Climate change will speed up this process. Lakes around the world are warming up far more quickly than anticipated, say researchers from a number of collaborating international post-secondary institutions, including Toronto’s York University. In their December 2015 report, “Rapid and Highly Variable Warming of Lake Surface Waters around the Globe,” the experts found that lakes are warming at a rate faster than either the oceans or the air. But they were surprised to find that lakes in Canada are warming faster than most, twice as fast as air temperatures and twice as fast as the majority of other lakes in the study. Lake Superior has one of the fastest rates of warming in the world because its ice is now either incomplete in most years or melting earlier in the spring. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that ice coverage on the Great Lakes declined by 71% between 1973 and 2010. Warmer lakes evaporate more quickly and in greater volume. 2 The Great Lakes are particularly vulnerable both to climate change and the growing demand from industry and populations. The bulk of the Great Lakes water is actually ancient fossil water, in place since the Great Melt after the last ice age. Less than 1% is renewed annually by precipitation. And if lake levels fall below 80% of their historic volume, that water will never return. In a 2014 study for the Council of the Great Lakes Region, the University of Toronto’s Mowat Centre chronicled the decline in water levels of the Great Lakes between 1997 and 2013. In those years, water levels in Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron were substantially below historic averages, reaching in 2013 the lowest levels since the measuring and tracking of water levels began in 1918. Water levels in the St. Lawrence River were below historic averages for 78% of those years. 3 While levels have risen with the heavy winter precipitation of 2014–2015, many scientists believe that these years are anomalies on the long-term trend lines and that water levels in the Great Lakes will again drop. The Great Lakes Integrated Science + Assessment Center confirms that most climate models project that evaporation from the Great Lakes will outpace precipitation. The Union of Concerned Scientists further warns that Great Lakes water levels could drop by another two feet (0. 61 metres) within decades. 4 It is not just the Great Lakes. Canada’s major rivers are also at risk. World Wildlife Fund Canada cites dams and diversions, overextraction for city use and food production, and climate change in its risk assessment of Canadian rivers. As an example, Canadian Geographic has called the South Saskatchewan the most threatened river in Canada and reports that it has lost 12% of its flow in the last century due to overextraction. Many of the country’s large free-flowing rivers such as the Skeena, the Athabasca and the Mackenzie will soon follow if we do not take immediate action, says WWF. 5The Peace-Athabasca Delta in northern Alberta is one of North America’s most vibrant ecosystems, home to as many as a million birds and the world’s largest free-roaming bison herd. In 2013, environmental journalist Ed Struzik reported that the delta is “drying out” from alpine and boreal forest warming and from diversion for tar sands mining, an industry that currently withdraws about 170 million cubic metres of freshwater annually from the Athabasca River to drive operations. There are also plans to build more hydroelectric dams on the Peace River. The controversial Site C dam would flood as much as 100 square kilometres of boreal forest and restrict river flows downstream and has been the target of passionate protests. 6 Site C would submerge 78 First Nations heritage sites, including burial grounds and places of cultural and spiritual significance. Treaty 8 member Helen Knott said she is not a typical protester, but a visible reminder of her people’s right to the land: “I am the great-great-granddaughter of Chief Bigfoot, who was the last to sign Treaty 8 in 1911. I am of his blood, of the original intent of his signing for what were a proud and fierce people, the tribe they were waiting to die off so they wouldn’t have to sign. We are still here. This land is sacred. ”7 Glaciers ~ Glaciers in Canada hold as much water as all that is contained in the country’s lakes and rivers and are a major source of replenishment for many watersheds. There are 17,000 glaciers in British Columbia and research by the University of Northern British Columbia shows they are all melting. There is perhaps no more breathtaking iconic Canadian scene than the Bow glacier that lies just beyond Lake Louise in Banff National Park. When I first visited, I was, like everyone, both in awe of its majesty and disturbed by the markers that showed its decline from a once-mighty ice field to the receding ice pack it is today. Running along the Bow River in Calgary days later, I was again startled by the exquisite turquoise-emerald colour of the water caused by “rock flour” carried from the glacier into Lake Louise and on into the Bow. What will happen to the Bow and so many other rivers at least partially dependent on these remnants of another age, I wondered. Glacial coverage on the Alberta side of the Canadian Rockies has declined by as much as 25%, and at least 300 glaciers have already been lost in the last three decades. John Pomeroy is the director of the Centre for Hydrology at the University of Saskatchewan. A fit man with an open, friendly face, Pomeroy has been studying hydrology across the globe since the late 1980s and is one of the world’s foremost scholars in the field. The data he has been collecting on regional hydrology points to dramatically reduced river flows across B. C., Alberta and Saskatchewan as a result of glacier loss. He says this shortage of runoff water could lead to drought across much of western Canada and affect weather patterns across an even larger area. 8University of California geography professor Laurence Smith is one of a growing number of scientists who have been tracking the disappearance of Arctic lakes around the world as warmer global climates dry out the northern landscape. He compared satellite images of Siberian rivers from the early 1970s to 2004 and noticed that many were carrying far more freshwater than usual. He believed that it was because the permafrost beneath the lakes was melting, causing flow surges. He predicted that when the permafrost melt was finished, the lakes would dry up. Sadly, he was proven right and in a 2005 Science article, he reported that 1,170 lakes had become smaller and that 125 had disappeared altogether. 9 The same is happening in Canada. In July 2015, scientists in the Northwest Territories warned of “catastrophic drainage” due to thawing permafrost at a remote lake just south of the treeline. CBC reported that the Northwest Territories Geological Survey warned that a flash flood could happen anytime on the lake, which lies 20 kilometres west of Fort McPherson and is home to about 800 people. 10 Scientists are building models to try to understand the impact of permafrost thaws across the Canadian Arctic for both humans and the natural world. We are entering uncharted territory. A team of researchers from the University of Laval has documented the dramatic decline in water levels of 70 lakes around Old Crow, Yukon, and Churchill, Manitoba. The team cites the lack of snowfall in recent years and says the drying of these and other lakes is actually visible to the naked eye. They say there has not been desiccation this significant in hundreds of years. 11 Canada is in just as much danger of massive water loss, drought and forest fires as other parts of the world. The distinguished Canadian aquatic scientist David Schindler said the ash-laden air and sepia skies of summer 2015 in British Columbia will become the norm in a hotter and drier western Canada and that drought is here to stay. He told a B. C. audience to get used to forest fires that make Vancouver look like Beijing and that this is the quality of life they are facing if Canadians continue to operate as if it is business as usual. 12 The Second Threat: Endangered Drinking WaterMost municipal water systems in Canada deliver safe, clean, frequently tested drinking water that Canadians can trust. But we lack adequate and up-to-date regulation to protect source water, and we are falling behind in pollution prevention, making it harder for municipalities to do their job. I have stood at both the Atlantic in St. John’s and the Pacific in Victoria, where local environmentalists pointed to raw sewage being released into the sea. How could this still be in the 21st century in our country? I asked myself. Thankfully in 2015, St. John’s completed its treatment plant and stopped the practice, and Victoria has pledged to follow suit. Environment Canada (now Environment and Climate Change Canada) reported that over 150 billion litres of untreated or undertreated sewage is dumped into our waterways every year. This is the largest source of pollution for all Canadian bodies of water, about four times the average flow of the Ottawa River. Roughly 185 million litres of raw sewage have been dumped into Winnipeg’s rivers since 2004 due to the city’s antiquated sewer system. While Halifax (only recently) no longer dumps its sewage raw into the harbour, many coastal communities still do. Victoria and Esquimalt dump about 130 million litres of raw sewage every day into the Juan de Fuca Strait, much of which lands on Washington State’s shores and has caused the state to file more than one formal complaint with B. C.’s provincial government. 13 The NAFTA Commission for Environmental Cooperation wrote that untreated waste contains detergents, surfactants, disinfectants, pharmaceuticals, food additives, pesticides, herbicides, industrial chemicals, heavy metals and other synthetic materials. The ability for even conventional treatment processes, never mind substandard systems, to break these down is limited, said the commission. 14 And it’s not just sewage and flushed chemicals. The pharmaceuticals we consume are finding their way into our water supplies. The CBC reported that researchers have detected traces of acetaminophen, codeine, antibiotics, hormones, steroids and anti-epileptic compounds in the Great Lakes at levels high enough to be “of environmental concern. ” And Environment Canada officials told a Senate committee hearing that more than 165 individual pharmaceuticals and personal care products have been identified in water samples. 15 The amount of chemicals that our bodies can safely process is a hotly debated subject. How much is too much? Which chemicals are the most toxic to us and other species? How well are our regulatory agencies keeping up with the tsunami of new chemicals entering Canada in new products? What decisions should we ask our governments to take when the long-term effects of many chemicals are still unknown?In their highly informative 2013 book, Down the Drain: How We Are Failing to Protect Our Water Resources, Ralph Pentland and Chris Wood note that the number of distinct chemical compounds in commercial use in North America may run to as many as 100,000, and they estimate that Canada produces or imports at least 1 trillion kilograms of chemicals every year. They note that in 2012, the Council of Canadian Academies called together a panel of experts to review how federal scientists reach their determinations for assessing and regulating potentially dangerous chemicals. The panel reported that toxicity data are missing for 87% of chemicals on the Canadian market. The authors warn that the level of exotic, persistent bioaccumulative or endocrine-disrupting compounds appear to be rising. Some, but not all, will be caught by more advanced treatment systems now coming online, but those that pass through untreated or undertreated systems are being released into the wild with possible serious repercussions. 16 Even with state-of-the-art disposal systems, municipalities must sometimes release raw sewage when there is an overflow problem. Rather than let this sewage back up into basements, the City of Toronto, for example, sends the excess into Lake Ontario, according to Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. The group reported that in July 2013, the city infrastructure was so overwhelmed by rain, it released more than 1 billion litres of raw sewage into the lake in one day. 17 While the City of Toronto has recognized these problems and is in the process of upgrading the Ashbridge’s Bay facility and building a network of underground retention tanks to hold storm runoff, other communities still lack the resources or the will to improve their waste treatment, and sewage continues to be a serious pollution threat. The Third Threat: Endangered Source Water Source water protection is as crucial for safe, clean water as waste treatment. It is important for the watersheds themselves, but also because keeping contaminants out of source water means you don’t have to remove them from drinking water sources later. As well, clean source water is the only protection for the nearly 25% of Canadians dependent on individual or small community wells. Yet there are many stressors acting on our source waters. Toxins and Carcinogens ~Every year, more than 35 million kilograms of herbicides and pesticides are applied on agricultural land, 84% of it on the prairies,18 and the chemicals have been found in water sources all over North America. Many are linked to problems with animal and human health. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup, widely used to control weeds. It is the top pesticide ingredient sold in Canada: its use tripled between 2005 and 2011. In April 2015, the World Health Organization announced that it now deems the chemical as “probably carcinogenic to humans. ”19 Health Canada was court ordered in 2011 to review its support for the herbicide in a case brought by West Coast Environmental Law and it released its decision in late 2015, finding that glyphosate was not harmful in the concentrations that most Canadians are exposed to. Many disagree, and the case stands as a seminal example of the battle to define how much exposure is too much. Other examples of chemicals once thought benign, most famously DDT, have since been found to be toxic. The David Suzuki Foundation, Équiterre and their lawyers at Ecojustice also took the federal government to court in 2012 to review 383 already approved pesticides containing 23 active ingredients with links to cancer and water contamination. They argued the pesticides pose a risk to the environment and health. One is the well-known hormone disrupter atrazine, widely used in Canada on corn, but banned in the European Union since 2004 due to widespread groundwater contamination. 20 In December 2015, Health Canada reapproved atrazine, again confirming that Canada has much lower standards for such products than does Europe. In May 2016, the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency released its first risk assessment of the pesticide and found that it is “likely harming most species of plants and animals in the U. S.”21Industrial Pollution ~Fracking, tar sands and the consequent oil spills and leakage are very damaging to source water. David Schindler, one of North America’s most respected environmental scientists, has spent years tracking the effects of the tar sand mines in northern Alberta. He reported that the 170 square kilometres of tailings ponds leach 11 million litres of contaminated water every day. Other types of mining pollute source water through acid mine drainage (the leaching that comes from rock and earth that has been disturbed) from exposure to heavy metals and the chemicals used to mine the ore. In just one three-year period, 2006–2009, reported Ecojustice, approximately 2 million tonnes of pollutants — including toxins such as lead and sulphuric acid, and known carcinogens such as arsenic, nickel and chromium — were released by mines in Canada into tailings and waste-rock dumps. 22 Plastics ~Microplastics, small particles of plastic less than five milli—metres in size, can be found in waters all over the world, both in lakes and rivers near large urban populations and in the oceans. Microbeads, a category of microplastics, are tiny plastic pellets found in sunscreen, toothpaste, makeup and body cleansers. A 2014 study of the Great Lakes by the U. S.-based 5 Gyres Institute found an astonishing 43,000 microplastic particles per square kilometre; near cities, the number jumped to 466,000. 23 Nutrient Overload ~In addition to herbicide and pesticide runoff, there is also eutrophication (nutrient overload largely from fertilizers) harming many lakes in Canada and around the world. So extensive is the blue-green algae on Lake Winnipeg, for example, that it can be seen by satellite from space. In 2013, the Berlin-based Global Nature Fund named it the most threatened lake in the world. And, during the summer of 2014, the city of Toledo, Ohio, shut down the city’s public drinking water system for three days due to the concentration of blue-green algae in Lake Erie. Manitoba scientist Diane Orihel, affectionately dubbed the Lady of the Lakes by the science journal Nature, has studied the presence of microcystins (potentially fatal toxins found in blue-green algae) across Canada. In her 2012 report, she identified these toxins in lakes in every province, with the highest concentrations in the cottage and recreational areas of central Alberta and southern Manitoba. Her survey found conditions “of concern” in 246 lakes across Canada. 24 Dams ~Canada is home to more than 900 large dams (defined as ten metres or higher), a number of which have caused serious mercury contamination of local waters and fish. When land is flooded for dam projects, vegetation that has been suddenly submerged creates habitat for bacteria that absorb any mercury that happens to be in the underlying soil. It is released into the reservoir waters and is ingested by the local fish. This is one of the primary means by which mercury enters the freshwater food chain. By the time humans, at the top of that food chain, eat fish at their dinner tables, the mercury has bioaccumulated many times, increasing in concentration. Mercury poisoning can cause blindness, reproductive failure and brain damage. There really were “mad hatters,” victims of the mercury poisoning that was the result of the hat-making process of the 18th and 19th centuries. Mercury poisoning from the massive James Bay hydroelectric project in Quebec was one of the prime legacies left to the local Cree First Nation when its members ate the fish from diverted reservoir waters. And a 2015 study for the West Moberly First Nations and the McLeod Lake Indian Band of B. C. found that 98% of fish samples in their territories contain mercury levels above the provincial guidelines. The fish came from a reservoir that was created as part of the 1960s-era W. A.C. Bennett Dam. 25 Methylmercury, a potent form of mercury most easily bioaccumulated, is especially high in Arctic marine life. Scientists from Harvard University undertook an environmental impact assessment for the troubled Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador, which, in 2017, is scheduled to flood a large region upstream from an estuarine fjord called Lake Melville. The scientists were examining increases of this neurotoxin in Lake Melville after another dam was built further up the Churchill River. They collected soil cores from the inland areas slated to be covered by the Muskrat dam and simulated flooding. Within just five days, they found that methylmercury levels in the water increased 14-fold. 26 In their report published in August 2015 by the U. S. National Academy of Sciences, the Harvard scientists predicted that increased methylmercury concentrations in the Arctic as a result of new hydroelectric projects will be greater than those expected from climate change. 27 As we collectively turn serious attention to clean alternatives to fossil fuels, we cannot assume hydroelectricity is a benign choice. Protecting air by endangering water and human health is not the solution to our climate crisis. The Fourth Threat: Ecosystem Degradation Source waters don’t exist in a vacuum. They are protected and purified by a complex filter ecosystem that includes wetlands and forests. By continuing to drain or build over wetlands and cut down forests beyond a sustainable level, Canadians are putting the waterways we rely on at grave risk. Wetlands perform many important tasks. They recharge groundwater and filter out algae-causing nutrients that would otherwise flow into major lakes and rivers. They provide and protect habitat for wildfowl, animals, fish and plants. Wetlands are also important groundwater recharge areas. Their loss sets the stage for significant increases in greenhouse gas emissions as the land’s ability to store carbon is reduced. Canada still has one-quarter of the world’s remaining wetlands, and an area covering over 130,000 kilometres has been set aside for protection. It’s a good start. But like many other industrialized nations, Canada has also allowed widespread destruction of its wetland cover. It has dredged it, paved it over and converted it to agricultural production. Ducks Unlimited, a conservation organization whose members are hunters, estimates that up to 70% of wetlands in Canada have been lost or degraded in settled areas. Wetlands near large urban centres are particularly at risk and have suffered the most severe losses. Natural Resources Canada estimates that as much as 98% of wetlands adjacent to major urban centres have been lost. Prior to European settlement, wetlands covered 25% of southern Ontario. By the turn of the 21st century, this had decreased to 7%. 28Scientists from the University of Birmingham studied an area of northern Alberta years after a wildfire had burned through a large fen wetland that covered thousands of kilometres in the northern boreal forest zone. They found that the part of the fen that had been drained for forestry before the fire had become a shrub ecosystem, no longer able to store large amounts of water. The part of the fen that had not been drained was once again a healthy wetland, storing water and carbon. Their research suggests that draining wetlands combined with climate change threatens to turn Alberta’s huge northern wetlands into vast expanses of bush and shrub, altering the province’s freshwater cycle and making it susceptible to the wildfires that are expected to increase in the boreal forest as climate change continues. 29Forests also filter and clean water through their root systems. They curb erosion and help to keep sediment and excess nutrients out of waterways. New York City saves billions of dollars by bringing in its high-quality water through aqueducts connected to protected areas in the nearby Catskill forest rather than using a chemical filtration system. Forests also capture rainwater, sending it through the soil and replenishing groundwater supplies. When forests are cut down and paved over, the rain often runs off to rivers and out to sea. Cutting down forests devastates hydrologic cycles. The horrific droughts in São Paulo of the past several years have been linked by Brazilian scientists to the destruction of the Amazon rainforests. While El Niño rains of the winter of 2016 have eased the severe water shortage and partially refilled the city’s reservoirs, many scientists believe that the water scarcity will soon return. The city has done little to curb demand or improve its systems as a result of the crisis. Rainforests are critical climate regulators. They store carbon dioxide and absorb solar energy, serving as a large natural air conditioner. They also act as “biotic pumps,” storing massive amounts of water, which they then release as water vapour. A mature rainforest tree releases 1,000 litres of water vapour a day into the atmosphere. The entire Amazon rainforest sends up 20 billion tonnes a day. The airborne current, or “flying river,” over the Amazon River holds more water than the river itself and carries the water thousands of kilometres to provide rain for thirsty southern Brazil. 30Or at least it did. Over the past 40 years, 20% of the rainforest has been cleared for timber and farmland. On the day before the 2015 Conference of the Parties (COP) climate deal in Paris was announced, Brazil released 146,000 hectares of the Amazon rainforest to private contractors for logging and deforestation. A team of scientists for the University of Leeds says that if this pace of destruction keeps up, rainfall in the Amazon basin will decline another 12% in the wet season and 21% in the dry season by 2050. 31 Antonio Donato Nobre is a highly respected scientist with Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. In 2014, he was part of a metastudy that massed the conclusions of 200 existing papers on the Amazon basin. It concluded that “the vegetation-climate equilibrium is teetering on the brink of the abyss. ” He believes that if deforestation continues at this galloping rate, the rainforest will convert to a much drier savannah, according to the Guardian newspaper. He also believes that the razing of the Amazon may be partially responsible for drought as far away as California and Texas, and that further destruction would have global climate consequences. There are big lessons here for Canada. In 2014, scientists from Global Forest Watch, the University of Maryland, Greenpeace and the World Resources Institute reported that Canada now leads the planet in the degradation of previously untouched forests. Using satellite technology, the scientists found that, between 2002 and 2013, 8% of the world’s forests were degraded — an area three times the size of Germany. Of that degradation, more than a fifth — 21. 4% — occurred in Canada, substantially worse than Brazil, at 14%. British Columbia’s interior, parts of northern Ontario and Quebec and big swaths of northern prairie have been hard hit with forest loss due to logging, energy development and fire. Greenpeace says that over the past decade, logging companies cut down an area larger than 1,125 football fields every day in Quebec alone. The boreal forest in the tar sands mining area between Fort McMurray and Lake Athabasca has been almost totally devastated. 32 If we continue to destroy and endanger Canada’s forests and wetlands, the burden on our already stressed waterways will grow. The Fifth Threat: Groundwater at RiskIn Canada, there is more water underground than there is on the surface. Dr. Alfonso Rivera, Canada’s chief hydrologist, estimates that Canada has about 70,000 cubic kilometres of water sitting within 150 metres of the surface. He warns that much of it is fossil water trapped deep underground in aquifers that are not always rechargeable. Canada’s Tom Gleeson, a hydrologist with the University of Victoria, led an international team of scientists in a study that was released in November 2015. In it, the researchers reported that groundwater is mostly a non-renewable resource everywhere in the world. Just 6% of the global groundwater can be replenished and renewed within a span of 50 years and most groundwater tends to be found within a few metres of the surface, where it is most vulnerable to contamination by pollution and depletion. 33 Environment Canada reported that groundwater is at risk from landfills, leaking gasoline storage tanks, leaking septic tanks, chemical farm runoff, livestock waste, petroleum products, industrial waste disposal sites and dense industrial organic liquids. And contamination is increasing in Canada primarily due to the number of toxic compounds used in industry and agriculture. Contamination can render groundwater unsuitable for use and the cost of cleanup is high. Once an aquifer is contaminated, reported the department, it may be unusable for decades. Some contaminants can still be in the system 10,000 years after they were introduced. Importantly, pollution of surface water by groundwater is also serious because contaminants migrate as groundwater passes through the hydrologic cycle. There is no systemic information on the amount of contaminants in Canada’s groundwater. But a study by ProPublica, a consortium of American investigative journalists, gives us an idea of how groundwater is being used as a dumpsite for waste. It found that U. S. industries have injected over 120 trillion litres of toxic liquid into American groundwater in just decades. There are more than 680,000 underground waste and injection wells, more than 15,000 of which shoot industrial fluids thousands of metres below the surface. “In 10 to 100 years, we are going to find out that most of our groundwater is polluted,” said Mario Salazar, an engineer who has worked as a technical expert with the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency’s underground injection program. “A lot of people are going to get sick. A lot of people may die. ”34Over one-third of Canadians rely on groundwater for their water supplies. Those depending on wells are particularly vulnerable to source water. Citizens on southern Vancouver Island have been waging a fierce fight against a landfill for contaminated soil that sits above Shawnigan Lake, the watershed that supplies drinking water for the Shawnigan Lake community of 12,000. The landfill company has a permit to accept and store up to 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soil a year in an old quarry. Assured by the B. C. environment ministry that the dump is safe, local residents felt validated in their concerns when, in November 2015, following a water overflow from the site, the island’s health department issued an advisory warning people not to draw water from the lake for drinking, bathing, personal hygiene or food preparation. Earlier, in May 2015, B. C. MLA and climate scientist Andrew Weaver unveiled the results of his own tests of the site and reported that he found heavy metal concentrations up to 19 times greater downstream of the site than upstream. These concentrates included thorium, lead, niobium, zirconium, vanadium, chromium, iron, tin and cobalt. 35 Further testing in March 2016 yielded better results, with contaminants within guidelines. But the testing shows that contamination can ebb and flow in source waters and concerned citizens still don’t know what exactly lies at the bottom of the quarry. On March 21, 2016 (the day before World Water Day), the hard work of the citizens of Vancouver Island’s Shawnigan Lake in opposing the contaminated soil landfill paid off. The B. C. Supreme Court ruled that the province erred in granting a waste disposal permit near the lake. The judge also imposed an injunction on the company that bars further importing of contaminated soil, although current contracts totalling 106,000 tonnes of waste can still be fulfilled. The group is appealing to the Department of National Defence, the source of most of this tainted soil. The political will to tackle groundwater contamination has been distressingly lacking. Perhaps the citizens of the Shawnigan Lake watershed can now press their government for full disclosure, setting a new benchmark for transparency in other jurisdictions. With the planned expansion of industrial development, particularly in the North, threats to both surface and groundwater are sure to increase and transparency becomes more critical than ever. The Sixth Threat: Growth at All CostsThe rush is on in the Yukon. Not since the days when prospectors led pack trains upriver, hunting for the motherlode with picks and pans, said the Toronto Star, has there been such a rush to stake claims in the Klondike. Most are working for a handful of large corporations racing to stake out vast tracts of the Yukon, and in one year alone — 2010 — stakers filed a record 83,863 mineral claims across the territory. 36 In 2014, the Yukon government announced it would open up a huge swath of the pristine Peel Watershed for mining, an area over half the size of New Brunswick. Shocked First Nations asserted this violates land claim agreements. They joined conservation groups to launch a legal challenge to the plan, saying it betrayed a previously negotiated agreement that would have conserved a much greater landmass and protected the watershed. The Supreme Court of Yukon agreed. In November 2015, the court set the planning bar back to 2011, before the development announcements. However, the government says this is not an end to the project, but rather a requirement for it to improve the consultation process with local First Nations. Intent on a more permanent answer, the First Nations and conservation groups sought leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. In June 2016, the court agreed to hear the case. As Karen Baltgailis of the Yukon Conservation Society told National Geographic, the plan would allow mines and all-weather roads for industrial development along rivers that are major tourist destinations. “Given that most of the Yukon is already open for development,” she asked, “do they not see the need to protect some large, last great wilderness areas?”37 A rash of mining claims has been staked throughout the northern half of Ontario’s boreal forest since the provincial government opened the area for exploration in 2010. Claimants are looking to cash in on the “Ring of Fire,” a $50-billion deposit of minerals spread over 5,000 square kilometres of untouched land in the James Bay lowlands. It is potentially the biggest resource development Ontario has seen in more than a century. Many Ontario conservation groups and First Nations of the area have deep concerns about the project’s impact on water, forests and wetlands. As Brent Patterson, political director for the Council of Canadians, points out, along with the threat to water from the mining itself, which would include tailings ponds for the mining waste and hydroelectric dams to power the operations, a road would need to be built that would traverse ancient boreal forest and intersect several major waterways. These developments would pose water risks in the traditional lands of several First Nations communities. “Beyond the northern reaches of the forest lies tundra, which supports one of the earth’s largest, continuous wetlands, and through which half of Canada’s largest dozen rivers drain,” said Ontario Nature. 38Quebec’s Plan Nord would develop a piece of its remote northern region twice the size of France. The original plan predicted $80 billion in public and private spending over two decades and included major forestry development, several hydroelectric dams and mining activity. Northern Quebec is rich in deposits of nickel, cobalt, platinum, zinc, iron ore, lignite, gold, lithium, vanadium, diamonds and rare earths. In April 2015, Quebec premier Philippe Couillard announced a slightly scaled-down version of the plan, citing a deep slump in global metal prices. He said his government would invest about $1. 3 billion in infrastructure over the next five years but still anticipated investments in the range of $50 billion by 2035. With development plans like these and similar ones in other provinces, the question must be asked: have we learned anything at all from past mistakes? If we have not protected the water heritage of Canada in the past, how do we expect to protect endangered waterways from this style of development? How do we alter our industrial techniques so that these remote areas can gain much-needed economic growth without sacrificing the environment? This is the crucial challenge of the 21st century, for we cannot keep extracting and polluting as we have been doing.


“Barlow’s documentation of the very real threat to the global water supply is important reading as Canada faces key end-of-year deadlines regarding new pipeline development and meeting the targets of the Paris climate agreement. ” — Quill & Quire

Boiling Point is a rallying cry — a critical call to action. ” — Herizons Magazine

“An insane road trip to the Canadian water apocalypse courtesy of the corporate forces of ignorance and greed, and a blueprint for a rational, prosperous and dignified future by the visionary prophet of democracy and sustainability. ” — Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

“Maude Barlow is one of our planet’s greatest water defenders. In this indispensable book, she brings her hard-won wisdom home, demonstrating that Canada is already in the midst of our own water crisis. With great warmth and precision, she also shows that by taking up the call for ‘water justice’ — so intimately connected to other struggles — we can start to build the society we want. This book has all the facts, forceful analysis, and moral clarity that Canadians will need to wake up and join this most urgent of struggles. ” — Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything and The Shock Doctrine

“Barlow concludes on a hopeful note, providing reasonable solutions that show how a ‘blue and just Canada is possible. ’ She understands, however, that while most large corporations will do almost anything to increase profits, the primary responsibility for protecting citizens lies with governments at all levels. Barlow makes a convincing case that both our provincial and federal governments are failing this fundamental duty. ” — Vancouver Sun

“Barlow’s documentation of the very real threat to the global water supply is important reading as Canada faces key end-of-year deadlines regarding new pipeline development and meeting the targets of the Paris climate agreement. ” — Quill & Quire

“Barlow gives us more than a wakeup call. She gives us a call for action — now!” — Canadian Association of Labour Media

Boiling Point is a concise, informative guide to Canada’s water crisis . . . Here’s hoping many Canadians read Boiling Point and demand the necessary action. ” — The Uniter

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