Water, Water, Everywhere
I wrote this article in 2008. It was published in 2009. That is six years ago, and some things have changed – for instance, the bureaucracy in charge of our water resources in Saskatchewan has a new name (The Water Security Agency) and a slightly broader mandate. The old problems remain, however, and there seems to be no increase in public concern or government willingness to act.
June 2015 Regina was faced with a water shortage due to unseasonably early algae blooms in Buffalo Pound. There was much concern for the state of lawns in Regina, and most citizens seemed unwilling to comply with the required 25% reduction in household water usage. The lack of awareness about the source of the problem was staggering. Even news reports often ignored the fact that water pouring out of Regina’s taps comes from the South Saskatchewan River, through Lake Diefenbaker down the Qu’Appelle to Buffalo Pound and then to Moose Jaw and Regina and other communities. Lake Diefenbaker is also showing signs of an early algae bloom. Scanty winter snow in the Rockies and no heavy rains in the prairies this spring indicate that water level in Lake Diefenbaker will be lower than usual, leading to increased likelihood of problems with water quality.. This is bad news not only for communities directly connected to Lake Diefenbaker, but for those downstream from Gardiner Dam, and communities that rely on Buffalo Pound for water.
We should not be surprised. The Saskatchewan Water Security Agency had warned this could happen, when the inevitable drought years returned. Homes, cottages, recreation, business and agriculture each make their own demands on a limited resource. Not all demands can be met.
Like careless spenders, we have used the maximum amount of water when it is abundant and then kick our heels in frustration when the water gods withhold it.
The problem is not new. It has been decades in the making. Except for different names and dates, this article could have been written today.
Originally published 2009 in The Sasquatch (Briarpatch Magazine, Regina, SK)
“Water water everywhere,” lamented the old sailor in Coleridge’s poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
In a world beset by water shortages, that seems a strange complaint. Yet perhaps nothing is more frightening than to be surrounded by the one resource needed above all others, and to find it unusable. We Canadians are scarcely aware of that possibility. While other countries despair, we retain access to seven per cent of all the fresh water discharged by the rivers of the world.
In an attempt to get governments around the world to focus on water-related issues, the United Nations declared 2005 to 2015 the "Water for Life" decade. And not a moment too soon. According to UN statistics, one billion people lack access to safe drinking water; a staggering 2.4 billion have no adequate sanitation. Canada looks pretty good by comparison, with almost all urban households connected to a municipally managed water and sewer system.
But even here in this most privileged of countries, we are reluctantly learning that we cannot take water for granted. Gone are the bad old days when raw sewage or industrial waste was dumped in Mother Nature’s lap with the childish assumption that she would take care of it. From the Gulf of Mexico to the Alberta tar-sands, communities have discovered how easy it is to foul up a water system – and how difficult it is to restore it.
Every living thing requires its ration of reasonably clean water in order to survive. Once pathogens or poisons enter a water supply, everything that depends on that source, from tadpoles to livestock to human children, is affected. According to Environment Canada, “health problems related to water pollution in general are estimated to cost Canadians $300 million per year.”
In Saskatchewan, most of the water we drink, bathe in and spray on our lawns comes from the South Saskatchewan River. Over fifty years ago the Canadian and Saskatchewan governments joined forces to dam the river and manage the flow, creating the 225 km long Lake Diefenbaker as a massive holding tank. The water from Lake Diefenbaker is used and re-used. Farmers irrigate their crops with it, sailors sail on it and cottagers build their cottages as close as they can to it. It turns the turbines in the power station at Gardiner Dam and washes through the holding tanks of the Wild West Steelhead factory fish farm near Birsay. And, incidentally, it provides drinking water to over half the inhabitants of Saskatchewan, including both Regina and Saskatoon. Obviously, Lake Diefenbaker matters.
One might expect that we would be very careful of everything that happens to Lake Diefenbaker. Created by government agencies as a public resource, it would seem reasonable to assume that the lake has been continuously monitored.
However, studies of the lake have been sporadic and recommendations made decades ago were never acted upon. The fact that the reservoir is losing its pristine qualities should come as a surprise to no one.
Many factors play a part in the decline of the lake’s quality: lack of representation in government by rural constituencies during the last years of the NDP administration; fragmentation of responsibility for water between federal and provincial agencies – management of the dams on the South Saskatchewan River, for instance, passed from federal to provincial control in1997; or maybe everyone was blind-sided by the promise of economic development like from Wild West Steelhead. The fish factory’s website does acknowledge that “Lake Diefenbaker, a large freshwater body, boasts more than 800 kilometres of shoreline and is fed by the cool, pristine waters of the Rocky Mountains.” Maybe we actually believed that it would remain cool and pristine, whatever we took out or put into it.
In any case, a wake-up call came in 2008. A brand new Saskatchewan Party government seemed poised to follow through on a study launched under the former provincial administration and undertaken by Bruce Power, a company partly owned by uranium mining company, Cameco. In its preliminary studies, Bruce Power found the perfect location for its proposed nuclear power plant on the shores of Lake Diefenbaker, between the village of Elbow and the Gardiner Dam. It seems that this pristine water, fresh from the Rockies, was exactly what was needed for a nuclear cooling pond.
That plan has since been shelved. However, it was only the latest in a long line of proposals to exploit this water resource. As worrisome are the multitude of smaller schemes which have gone ahead, from factory farms like Wild West Steelhead to cottage developments to golf courses. They all make demands on the lake; but strangely, there has been no consistent long-term study of how those demands have affected it.
Although there has been no continuous monitoring, there have been occasional studies of the Saskatchewan watershed. One study that was funded jointly by Sask Water and Environment Canada was completed almost twenty years ago. The five-year, $1.6 million study recommended that Sask Water monitor the water quality and long-term changes in the ecosystem. It advised that the government introduce an informational program to help the public understand water management issues and provide a forum for people’s input.
The study concluded by stating that public involvement was crucial for the continued health of the watershed. Wayne Dybvig of Sask Water Corp told the Western Producer when the study was released that “one of the most important findings…was the need for interest on the part of the public on how water decisions are made,”
Nearly 20 years later, recommendations like increased accessibility for recreation and implementation of regional water systems have been partially implemented while others were never acted upon. Cottage developments such as Coteau Beach, Mistusinne and Prairie Lake dot the shore line. Villages like Beechy and Loreburn and farms throughout the Lake Diefenbaker region, once dependent on wells and dugouts, are served by water piped from the lake. But the program to monitor water quality and inform the public never materialized.
There has been no regular testing to determine changes in water quality or to locate sources of pollution. No consistent planning has carried on from one administration to the next. No clear line of authority for making decisions or taking responsibility. No information program. No public input.
Of course, the water is tested before you drink it, when it is pumped into municipal water systems.
Health regulations ensure that, most of the time, what comes out of our taps is fit for human consumption. The water is filtered and treated with chemicals so that no noxious substance remains to be ingested by unsuspecting consumers in Elbow or Regina. Maybe that is enough.
But shouldn’t we first of all take care of our source water? Common sense dictates that we take a proactive approach to prevent problems from developing. Maybe we have already missed our opportunity to do that for Lake Diefenbaker. Factory farms, golf courses, cottage developments are all built near or on the lakeshore. Most of that activity is good fun, supposedly good for the economy, purported to be good for us. But without diligent oversight, stringent regulation and a public willingness to take responsibility, there is no guarantee that dangerous toxins won’t leak into and affect the lake.
The village of Elbow on Lake Diefenbaker demonstrates the conundrum that we face. The town of 300 people is a popular destination for golfers, boaters and cottagers in the summer. Several years ago, the village built a new sewage lagoon to replace the old one which was too close to the lake. But, every summer, the combined output of the village and its summer encampment threatens to exceed the capacity of that lagoon. In addition, the Elbow Village Council approved four new developments in the past year (between January 2009 and January 2010) all of which are near the lake. The lagoon has become obsolete before it is paid for.
Examples like this have heightened municipal and village councils’ concern about the fate of the watershed. In 2007, several municipalities formed the South Saskatchewan River Watershed Stewards with the aim of protecting that water resource. This grassroots initiative may be key in focusing attention on water quality in the river and Lake Diefenbaker. But, lacking extensive financial and technical resources, this organization has done little more than ascertain common goals and provide a forum for discussion.
By the end of 2008, in response to a growing awareness of water-related issues, Nancy Heppner, then SaskParty Minister for the Environment, initiated a monitoring program for Lake Diefenbaker. Beginning in November, 2009, the water at various points in the lake would be regularly tested by technicians from Saskatchewan Watershed Authority. The plan stated that “the overall goal of this monitoring plan is to develop and undertake a water quality monitoring program to effectively assess long-term changes in water quality for the lake as a whole and for specific near-shore regions of the lake as issues are identified [iii].”
Those are promising words: that fluctuations in water quality will be monitored, problem areas located and sources of pollution identified. And the Saskatchewan Watershed Authority will watch over the water, making the Department of the Environment the stewards of the lake.
But remember those twenty-year-old recommendations gathering bureaucratic dust? And have you heard anything at all about that decade the United Nations named “Water for Life”? It’s clear that there is no substitute for an involved citizenry. It takes raging grannies and community organizations and constant vigilance to keep our representatives accountable. As Dybvig of Sask Water said back in 1991, of greatest importance is “the need for interest on the part of the public on how water decisions are made.”
One drop of oil can render up to 25 liters of water unfit for drinking.
You can survive about a month without food, but only five to seven days without water.
"Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.”
 Water diversion from the South Saskatchewan River system within Saskatchewan, currently includes diversions to the Qu'Appelle River and the Saskatoon South East Water Supply System, and has the potential for additional diversions to proposed potash and irrigation developments. There is potential that in drought years the low water supply may not meet demands. Water Security Agency website, June 12, 2015
 The new lagoon, while further from the lake, still drains into the lake.