Many leading water experts currently see Canada at a crossroads in the emerging water-climate crisis and believe that the creation of a Canada Water Agency could deliver water security if collaboration could exist alongside a common vision for the future.
Global Water Futures, a University of Saskatchewan research program designed to chart a path forward for Canada’s water-related challenges, hosted a May 13 expert panel discussion online to consider the benefits and challenges of creating a national water agency that would leave the status quo far behind.
A mandate for the creation of the agency has already occurred within the federal government, and many of the panelists agreed that the agency should be created in tandem with modernizing Canada’s outdated water legislation. The Canada Water Act has not been modernized since it was passed in 1970. Terry Duguid, MP and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada, described these opportunities to rise to water-climate challenges as a “once in a generation opportunity.”
“Water governance, water management, water cooperation is not easy,” Duguid told the panelists and webinar audience. “It’s a mandate, a commitment, and an important one,” he added. “But we are moving forward.”
Global Water Futures has released a white paper on water security that suggests the emerging water crisis consists of three primary issues: inadequate source water management that is undermining public confidence in the provision of basic human rights; degraded water quality and habitat loss that is undermining the ecological integrity of waters; and lastly, intensifying floods and droughts that are escalating the costs to the Canadian economy.
Panelist and director of Global Water Futures, John Pomeroy, said that recent Canadian memory is filled with challenges where a national agency could have provided guidance and assistance, from ice jam flooding in Alberta, to extreme rainfall and the warming of Canada’s North.
“We’re in the rapids right now and it’s going to take expert canoeing to get through this,” Pomeroy told the panel. “We’re going to need an extremely good system to get through the challenges that our water cycle will be throwing at us over the century,” he added.
Global Water Futures has recommended that the Canada Water Agency should be anchored by two major units from Environment and Climate Change Canada: the National Hydrological Service (NHS) and the Water Science and Technology Directorate (WST). In addition to the NHS and WST, a cross-departmental review will identify key water units from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Natural Resources Canada, and other federal departments that should be brought together under the new agency.
Shawn Marshall, a departmental science advisor with Environment and Climate Change Canada, noted that in order for the agency to get off the ground, a lot of coordination will be required at the federal level.
“We need some strong vision in terms of water as a precious and changing resource,” said Marshall, noting that some of the many agencies involved in the creation would need to be “nimble” and “adaptive”.
In agreement with all panelists, Sandra Cooke, director of the Canadian Municipal Water Consortium, said that collaboration will be key, but that the mission will need a framing and a set of guiding principles around that collaboration.
“It’s not just a matter of putting four governments in a room,” said Cooke, who went on to explain challenges around water at the municipal level. “I think the challenges our municipalities have is balancing the need for protecting our water resources, and using them wisely, and then spending their infrastructure and operational maintenance costs in a wise manner as well,” she said.
Panelist Merrell-Ann Phare, the executive director of the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources, said she hoped that establishing a Canada Water Agency could be critical for integrating Indigenous world visions and providing tools to fully resolve outstanding First Nations water issues.
Dimple Roy, director of water management for the International Institute for Sustainable Development, told the panel that “data scarcity is one of the most critical issues we have,” and hoped that a new Canada Water Agency could go a long way towards closing some data gaps. She praised the work of The Gordon Foundation in creating a new open-access online hub that allows people to find freshwater data and track changes to Lake Winnipeg’s health.