|“Water and Human Security: A Thirst for Survival”—30/01/2007
Part of the University of Alberta’s 2007 International Week: Beyond Terror, the Real Weapons of Mass Destruction on CJSR 88.5 FM - http://www.cjsr.ualberta.ca/news/news.php?s=sermons
Audio file (.mp3). Length 1:16:26.
Transcript of the Dr. Schindler’s portion of the panel follows below (55:32 -1:16:26).
(ERIC P. NEWELL) We’re going to finish up with our fourth panelist and I can’t think of anyone more appropriate than our own Dr. David Schindler at the U of A. David is an Officer of the Order of Canada and the Killam Memorial Chair and Professor of Ecology here at the University. He has authored over 250 publications. David has received numerous national and international research awards, including the first Stockholm Water Prize in 1991, the NSERC—that’s the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council—the Gerard Hershberger Gold Medal for Science and Engineering in 2001, and then in 2005 he was awarded the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. And just to put that into perspective for you, that’s right on the par of the Nobel Prize, so we are very proud of David, and he’s going to wrap up this very complex and broad issue, so please welcome David Schindler. [Applause]
(DR DAVID SCHINDLER) Well thank you, Eric, and I thought an appropriate thing to do to wind this up would be to bring things back home and look at water in Western Canada, particularly in Alberta, and I’m going start by dispelling some myths that we hear all the time. The media and our politicians are always assuring us how much water Canada has and I submit that they’ve got their scales wrong. Canada’s the size of Australia or Europe. What we should be comparing is an individual province in Canada to most other countries. If Alberta were in Europe it would be the biggest country and I would submit that Alberta is not water rich. Alberta is more like the Spain of Europe than a water-rich area. This map shows that. This is the average annual runoff in millimeters and you can see that for pretty well all of Western Canada and Northwestern Canada, our runoff is not very high, and in particular, southern Alberta and Saskatchewan [have] less than 50 millimeters of runoff a year. The reason for that is while we get three or four hundred millimeters of precipitation through much of that area, on average, a lot of it evaporates, and of course what doesn’t evaporate we tend to use quite a bit. That’s not very much.
The true measure of water that we can use sustainably is what runs off, not what is standing on the landscape. We do have a lot of big lakes in Canada, but as a rule of thumb only 1% of their water is renewed every year, probably less than that, and if you look at this measure, water per unit area, we talk about supplying the US. We have no more water running off per square meter than the US does. We actually have less than China and yet we talk about our self being a water rich country that is going to supply those other people. The reason we need to supply them is because they have really done a number on their own water and I submit we shouldn’t let them have ours. Let them claw back their own aquifers and water. [Applause]
Now I want to move to the vice I see closing in on Alberta. The first part of the vice is development. If you look at equivalent latitudes across Canada, you can see how much more activity there is in Alberta. In fact, a report being released tomorrow is going to use this night sky that I show here as a measure of economic prosperity in the measures that we usually use, so it’s a pretty good indicator of what’s going on. The other thing is this shortage of water. This is a precipitation map for the middle of the twentieth century. That is the wettest period in the past two thousand years or so, something that we didn’t realize until the last five years. As a rule, Edmonton on south has 400 to 450 millimeters of evaporation and if the landscape is wet, of evapotransporation, including released by the trees. You can see a good part of Alberta doesn’t have enough water coming from the sky to even supply that, and of course the reason is we have these free water towers over here on the western edge of the province that collect rain and snow and run it off to areas where we can use it and of course the aquifers are driven by that same area. This brings it all together, the grey areas here don’t generate any net water flow at all. Any lakes in that area are closed basins—they don’t have outflow—and you can see the tiny rivers there are—these yellow lines are the scale—originate in the Rocky Mountains, and of course the black dots here are centers of population and industrial activity. So you can see southern Canada in general is not a very water rich area, and particularly the part where we live is the least of the least.
Another jawless vice closing in is climate warming. This is how much it has warmed already, according to a recent paper that Bill Donahue and I published in the proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences last year. We chose these sites and we have about triple that number of sites for areas that don’t have urban heat islands. If you’ve ever been to Fort Chips airport, you know there’s no urban heat island there. Likewise Edmonton International doesn’t have much of a heat island. We chose not to use the municipal airport. But as a rule of thumb, two to four degrees is about the warming we’ve seen, most of it since 1970. Most people think, “Ah, that sounds wonderful,” but what they forget is that evaporation follows temperature. That’s already caused an increase in evaporation from lake surfaces and wet land surfaces on the order of ten or twelve percent. We had the Climate Centre at the University of Victoria run climate models. The reason there are these big hairs here is this is every climate model and every scenario of the models used and this model is run for the western prairie cities we analyzed. From down here in the mid-twentieth century around two degrees Centigrade, you can see the average of those models is predicting up around seven or eight degrees warmer at least. That is well outside the range that we have ever considered in the past, well outside the range that the friends of science like to quote as having happened 450 million years ago. We seem to forget we didn’t have a pampered industrial society that could be hurt by climate warming 450 million years ago.
A third jaw of the vice is something we didn’t realize until the last five or six years, and that is that the twentieth century was unusually wet. There have been analyses of historical records back for three or four hundred years, as far as there are explorers’ journals, tree rings, which is what I’ve shown here, and the salinity-sensitive diatoms that live in lakes, that accumulate for thousands of years in lake sediments. In this case, from tree rings it’s a very simple correlation: a wet year producing a bigger tree ring than a dry year. It’s easy to calibrate. You just collect the temperature date for the twentieth century and tree rings and go back and compare them and the correlation is excellent. The colored bars on here represent drought and the red bars represent drought that lasted over a decade. This one is the Dirty Thirties. You can see it’s a very puny drought by historical standards. The two thousand year record from salinity-sensitive diatoms shows that some droughts lasted fifty years and were extremely severe. Whether we get two wet centuries in a row, somehow I doubt it. I predict that most of you in this room, by the time you’re my age, are going to know what water scarcity is all about. What I see is climate warming, population and industrial development, and a historical drought. When those three things collide, it’s going to be real fun here.
Let’s now look at a couple of cases—I can’t show you very many in twenty minutes. This is the South Saskatchewan basin. It was of enough concern that it was one of the featured water sheds in the fall Rosenberg International Water Forum, which was held in Canada for the first time, and it was the first time that a Canadian water shed had ever been considered. Usually they focus on things like the Jordan River and water scarce parts of the world. The three main rivers are the Bow, the Oldman and the Red Deer, and I’ll show you a few statistics. They flow together here, forming the South Saskatchewan that runs through Saskatoon, joins the North Saskatchewan, which runs by our door, and then on to Lake Winnipeg. The headwaters of the Bow are the Bow and Hector Glaciers. This is the Bow Glacier in 1897. This is the same shot from the same angle, that’s actually the same tree, it’s just fallen forty-five more degrees, but a lot more has happened to the glacier, it’s busy disappearing over the hilltop here. Studies by Environment Canada indicate that no matter how rapid the melting is, that glacier can no longer generate more water. A lot of hydrologists will say, oh, it’s only two or three percent of the annual flow. We really need to look hard at seasonal flows. That little bit of water in July and August is the Bow River’s ace in the hole. The fisheries of that river are cold water species that need cold water with lots of oxygen. July and August is when the irrigators take most of their 70% of the withdrawals from the tributaries, and it’s when municipalities like Calgary want their water.
This puts it in perspective. This is a Google photo. This narrow little trench here is where the Bow River comes—the big one back here is the Columbia—and it turns the corner here and comes out and this area that looks like Agent Orange has been applied is Calgary. [Laughter] And this is what’s happening to Calgary. It grew this rapidly—these are actual footprints to 1998. Brad Stelfox has assumed that the growth rate will stay at 1998 levels and this is what will happen in the next half a century if it does—four and a half percent increase in footprint. This is Okotoks, which right now thinks it’s a town. It doesn’t know that it’s going to be a suburb within Calgary, a subdivision, and of course we have Banff and other development coming in to about here and anybody who remembers Cochrane as a cow town, try going to Cochrane now. There is not a rancher on the city council of that town anymore. This is what the irrigation statistics look like. This is 70% of the irrigation water in Canada and 70% of the water that’s licensed in Alberta. So you put all of that together and this is what historic flows look like for the South Saskatchewan River. This is a simple trend. This is from the same paper by Bill Donahue and myself. This trend line is an actual moving average of those. Right now in the summer four months, May through August, which is what’s represented here, it’s flowing at less than 15% of what it was flowing back in the period when records started, and of course our solution to pollution is still dilution, so with lower flow goes poor quality. This is from Alberta Environment’s own statistics. The only reasonably clear water sheds are these purple ones. Everything from here on around is moderately to heavily degraded or impacted. This is why they declared a moratorium on new water licenses in the Bow, and of course the good old developers now want Red Deer water to run into this basin to promote gambling casinos. Can you think of any more sustainable use of water? Of course they do generate more money than the oil sands, but I think it’s money recycled from workers in the oil sands. [Laughter, applause] The reason it’s so polluted is this is a manure map of Canada. This is from Statistics Canada’s own mapping and if you plot E. coli or phosphorus, the nutrient that causes eutrophication, it’s a hundred percent correlation, so this is why that river is in such bad shape.
We have problems with our lakes because all of these people moving here want a million-dollar lake cottage but they’re too cheap to do anything but put in a bad septic tank. This is Lac la Biche. This is on a class field trip the fall before last. This bloom is pure blue-green algae. We actually had to go into town and buy to tap water to be able to be able to pick the organisms out of the mud in theses white pans because we couldn’t see them in half an inch of Lac la Biche water and needless to say there’s big bucks being spent now in an attempt to clean this lake up. It’s going to be a several decade process.
Further downstream, this is the beach on Lake Winnipeg. Lots of big cottages here, too. This is Winnipeg Beach. These are blue-green algal blooms that blew ashore this fall. They were up to half a meter deep and the water quality was in the tank. I studied that lake in 1969. These are cyanophytes or blue-green algae. Look how they’ve increased in ’94, and ’99. The same person did the algal counts, so there’s no human error involved. World Health Organization Drinking Water Guideline doesn’t show on here because it’s one microgram per liter. This is for microcystina, a hepatotoxin. These are five sites in Lake Winnipeg. These are thousands of micrograms per liter of microcystins, and you can’t remove that with conventional water treatment.
The last river I’m going to give you a quick tour of is the Athabasca. The stars here are monitoring sites. This is an analysis that Bill Donahue has done and he hasn’t published it yet, but at the beginning of the recent period of record, 1971, these are sort of average flows for those stations, moving left to right is moving down river. This is what those same flows looked like—again, this is a running average—by the end of that period. You can see that once you get out of the mountains, those are all losing water like crazy. The exception, and the reason that even this station has more, is the melting of the Athabasca Glacier, and if you’ve driven the Icefields Parkway, you know that there’s a sign pounded every few years to mark the recession of that glacier. It’s about 25% gone now and by the end of this century it’ll probably be in the same state as the Bow, and of concern with respect to water in the Athabasca is the winter low flow. The lower part of that river doesn’t have much turbulence. It’s sealed under ice and there’s an oxygen problem at that point. Well if you simply take the records for the winter low flows on average and remember, this period had from zero to two oil sands plants, so this slope is not affected at all by oil sands use, this is where it’s headed by 2050. It’s generally reckoned right now, though there’s going to be a new study, that the in-stream flow needs in winter are around a hundred, so—problems ahead. And of course the projected use by the oil sands is almost all the licensed water. These are licensed water—they may or may not return it and it may or may not be in good shape. And of course, this is the Athabasca River, running along the oil sands. These are some pretty precarious sites with lots of naphthalic acids and PAHs and all sorts of other carcinogenic goodies in them. Maybe they don’t leak right now, but give us one of the “act of God” precipitation events that we’ve been seeing on other continents or an earthquake or something—I think we’re gonna see some real fun.
You put all of those pits together and we’ve got another Lake Eerie, just about the same size. Lake Eerie has pretty good water quality by comparison and all this talk of reclamation. For some reason Alberta Environment isn’t approving any of it. This is right off their website, taken by the Pembina Institute only a year ago. The reason they’re not approving it is there might be real ecosystems put back. They don’t have the same hydrologic function. Most of what’s destroyed is called wooded fens, it’s several thousand years old, it’s like a giant sponge that regulates water flows, sopping it up at big rainfall events and snow melts and letting it trickle slowly into that river system so the flow is maintained.
I submit that we’re ignoring a lot in water. I think with this upcoming development on the Red Deer—this proposal to take Red Deer water to a gambling casino in the Bow River Basin—we’ll see if Emperor Water for Life has any clothes on at all. I hear they’re about to strike a commission to see if they ought to violate the first line of the Water for Life, which is that water will be managed within its water sheds. Some politician seems to have forgotten that already. The other thing that’s common that I think is being learned slowly is that there’s been some confusion between advocates and people who have data to present, and I think that a few politicians are beginning to see the light and as a result there’s some hope. Thank you. [Applause]
Transcribed by Nadia A. Williams