In the last week of June, the Munk School of Global Affairs hosted a conference for the Program of Water Issues (POWI). Speakers who specialize in water and its relationship to industries, communities, and the environment delved into the importance of groundwater and ways in which to maintain the quality and quantity of the valuable resource.

Guests spoke in response to “Underground Intelligence: The need to map, monitor, and manage Canada’s groundwater resources in an era of drought and climate change,” a paper by author and journalist Ed Struzik which, as its title suggests, highlights the importance of groundwater and recommends ways in which to better understand it.

Groundwater supplies nearly 40 per cent of Canadians and is used for domestic, municipal, agricultural and industrial purposes. The majority of it is used for farmers’ livestock and irrigation, making it an integral resource to the community it supplies.
Although a renewable resource, there is the danger of going beyond its carrying capacity. Furthermore, oil industries, underground storage tanks, and landfills present the risk of contaminating groundwater. What Struzik and many others at the conference suggest are better methods of mapping out groundwater locations in order to better maintain the quality and quantity of groundwater.

“Without groundwater and surface water, we wouldn’t be able to extract a lot of those resources below the ground, communities wouldn’t be able to thrive, and agriculture would be in peril,” Struzick warned during the POWI conference. However, many of the previously supported mapping and monitoring initiatives have died off due to “bureaucratic disinterest.”

James P. Bruce (O.C., FRSC), an environmental consultant in Ottawa, and Chair of the Expert Panel on Groundwater for the Council of Canadian Academies, contributed to the conference insisting on the need for mapping and monitoring groundwater.

When the question arose as to how to implement monitoring systems, Bruce suggests reusing already working systems, “There are federal and provincial agreements for locating and measuring the quantity and quality of surface water in lakes and rivers and a similar effort would be ideal for ground water.” He added that industries such as the tar sands should, “pay their fair share of the cost in maintaining these monitors” as these industries introduce the risk of contaminating groundwater.

Companies such as Nestlé demonstrate the relevance of conferences such as POWI, particularly in light of its ongoing battle with the Ontario Ministry of Environment (MOE). Nestlé currently draws its product from groundwater in Hillsburgh, Ontario, a town about 80 km northwest of Toronto. The renewal of their permit last year included a parameter that they limit their water withdrawal by 10 to 20 per cent during times of drought. However, Nestlé appealed for the removal of this restriction, insisting that the decision was not under the jurisdiction of the MOE, and that such restrictions were not applied equally among all those drawing from the same water source.

“Nestle is in a whole different ball-park,” Emma Lui, a Water Campaigner with the Council of Canadians explains. Unlike many of the farmers and golf courses that use groundwater in the area, “the water Nestle consumes isn’t returned to the watershed.”

However, the Ontario government settled with Nestle, and the settlement will either be approved or rejected by the Environmental Review Tribunal as they decide whether the water source is one that should be protected for the community.

“We want the province to protect the people and prioritize water use” Lui says, adding, “the area is mostly rural so agriculture plays a major role in their economy.”

Although the Nestlé controversy serves to highlight the importance of groundwater for rural communities, larger solutions to the overall preservation of groundwater require improvements in farming and oil technology - those whose use affect groundwater most.

According to Struzik’s paper, “Groundwater supplies 82 per cent of the rural population, 43 per cent of our agricultural needs and 14 per cent of our industrial needs.” In comparison to the 10 per cent of the population that relies on groundwater for drinking.

“If you look at their quantities its small in comparison to other industries,” says Bruce. “On a local scale it’s important because they are using groundwater resources that other people in the community may need,” however, “on a broad scale, it’s not a big issue,”

With 40 per cent of the Canadian population dependent on groundwater, and the potential for higher demand during times of drought and climate change, it is important to monitor; however, for large scale solutions, there are areas of improvement other than the water bottle industry that can create a larger impact on our overall water conservation.

Additional Info

  • Subtitle: Monitoring our country’s resources
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