Lorne Taylor appreciated the value of water while growing up in the semi-arid region of southeastern Alberta.
When he became provincial environment minister in 2001, he made water his priority.
The water for life strategy was written under his leadership and became official policy in 2003 to recognize the social, environmental and economic value of this limited resource. Now retired from government and living in Medicine Hat, he has seen that landmark work ebb and flow like the prairie rivers.
Cabinet renewed the strategy in 2009, and while parts of the concept have been initiated, others are lagging, partly because of budget constraints. The government spent money on infrastructure to benefit people but less attention has been paid to environmental and economic uses of water.
“In this strategy, the government has done a good job for people because that is infrastructure. If you invest in infrastructure it gets you votes and it gets you re-elected,” he said in an interview during the recent Canadian Water Summit in Calgary.
“If you invest in water for the environment and for the economy, it is not as obvious,” he said.
“In my mind, that has been the weakness in the water strategy.”
Many good ideas have been held back because of chronic underfunding. Much of the provincial budget is directed to social needs like health and education.
“Environment gets a lot of criticism, but a lot of the criticism is unwarranted because they don’t have the resources to do what they need to do,” he said.
He favours a public-private partnership to fund research for better water management.
Twelve chief executive officers from leading oil and gas companies involved in the Alberta oilsands project recently formed a partnership to share information among themselves about improved environmental performance in the region.
They will not fund research projects but will exchange information on best practices and monitoring water efficiency results among themselves, said Dan Wicklum, CEO of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance.
Taylor hopes these groups and other major users come to appreciate the value of water. Without it, no economic or agricultural activity can happen.
“Until we understand the true value of water, I think we can have all the nice discussions we want but until we understand that, I don’t think a lot of these discussions will progress,” he said.
The value of water is a hard concept to sell because most Canadians do not face shortages or quality problems like other parts of the world.
About 2.7 billion people confront severe scarcity at least one month per year. About $35 to $40 trillion is needed for urgent water infrastructure upgrades around the world.
“Water is extremely important to everything that we do and the bad news is we don’t have a clue how to quantify this,” said Nicholas Parker, chair of the Blue Economy initiative.
The initiative is a collaboration of the Royal Bank of Canada, the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation and the Canadian Water Network to change how the public talks about water.
A report the initiative published last fall estimated that water contributes $8 to $23 billion to the domestic economy, he said at the water summit.
“That is probably grossly underestimated, given the embedded nature of water,” he said.
Canada does not directly export water, but it is the world’s second largest exporter of embedded water in food and other goods.
Canada is comfortable and so it has been slow to act when it should be a leader in water stewardship, said Parker.
The federal government called for a national water policy 25 years ago but little has happened, partly because of budget cuts and the difficulty in pulling together numerous jurisdictions and authorities.
The concept of a national water policy was revived when the Canadian Water Resources Association commissioned researchers to develop a strategy in September 2010.
A working group with representatives from numerous organizations joined to develop a made in Canada strategy, said David Marshall, chair of the Water Resources Association.
The group released an action plan at the beginning of this year following a forum that explored water governance, pricing and water use data.
It agreed a national strategy needs collaboration and financial support of about $1 million to engage Canadians in the concept.
Recent polls showed Canadians continue to believe that fresh water is Canada’s most important natural resource, which is far ahead of forestry, agriculture, oil, fisheries, metal and coal.