One of Canada’s leading experts on fresh water management says political leaders need to review laws and regulations that govern water use in the country.
John Pomeroy, the Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change, says federal and provincial water laws need to be updated to ensure that Canada is prepared for pressing water issues that will become more apparent as climate patterns continue to change.
“We need to co-ordinate and streamline our (water management) strategies at home,” Pomeroy told delegates at an International Conference on Irrigation and Drainage.
“Our water policies in Canada date from the mid-1980s … before climate change (was recognized), … before we recognized indigenous water rights and … before trans-boundary (water) issues became very difficult.
“We need a new Canada water security strategy, and maybe a revision to the Canada Water Act, to deal with the impact of climate change and extreme (weather) events.”
Pomeroy, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan and director of the Global Water Futures Initiative, said Canada needs to be better prepared for the water-related challenges that lie ahead.
When it comes to fresh water resources, Canada is one of the wealthiest nations on the planet.
But already there are signs that the country’s fresh water supplies need to be more carefully managed.
The retreat of alpine glaciers and changing water flow patterns on the Prairies are signaling the need for a new approach.
Pomeroy said agricultural producers in Saskatchewan have always been prone to the effects of drought and flooding.
But in recent years, the nature of drought and flood events has changed.
In the past, for example, most of the flooding that has affected agricultural land has been caused by the spring snowmelt.
More recently, however, summer flooding caused by excessive rainfall events has become more common.
“This is something that’s new and something we’ll have to adapt to,” he said.
“The list (of extreme weather events) … is getting longer and longer, from record drought, to record flooding, to record fires,” he continued.
“We’ve seen it all in the 21st Century, and we’re only 18 years into it.”
Agricultural production in Western Canada is already being impacted by changing global weather patterns, he said.
Warm-season crops are moving westward and northward into non-traditional growing regions of Western Canada and extreme weather events are exposing producers to greater production risks.
Prairie grain farmers are facing financial pressures to bring more farmland under production, he said.
As a result, wetland drainage has become more common.
Less water is being retained on the land and runoff is causing water quality issues in streams, ponds and lakes.
“You can see why farmers are draining … but when you drain that water off, it ends up in the river systems and probably in lakes and there are downstream implications that we have to manage.”
Pomeroy pointed to the Smith Creek water basin in southeastern Saskatchewan as an example of how water flows can be affected by local drainage.
Since 1975, the Smith Creek basin has seen a fourteen-fold increase in annual water flow volumes.
Precipitation patterns have changed in the area.
Annual snowfall amounts are slightly lower than they were a few decades ago and annual rainfall amounts are slightly higher. But the total annual precipitation has not changed dramatically.
“There’s been a fourteen-fold increase … in stream flows since 1975 but in the same location there has been no trend for increased precipitation on an annual basis.”
“There is typically not more water falling out of the sky, so why are we getting so much more water running off?”
Pomeroy said government programs should reward farmers and land managers who use sustainable land management practices, such as retaining wetlands and keeping sensitive lands out of production.
“In some cases, there’s a general societal and environmental benefit (to be realized) from storing water on the landscape, in ponds and sloughs,” Pomeroy said.
“I think farmers should be rewarded for doing that.”