Canada’s changing climate means more droughts, floods and storms—along with less ability to predict them.

By Robert Sandford

Robert Sandford is the EPCOR Chair of the Canadian Partnership Initiative in support of the United Nations Water for Life Decade. In addition to playing other roles related to water policy nationally and internationally, he is also on the Advisory Committee for Living Lakes Canada.

Wherever I travel in this country, the first question I am invariably asked is if Canada really faces a water crisis. To many, I will have to admit, the very notion is ludicrous. “How, in a land in which there is so much water,” they ask, “could such a thing even be possible?” Canada is blessed with more fresh water than any other country on the planet, and if we compute it on a per capita basis, with our sparse population, our water wealth reaches stratospheric proportions.

But abundance, in this case, leads to dangerous complacency. Water experts, as opposed to the general population, have seen the warning signs for years and have attempted, mostly futilely, to catch the country’s attention. They talk of population increases and industrial land use that put inexorable pressure on the water supply. They warn that surface water is now fully utilized, leaving us dependent on groundwater in the future, without protections in place to save that groundwater from contamination. They point to our aging water infrastructure—pipelines, canals, reservoirs, pumping stations—and predict public health problems for future generations (remember Walkerton?). They are particularly concerned about industrial-scale agriculture and the degradation of water that it produces. There are new contaminants—pharmaceuticals, hormones and endocrine-disrupting compounds—entering the water system every day and not getting filtered out when the water is recycled for reuse. And looming over all the experts’ warnings is the vast and unpredictable canopy of climate change.

If things stay the same, none of the issues I have listed need constitute—by themselves—what could properly be called a national water crisis in Canada. There is one small problem, however. Things are not staying the same. After a century of relative stability, rising atmospheric temperatures have begun to drive changes in the rate and manner in which water is moving through the hydrological cycle. (You remember the hydrological cycle from grade school, right? Evaporation, condensation, precipitation, etc., etc.) Changes in the hydrological cycle, in tandem with our other water problems, might be the only thing that could actually create a bona fide water crisis in Canada. It is with the discovery of evidence supporting this view that my story begins.

Northern Voices, Northern Waters

Over the past decade the people of the Northwest Territories have found themselves confronting hydro-climatic changes they cannot easily adapt to and can no longer ignore. In addition to water-quality concerns related to upstream oil sands development, rapid loss of permafrost and changes in weather, snowpack and snow cover were becoming obvious.

Collaboration to address such issues began in 2005 and resulted in the publication of “Northern Voices, Northern Waters: NWT Water Stewardship Strategy.” Water experts from across the country were then asked to comment on the strategy in an 18-city tour sponsored by RBC’s Blue Water Project. An utterly unexpected outcome of the national tour was the realization that the same kind of ecological/hydrological/climatic impacts being tracked in the NWT were already affecting many other regions of this country in highly damaging ways that were not being connected with one another or with climate change.

It was not until we were well into the speaking tour and visiting Manitoba that we unexpectedly discovered there was a region in plain sight in southern Canada that appeared to be changing even more rapidly than the Arctic. According to some experts, the region of southern Manitoba, in particular, appeared to be approaching—or perhaps had even passed over an invisible threshold into—a new hydro-climatic state that residents had been unable to cope with, let alone adapt to. At first we thought this region could be defined and confined geographically as the Lake Winnipeg Basin. As I will demonstrate, we later found out that the problem was much more widespread than that.

The Lake Winnipeg Basin

The Lake Winnipeg Basin covers 1 million square kilometres and extends over four Canadian provinces—Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and part of Ontario—and four American states—Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota—in the Central Great Plains region of North America. The first evidence of problems in the basin was that algal blooms in Lake Winnipeg began to grow in size over the course of each summer. Algal abundance has increased between 300 percent and 500 percent since 1900.

Algal blooms of up to 15,000 square kilometres have now begun to appear in the lake annually. The presence of such high concentrations of algae prevents light penetration and oxygen absorption, causing a condition called eutrophication. In extreme cases eutrophication can limit the amount of oxygen available for other species, thereby reducing biodiversity in a given aquatic ecosystem. Then came the cyanobacteria, a form of blue-green algae that can produce toxins in such concentrations that they can poison and even kill animals and people. Cyanotoxins can also accumulate in fish and shellfish, which then become poisonous if eaten.

The concentration of cyanobacteria in Lake Winnipeg has increased 1,000 percent since 1990. While smaller lakes everywhere, including many in Canada, have been similarly affected, Lake Winnipeg is now considered the most ecologically compromised of the world’s great lakes.

Over the last 20 years, it has been scientifically demonstrated that the increased area of algal blooms and growing presence of toxic cyanobacteria in Lake Winnipeg are a warning of larger eco-hydrological problems, not just in the immediate Lake Winnipeg area but throughout the region. That fact must be combined with the major spring flooding throughout the region, which has been increasing in the past decade, setting new records. The effects in the Lake Winnipeg Basin are proving to be drastic and deadly.

Recent research shows that the spring floods create a wash effect that flushes the nitrogen and phosphorous contained in livestock and wildlife feces and farm field fertilizers from the land surface into Lake Winnipeg. The ultra-high concentrations of these substances form the nutrient supply for the algal blooms. The flooding problem has been made much worse by the draining of up to 90 percent of the natural wetlands throughout the region so as to improve agricultural productivity. These wetlands not only stored water in times of flood but were also sinks in which nitrogen and phosphorous concentrated, performing a natural ecosystem function of purifying runoff before it poured into Lake Winnipeg. Further climatic influences associated with warming are likely to exacerbate all these already existing problems.

The Urgency

The increased frequency and intensity of spring floods is becoming a serious problem. The floods of 2011 cost the province of Manitoba a billion dollars. Flood damages in North Dakota and Saskatchewan were in the same range. The situation in the Central Great Plains region is so serious that it is no longer described simply as an environmental problem. The situation is now seen as a major threat to the economic future of the entire region.

There is growing concern that the cost of persistent ongoing flooding and related damages will, in time, be substantial enough to make it difficult to sustain prosperity in this region as we know it today. The risk economically is that the people of the region will not be able to afford both things: dealing with recurring disasters andaddressing their causes. Parts of this region are not going to be habitable and the costs of ongoing flood damage may reach a magnitude that could easily bankrupt Manitoba.

Adaptation in the Central Great Plains is no longer an option but an urgency. How did this occur and what exactly is happening here that constitutes evidence of a potential water crisis in Canada?

The Eco-hydrological Foundations of Climate Change

The deteriorating condition of Lake Winnipeg reminds us that the changing climatic situation to which we must all ultimately adapt is, first and foremost, ecological in origin. We have changed our landscapes, in some instances dramatically. These changes have implications for how water moves on the landscape and how much evaporates back into the air and is available as precipitation elsewhere.

The situation to which we must therefore adapt is also in part hydrological in that by changing the land and withdrawing more water for our purposes, we have altered both surface flows and groundwater recharge. We are leaving less water for natural systems to use. In so doing, we have reduced the amount of water available to nature for its purposes and how much nature can purify and supply for our use.

Finally, our situation is climatic because if the land is altered and its hydrology changed, the climate invariably changes too. Civilizations before ours learned this the hard way long before fossil fuels came into common use. Lingering evidence of this lesson can be seen even today in the cradle of civilization in the Middle East and in the regions of North Africa that were once heavily forested but are now arid. In our time we are learning that if, on top of all these effects, more of certain substances are added to the atmosphere—such as carbon dioxide and methane—this combination of eco-hydro-climate change accelerates, leading to unpredictable and highly unsettling increases in floods, drought, windstorms and other environmentally devastating events. This appears to be what is now happening in the Central Great Plains region of North America.

Big Changes on the Prairies

The province that contains the upper headwater reaches of the Lake Winnipeg Basin is Alberta, where the landscape has been completely altered since the province joined Confederation in 1905. In only four generations of development, total human activity in the province now accounts for 50 million hectares. That area does not seem large given the total size of the province, but almost all that human activity is concentrated in the Central Great Plains region.  Continue to read more here.