We can't live without clean water. Canada is blessed with an abundance of lakes and rivers and has a global responsibility to manage them well. But if we really want to protect freshwater supplies and the ecosystems they support, we must understand how human activity and natural disturbances affect them.
The world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area in Northwestern Ontario has served as an outdoor laboratory for this purpose since 1968. By manipulating and studying conditions in 58 small lakes and their watersheds, scientists there have made many discoveries about the effects of human and natural activity on freshwater ecosystems and fish. Over the past 45 years they've taught us about the impacts of acid rain, mercury pollution, nanoparticles, nitrogen overload, climate change, fish farming, and many other issues.
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That's about to end. The federal government announced it will close the unique facility in 2013. It's an odd decision, especially considering that it costs just $2-million a year to operate — one-tenth the cost of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's security detail and about the same amount the government spent during the 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto to build a tourism pavilion with a fake lake. To make matters worse, it will cost taxpayers $50 million to shut the ELA down!
In an open letter to government, senior scientists point out that "research conducted at the ELA has been instrumental in the development of environmental policy and legislation both nationally and internationally." They also note that "ELA scientists have been recipients of numerous prestigious national and international awards, and the scientific output from ELA has been impressive — more than 1,000 scientific articles, graduate theses and books." We often hear how Canada "manages" its natural resources, but how can we do that without sound knowledge about the intricacies of the water cycle?
The timing is also odd. The ELA is being shut down as the government eviscerates laws and regulations designed to protect freshwater and marine habitat and resources with its omnibus budget bill. Included in the bill are changes or cuts to the Fisheries Act, Navigable Waters Protection Act, Species at Risk Act, and Canadian Environmental Protection Act, and a complete gutting and rewriting of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.
Changes to the Fisheries Act are especially troubling. Habitat protection has been removed, and the focus has shifted to economically viable and aboriginal fisheries only. That has some former fisheries ministers worried. In a letter to the prime minister, Conservatives Tom Siddon and John Fraser and Liberals Herb Dhaliwal and David Anderson wrote, "Canadians are entitled to know whether these changes were written, or insisted upon, by the minister of fisheries or by interest groups outside the government. If the latter is true, exactly who are they?"
It's a valid concern. Postmedia obtained government documents showing that Enbridge, the company behind the dual Northern Gateway pipeline proposal, lobbied the government heavily before the changes were brought in. Documents also indicate that pressure from Enbridge was partly responsible for the government's decision to pull out of a joint marine-planning process on the Pacific North Coast between industry, First Nations, citizens' groups, and conservation organizations.
One can't help but notice that many recent cuts and changes are aimed at programs, laws, or entities that might slow the push for rapid tar sands expansion and pipelines to the west and south, along with the massive selloff of our resources and resource industry to Chinese state-owned companies, among others. Any research or findings that don't fit with the government's fossil fuel-based economic plans appear to be under attack.
The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, for example, warned that failing to address climate change would have both economic and environmental consequences. The government also axed that arm's-length agency, under the guise of saving $5.5 million a year.
Development is important, but when it's focused on a single polluting industry, at the expense of other economic priorities and the environment, it doesn't make sense. When industry and government go to such extreme lengths to promote a short-sighted and narrow interest, it's an affront to the democratic traditions that Canadians of all political stripes have built over the years.
For more insights from David Suzuki, please read Everything Under the Sun (Greystone Books/David Suzuki Foundation), by David Suzuki and Ian Hanington, now available in bookstores and online.