PUBLISHED: 12 September 2011

Guest Columnist: Bob Sandford

No Mere Budget Cut

Let us be clear. Unless you believe that contracting a flesh-eating disease is a reasonable way to lose weight, it is difficult to interpret what is presently happening to Environment Canada as a mere budget cut. To accept what we have seen happen to this crucial federal government department as mere fiscal belt-tightening is to fall for a public relations cover-up. Canada’s most important environmental institution is not being trimmed. It is not just going through temporary hard times. It is being hollowed out, gutted, dismembered alive. It is being destroyed.

What is happening to Environment Canada should be of great concern to water managers throughout Canada. Because of warming mean temperatures, the hydrology of every region of the country is on the move. The agency responsible for monitoring these changes on a national scale is being utterly incapacitated.

We are about to lose the baseline against which we measure the meaning of such changes in terms of their effect on our economy and our environment. The water management community in this country would do well not to underestimate the relevance of Environment Canada monitoring and research. Despite huge cuts to the department in the 1990s, Environment Canada researchers still managed to produce two of the most influential assessments of the threats to our country’s water quality and availability to appear to date in this young century. These reports remain the foundation of water management planning throughout Canada. Environment Canada’s capacity to serve this country in this and other ways in the future, however, is now is doubt.

That the impact of these cuts has not been thought through is particularly obvious in the case of the Mackenzie River Basin. The federal government evidently needed to be reminded that cutting 21 of 23 monitoring stations in the Northwest Territories did not quite square with its internationally publicized commitment to “world class” monitoring of the downstream hydrological impacts of the oil sands. After Territorial and Aboriginal governments expressed extreme displeasure, Prime Minister [Harper] himself reversed that decision. But cuts elsewhere in the department continue unabated.

In August of this year, 70 per cent of the staff of Environment Canada’s Adaptation and Impacts Research Section was advised that they were subject to “workforce adjustment.” The group had already lost all of its term employees working on climatic design criteria, scenarios, and hazards for infrastructure codes and standards. Now, most of the group’s university co-location agreements in Canada are vulnerable, which will affect regional and national collaborative research on adaptation related to water and other natural resources, green infrastructure, and decision support, as well as international work with other countries and multinational agencies, including the United Nations. As the careful management of water is considered one of the most important ways of adapting to climate impacts, the implications of these cuts are obvious.

Five years ago, the current government determined on our behalf that rather than focusing on climate change mitigation it would focus on adaptation. It appears that with the decimation of Environment Canada, we are not committed to adaptation, either. What then, one might reasonably ask, are we committed to?

Bob Sandford is the EPCOR Chair of the Canadian Partnership Initiative in support of the United Nations Water for Life Decade and a member of Canada’s national Forum for Leadership on Water. He is also a signatory, along with many of Canada’s most prominent scientists and water policy scholars, of the 2008 Canadian Pugwash and Science for Peace Declaration calling for federal and provincial water governance and Policy reform in Canada.

Reprinted from an article published in “Water Canada” September 9, 2011.