The Bog

The Bog is where thoughts, opinions, discussion pieces, and action converge. Influential thinkers from the water community are invited to share their insights on current or controversial water topics. Please note that the views expressed herein are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Alberta WaterPortal.

History And Governance As A Blueprint For Future Federal-Provincial Co-operation On Environmental Monitoring In The Alberta Oil Sands Region


The environmental impacts associated with existing and proposed developments in the Alberta oil sands development region have received unprecedented national, and international, attention. The oil sands represent a strategic resource of importance to Alberta, Canada and indeed to the international energy trading community. The present and future potential magnitude of developments required to extract, upgrade and transport the oil have, for better or worse, vaulted the oil sands region into the realms of international economic, social, environmental and political attention. Accordingly, both the federal and provincial governments have increasingly focussed their attention to creating or expanding environmental monitoring and research programs in the oil sands region of Alberta.

At a time when new approaches to scientific monitoring programs are being reviewed, it may be useful to recall that there is an extensive, and successful, history of scientific and policy co-ordination between Alberta and Canada in regard to oil sands environmental assessment and management programs in the province. Past Federal-Provincial agreements have recognized the overlapping jurisdictional responsibilities and governments responsibly have sought to achieve management and financial efficiencies to harmonize, if not resolve, these overlaps.

Here, past management models and agreements are reviewed, with particular attention paid to the Alberta Oil Sands Environmental Research Program (AOSERP) (1975 to 1980) and the Northern River Basins Study Board (NRBS) (1991 -1996).

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.

What Are You Willing To Pay For Your Water?

The book "The Big Thirst" discusses how we have been in a golden age of water, a period of free and accessible water while the earth's climate has been warming. Water has been so inexpensive, readily accessible and reliable that to society it has become invisible. This is not to say that we do not appreciate, or misunderstand its importance, it is just that it has become so available that we do not even consider the implications of usage and waste, when we do use it.

The result is that society has created a false economy for water. For sure, there have been some economic accounting for water, often with a fee charged to households and industry. But this only reflects the cost of delivery and purifying the water (not any cost for the raw water itself). The result is a standard economic reference point or price for water that is not sustainable.

This form of socio-economic thinking cannot last. Water is a life critical commodity and a life sustaining fuel. Our water problems relating to shortages, accessibility, purity and availability are imminent, and need to be addressed as part of our social balance.

The issue is, how can we change a consumptive behaviour that is so ingrained in our culture? Historically with all other valuable commodities, society has placed a value or a price on that commodity. The concept could easily be extend to water by charging the population for their water usage, and thus creating an awareness and sensitivity about how everyone's actions affect water usage.

Please pass the E. coli O157:H7

Canada is currently experiencing one of the heaviest spring run-offs in decades. Much of this water is coming from adjacent fields and agricultural operations. You may be surprised to know that this water may contain more than your typical unwanted nitrates and minerals.
For example, a disturbing trend has developed across Canada whereby unwanted biological pathogens are steadily entering our waterways. One such pathogen is Escherichia coli, which we commonly know as E. coli.

E. coli is the most common of the intestinal flora found in domesticated animals and is “shed” by those animals daily. In the United States 40% of waterways have been deemed contaminated with E. coli. A problem that is becoming more problematic as much of that water is used to irrigate food crops, for recreation, or for drinking water. Consider further that a much more pathnogenic strain of E.Coli known as Enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli (more commonly known as E. coli O157:H7), has steadily grown in prevalence within these animals and within our waterways. E. coli O157:H7 was detected as early as 2000 in Alberta watersheds and was later linked to increasing domesticated animal density in Southern Alberta in 2003.

Unlike common E. coli, E. coli O157:H7 is often deadly requiring as few as 10 cells to make you seriously ill. There is no available human vaccine to protect against this bacteria and the use of antibiotics may worsen disease symptoms. A very serious complication arising from the disease is hemolytic uremic syndrome which can lead to kidney failure. Particularly vulnerable groups include children, the elderly and immuno compromised individuals.

Canada: Speaking For The Public: Who Pays?

Who should pay the costs, when a public interest intervenor succeeds before an administrative tribunal?

The Alberta Environmental Appeals Board awarded an intervenor $76,067, payable by the Town of Turner Valley. Ms. Walsh, who lives on a disability pension, had persuaded Alberta Environment and the Board to require additional monitoring of a municipal drinking water reservoir, over the opposition of the municipality. Her work "resulted in a better Amending Approval, one that will ensure the protection of the water supply for all of the Town's citizens."

Both parties to Walsh v. Director were likely disappointed with the result. Ms. Walsh had sought costs of $368,207 against the Town; the Town sought a costs award of $304,517 against Ms. Walsh. The Town got nothing, because its costs were properly related to its own application for a approval. The doubts raised by Ms. Walsh were justified, since the Town had chosen to put its reservoir in an area formerly used for oil and gas.