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.

The Art of the Possible

Sometimes it is funny how things happen. A chance meeting, an exchanged business card, and a resulting whole new awareness...I met a photographer; when she gave me her card; on her card was a photo of a mandala she had taken in Houston Texas (similar to the one pictured, but not exactly the same). She had several cards, each with a different picture that she had taken (only one with a mandala). The card with the mandala was at the top of the pile, given to me at random.

At the time, I didn’t know what a mandala was; she told me and that prompted a little research. The mandala pictured is a Tibetan Sand Mandala (reproduced with permission from Wikipedia). This mandala was made in the British House of Commons to commemorate a visit from the Dalai Lama in May 2008.

Basically, a mandala is a sand sculpture or painting. The pattern in the photo was painstakingly created on the floor of the British Parliament by several Tibetan monks who use small tubes (almost like thin elongated funnels) and rub another metal object against the tube's notched surface to create a tiny flow of coloured sand grains (usually finely ground marble of different hues) and thus create the image. The mandala pictured is between about 0.5 to 1.0 metres in diameter and is made of millions of sand grains. Perhaps not surprisingly mandalas are rich with spiritual symbolism and are used by the monks to aid in meditation and prayer. They are sometimes considered spiritual roadmaps of both the cosmos and individual enlightened consciousness. Furthermore, they are believed to promote healing powers (The Dalai Lama arranged for prominent mandalas to be made in Washington, New York and Pennsylvania after the 9-11 terrorist attacks). The intricate design can be contemplated in its entirety or focus can be drawn to its component parts, each with a specific meaning, often multi-layered. It is important to realize that the pattern is retained in the memory of the monks and is reproduced free-hand with no written plan our tools other than chalk (for the outline) and the metal tubes for distributing the sand.

Water: Minding the Meter

Water is central to the well-being of people and their prosperity – not only to meet the obvious need for fresh water supplies of adequate quantity and quality, but also for appropriate water use and water treatment to ensure environmental sustainability.

A number of thoughts have recently crossed my mind - the growing public perception that the energy sector is a big water user, the challenges of water availability that are emerging in Southern Alberta, how glacial melt back will affect Alberta’s water supply and our severe lack of knowledge about our groundwater resources. Each opens up an important thought path.

When it came time to put a title on what I would say, I settled upon “Water – Minding the Meter”. To me, these few words sum up many of the issues and challenges we will face in the years ahead. The phrase “Minding the meter” reminds us we need to pay attention to our consumption. It leads us to think about cost. And it suggests an active rather than a passive response to what we measure – whether availability, use, quality or public perception.

So what is the meter telling us?

The vital need for water policy reform

The violent demonstrations that occurred last week at the World Water Forum in Istanbul belie the seriousness of the global water crisis. Currently, human population growth is the highest in places where there is the least water. There is legitimate concern that in many parts of the world we cannot meet both agricultural and urban water needs while at the same time providing enough water to ensure the perpetuation of natural ecosystem function.

As a consequence of growing populations and increased competition for land and water, humanity is converging upon the need to make uncommonly difficult public policy trade-offs that have never had to be made on a global scale before. If we provide to nature the water it needs to perpetuate our planetary life-support system, then much of that water will have to come at the expense of agriculture, which means that many people will have to starve to meet ecosystem protection goals. If, on the other hand, we provide agriculture all the water it needs to have any hope of feeding the populations that are projected to exist even in 2025, then we must expect ongoing deterioration of the biodiversity-based ecosystem function that has generated Earth's conditions upon which our society depends both for its stability and sustainability. Unfortunately, around the world we are already, often without fully realizing it, making such choices.

The "new" oil

(Oilweek Magazine, March, 2009)

It has been amazing to watch the ascendance of water as the subject around which everything else of import circulates. Five years ago, saying the scarcity of water in southern Alberta could emerge as the potential limit to growth was met mostly with scornful responses. These days, the whole province is paying attention to preserving the supply of fresh water, and oil and gas companies are foremost among concerned stakeholders, along with government and researchers.

While water has long been used to enhance production from mature conventional oil reservoirs, there´s no question that the effective management of water is also central to unlocking the future of the oil sands industry. The focus on water has come about as the result of a confluence of pressures. In no special order: projects organized by the Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada (PTAC) during its formative years; the provincial government´s Water for Life policy; the ripples of concern spreading among the public in response to very vocal criticism of water policies and industrial fresh water use voiced by David Schindler at the University of Alberta and Mary Griffiths at the Pembina Institute, among others.

Certainly within the industry there are leaders who insist on continuous improvement of processes to spare fresh water. Browse through, for instance, and you´ll see blog entries by Rick George, chief executive officer for Suncor Energy, and Imperial Oil Ltd.´s chief executive officer Bruce March. The website is a discussion forum set up by oilsands producers to hear Canadians´ concerns about the industry and its impacts. George writes: "In terms of water, Suncor has reduced its absolute water use by 40 per cent in the past five years. Ninety per cent of water used to generate steam at our in situ operations is recycled. And with our current [now delayed] expansion plans, we have requested a zero per cent increase in our license to withdraw water from the Athabasca River."

Party like it's 2064...

In the midst of the most severe economic crisis of our time, Calgary sits pretty between the Bow and the Elbow, its feathers mostly unruffled, its spirits high. This is the land of plenty. Roots just opened a flagship store near the downtown core, Calgarians are flocking to see the Broadway musical Hairspray, the Stampeders won the Cup and the ‘City of Champions’ remains the one bright spot on the Canadian retail landscape.

According to an Angus-Reid online survey, Albertans are the most upbeat about Canada's economy, with 67 per cent of respondents giving a good rating to the national economy, compared to 42 per cent nationally and 29 per cent in Ontario.

All is good on the western front and its oil-rich metropolis.

Calgary is a well managed city. It enjoys a high level of citizen approval for services and programs, ranging from residential garbage collection to City-run recreational facilities. A green leader, the city adopted an environmental management system, or EMS in 1999 and is the first North American city to have achieved ISO 14001 certification, the EMS standard of the International Organization for Standardization. Calgary has also implemented a wide range of environmental measures to help reduce its footprint: A Montreal Gazette article published on November 28 states that Calgary City departments have reduced their greenhouse gases by 44 per cent.; 75 per cent of electricity in municipal buildings is produced by a 85-MegaWatt wind farm built by the city-owned utility company; a city bylaw limits sales of anything but low-flow toilets and the city’s fleet includes 180 hybrid cars and light trucks, while all garbage and recycling trucks run on biodiesel.