Climate change experts say Quebec must prepare to manage water immediately

Fog lifts over a beaver dam on a lake in Gatineau Park, Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021 in Chelsea, Que. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Climate change experts say that within 10 years, farmland in southern Quebec will need to be irrigated to maintain the same yields it has now, and that Quebec must change its water regulations if it wants to set its own water-use priorities before climate change forces it to make painful choices.

"So our water consumption over the next 10 years is going to get a lot worse," said Eau Secours executive director Rebecca Pétrin. "Considering that we are already increasing our water consumption, there will be breaking points in some municipalities that will run out of water."

In an interview with The Canadian Press the day after a Quebec court ruling that prevented Eau Secours and the Quebec Council on Environmental Law (CQDE) from knowing how much water was being taken by large bottlers, Pétrin said she was extremely concerned about the lack of information on water consumption by various sectors.

ACCESS TO INFORMATION IMPEDIMENTS

Curiously, it is thanks to the Access to Information Act that nine large bottlers, including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Naya, Amaro and Eska, were able to prevent the Ministry of the Environment from providing these figures to the two organizations that requested them through an access to information request.

The Access to Information Act allows for the refusal of information on the basis of commercial confidentiality, a provision that takes precedence over section 7 of the Water Act, which states that "every person has the right, under the conditions and within the limits defined by law, to access information relating to water resources held by the public authorities."

Even Premier Francois Legault, who was in Magog in the Eastern Townships on Friday, did not hide the fact that this provision poses a problem.

"Do we have to change certain laws to have all the information? I am open to that, but I want us to follow the situation on the use of water," he said. "It is a very important asset for Quebec. It's a resource that is important for Quebec, so there must be a follow-up on what is consumed, including by the bottlers."

Legault risks being reminded of his words sooner rather than later.

Rather than appeal the access to information rejection, Eau Secours and CQDE have decided to appeal to the public and are launching a campaign inviting the public to ask the government to change the legislation and regulations surrounding water use.

"The courts are only applying the existing legal framework," said Eau Secours lawyer Marc Bishai. "There is nothing to stop the state from changing the legal framework."

'WE ARE CLEARLY AFRAID'

Pétrin insists on the need to collect data and to do so now because the pressure is already starting to be felt.

"We are clearly afraid," she said. "Groundwater is glacial water from the last ice age. The rate of recharge of these waters is very low compared to the rate of withdrawal. Some of the groundwater will last us for decades, even centuries, but other groundwater that is smaller and is heavily used, yes, we could easily see groundwater dry up."

She rebuked the idea that a parched landscape is an unnecessarily catastrophic scenario?

"We already have water stress in southern Quebec," she said. "We know that the municipality of Sutton (in the Eastern Townships) is struggling to find groundwater resources. It is an area that is surrounded by a lot of agriculture and more and more residential. We have communities like Saint-Lin-Laurentides that ran out of water last summer."

In addition, when withdrawals are made from the surface waters of a watershed, it is also necessary to be very careful, she said.

"We must know how much is withdrawn and what the recharge is in a watershed to ensure that the quantities withdrawn do not exceed the recharge capacity," said Pétrin.

As long as this data is hidden from the public, there is no confirmation that there will be water left tomorrow.

MINISCULE ROYALTIES

Still, Eau Secours' inquiries led it to learn in 2018 that bottlers paid just under $150,000 in royalties for some two billion litres of water drawn. "That's about 7 cents per 1,000 litres, and every first 75,000 litres a day are free. So we might as well give them the water," said Pétrin.

By law, any consumption that exceeds 75,000 litres per day on average over a year must be declared, and this excess is subject to a minuscule fee of $2.50 per million litres taken. Some European jurisdictions require fees of several thousand dollars per million litres withdrawn.

This aggregate data from 2018, while revealing the almost complete absence of financial constraints on bottlers, does not identify potential problems, Bishai pointed out.

"For someone interested in the health of a watershed, it's not very useful information. You need data to know where there are pressures that need to be managed," he said.

"Should water charges be increased?" asked Legault on Friday, not hiding that the situation is beginning to demand more attention. "It concerns me because water is a public good, and it is a public good that is increasingly important and sought after in the world. We're fortunate to have a lot of it, but we have to follow the issue."

INDUSTRY AND AGRICULTURE BLIND SPOTS

Bottlers aren't the only ones whose water consumption is unknown.

All industries that are not in an urban setting that accounts for water use and all agricultural producers are unmonitored unless they use more than an average of 75,000 litres per day over the year, amounts rarely achieved, for example, by agricultural producers since they do not need to irrigate in the fall, winter and much of the spring.

"Unless farmers or small industries draw less than that, we have no idea how much they use. These numbers are not compiled at the Ministry of the Environment or anywhere else," said Pétrin, who believes that these data also need to be compiled and made public.

"The first thing that needs to be done," she said, "is to collect the data on who is using the water and how much in the watersheds. The second thing that would be important to do is to regulate irrigation. We know that drip irrigation is the most efficient way to save water on farmland. So before farmers start installing irrigation systems, maybe we should start mandating systems that are more efficient.

"As long as the industrial and commercial sectors are kept secret, you can't even compare them with the residential sector to see who uses more water."

Pétrin noted that citizens are subject to water use restrictions, especially for irrigation.

CULTURE OF ABUNDANCE

One of the obstacles surrounding a more rigorous management of water is the idea that Quebec, pampered in this area, doesn't lack water.

"There is a culture of abundance of water that exists in Quebec, which is well anchored in our imagination because to see the expanses of water, it does not give the impression that we will lack it," said Pétrin. "Unfortunately, what people don't realize is that this water dates back to a glacial period, that every quantity of water that is drawn that exceeds the recharge capacity is water that is lost.

"The other thing people don't realize is that in Quebec, we haven't used much water until now because the climate didn't require us to irrigate our farmland."

Quebec, she repeated, will not escape climate change and the need for water, particularly in the agricultural sector, is likely to explode.

-- This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on May 8, 2022. 

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