Photo by Dominik Gubi via Flickr Creative Commons

Whose Water? Our Water!

Water Management–or Mismanagement–in Canada and California

They say water is the new oil-the likely cause of future wars, and some current wars as well. Everywhere in the world water is an issue one way or another–even in rain-drenched parts of Canada.

I had the privilege of attending a two-day Canadian water conference at the end of May. Remembering the successful water forum we had held at Fresno City College last March, I thought it would be worth looking at the similarities and the differences.

Water Issues in Canada
The issues faced by the Canadians are not quite the same as ours. The water conference, titled “Your Water, Your Future,” was held in Nanaimo on the east coast of Vancouver Island. I am used to Fresno, where we get a little more than 11 inches of rain in a year; parts of Vancouver Island get 135 inches of rain per year. Sometimes Californians cast a longing eye on all that Canadian water, wondering how they might get their hands on some of it to relieve drought-stricken California.

A word of warning Californians–the Canadians are not too happy about the idea of shipping their water southward because of the damage it would cause to the Canadian ecosystem. Some parts of British Columbia are already experiencing saltwater intrusion into the aquifers because the aquifers are being overused. In a way, it is just a larger version of the fight in California over whether to ship northern California water to Los Angeles, with all the environmental effects that has on the north.

Setting aside the issue of potential water exports, Canadians are already having serious problems of their own with the water even as they hang onto it. Don’t think quantity-think quality. The problem for many Canadians is trying to keep their water clean enough to drink.

How to Destroy a Watershed
The conference agenda included a tour of the watershed for the drinking water of nearby Parksville. I was appalled. No one who went on the tour would ever again want to touch their lips to a glass of Parksville water–even after it has been treated with chlorine.

We toured the watershed by bus, which was quite easy to do because there are lots of streets and roads crisscrossing it. There are streets everywhere because people are building houses and are living right in the middle of the watershed. Whatever pesticides and fertilizers these people use on their landscaping pass right through the soil and into the water, which drains directly into a nearby shallow aquifer. Even more troubling, there is no sewer system so people’s septic tanks leech into the same aquifer.

Clear-cut mountainside on Vancouver Island, affecting the water quality in the adjoining streams. Photo by Janine Bandcroft

That is not the worst of it. As we drove across the watershed, we saw some unbelievable sources of contamination. There is a cemetery next to a creek that flows toward the waterworks. There is a large pig farm with two huge piles of manure; the farm is about 100 feet from a ditch that drains toward the drinking-water pumps. There are also three auto wreckers in the watershed, all leaking various types of fluid into the shallow aquifer. There is a former sand and gravel operation that has since been converted into a landfill dump, right down close to the waterworks; who knows what leeches into the groundwater from the dump.

Here is the background to all of that. Based on an anti-regulatory philosophy, a conscious choice was made in Parksville that the area would have little in the way of regulation. Both individuals and commercial interests can do just about whatever they want. Well, if you ever want to see what unregulated economic activity can lead to, come to Parksville.

The result is a mess. The drinking water is highly polluted. The organic pollutants can be neutralized, to a degree, by adding lots of chlorine to the water. That creates its own problems because as the chlorine breaks down the organic matter, new toxic substances are formed. Meanwhile, the chlorine does nothing to remove the battery acid, gasoline, antifreeze and such that is coming from the auto wreckers. From the dump, there likely is a virtual witch’s brew of toxic substances.

The water is not treated to remove these other toxic substances; it is only treated with chlorine. As a result, people are starting to get sick, and for the most part, they don’t know why. There are cancer clusters developing-but, as usual, it is hard to prove the cause of a cancer cluster.

Sadly, even if they were able to prove that the water was the problem, there would be no one that could be held accountable. The cemetery, the pig farm, the auto wreckers, the landfill-none of them are violating any regulations, so technically none of them are doing anything wrong. The negative effects on the population are treated as unavoidable collateral damage. What a callous way to run a community.

Parksville is a particularly blatant example of mismanagement of a watershed, but it is not alone. The city of Nanaimo itself, where the conference was being held, has a compromised watershed. The watershed is not owned by the city but is privately owned by logging interests-the biggest of them being Island Timberlands.

The water supply for the city of Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, enters this reservoir after draining from some clear-cut forest land. Photo by Janine Bandcroft

The timber companies are clear-cutting the watershed, causing all sorts of issues for the water. The soil is torn up by the logging operations and much of it is washed downstream, which doesn’t help the water quality at all. A bigger problem may be the toxic fertilizers they use as they replant the forest with the goal of harvesting the second-growth lumber as soon as possible. What will happen as these fertilizers make their way into the water draining from these clear-cut fields? No one knows yet, but it looks very much like a disaster waiting to happen.

Water Issues in Central California
In Central California, we are not at all immune from these kinds of problems with our drinking water. When I moved to Fresno in 1970, the water was not even chlorinated. At that time, Fresno was said to have had the cleanest drinking water of any city of its size in the nation. That was because the city got all of its water from deep wells that tapped into a huge underground aquifer. The aquifer itself was fed by snowmelt from the Sierras making its way down under the valley. That worked okay as long as the snowmelt was sufficient to keep up with the demand on the aquifer.

Fresno has grown dramatically in population since 1970, and for that and other reasons it became necessary to recharge the aquifer with surface water. Surface water carries pathogens. That was when the City of Fresno started chlorinating the water.

That is just one facet of the problem. Increases in the use of fertilizers and pesticides in the Central Valley have contaminated some parts of the groundwater. Across the Central Valley, there are concerns that nitrates from agricultural fertilizers are leeching into our groundwater. The mega-dairies in the Central Valley are a major source of groundwater contamination. In the Central Valley, there also have been problems with DBCP from pesticides leeching from farmers’ fields into the groundwater.

Closer in to Fresno there has been industrial pollution, putting toxic TCE into the aquifer under Fresno. These contaminants in the aquifer take the form of underground plumes of polluted water. Wells drawing from those plumes have to be shut down, and new wells drilled in other places at considerable expense to the public–not to mention the non-contaminated parts of the aquifer keep getting smaller and smaller.

As we use more and more water, the situation gets worse and worse. The water level in the aquifer is dropping, and we have to add even more surface water with all of its possibilities for becoming contaminated. Surface water, in the form of runoff, is also diminishing. Fertilizer and pesticide use continues unabated. The City of Fresno is constantly trying to recruit new industries into the area, with little thought about how the industries might affect our groundwater.

The California Water Bond
Does any of this make any sense? Should watersheds for our drinking water really be in the hands of private interests who are out to make a short-term profit? It is a recipe for disaster, by any measure.

Unfortunately, Californians might be about to take a big step in the wrong direction. This November, we will be asked to vote yea or nay on an $11.1 billion water bond. The bond would, among other things, open the door to the privatization of the water supply. It would allow private entities to be part of, even dominate, joint power authorities that would “own, govern, manage and operate a surface storage project.” I wonder in whose interests such entities would manage and operate the new dams and reservoirs they would own? Most likely not in the public interest.

The bond again raises the specter of a peripheral canal to carry water around the delta from the north to the south of California–an idea that was rejected by the voters in 1982. The bond measure doesn’t mention the canal because that would harm its chances of passage by the voters; however, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said that passage of the bond would make such a canal possible.

The peripheral canal, if built, would significantly alter the ecosystem of the delta by allowing less freshwater into it; saltwater intrusion into groundwater could then become a big issue for delta farmers–just as it already is for Canadian farmers. Of course, the delta fish, and the delta fishing industry, would also take a big hit. We cannot take large quantities of water from where Mother Nature has put it and move it somewhere else without significantly altering the ecosystem in both locations. These consequences need to be taken into consideration as we evaluate the California Water Bond.

Protecting Our Water Supply
Fortunately, there are both statewide and local community organizations working diligently to protect our water supply. A coalition of such groups is working to defeat the California Water Bond. The long list of opponents includes, among others, the Sierra Club, the United Farm Workers Union, Food and Water Watch (foodandwaterwatch.org) and Clean Water Action (cleanwateraction.org).

Locally, the Fresno branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) has been making a valiant attempt to educate the public about these crucial issues. Please support these organizations or any others you know about that are trying to protect our water supply.

Water is our future–both in California and Canada. It is the most essential ingredient in life and one that is being grossly mismanaged around the world. If we try to think ahead to the seventh generation, what kind of legacy are we leaving? We have not been paying enough attention. It is time for us to wake up and smell the water–with the hope that our future water supplies will not smell at all like the stuff we are drinking today.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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