News  Canadian rivers in peril

World Wildlife Fund report card recommends politicians evaluate hydro-electric policies.

A report released last Thursday by World Wildlife Fund Canada (WWF) has raised alarm about the state of Canada’s rivers. The report, entitled “Canada’s Rivers at Risk: Environmental Flows and Canada’s Freshwater Future,” assessed the water flow of 10 major rivers across the country in order to determine the extent of damage caused by increasing agricultural production, electrical generation, and global warming.

WWF has assigned a report card grade to several rivers based on how severely water flows have been affected by overuse, as well as the expected impact on their future water flows. The Mackenzie River and the Skeena Rriver were rated as healthy since the water flows of these rivers have not been noticeably altered, and the ecosystems that depend on them are stable. The South Saskatchewan River, the Saint John River, and the St. Lawrence River have been severely altered and are said to face a declining future. The report attributed many of these changes to the side effects of climate change, like melting glaciers, shifting precipitation patterns, and frequent droughts and floods.

By 2050, WWF predicted that water flows from Lake Ontario to the St. Lawrence river could decrease by between four to 24 per cent annually, lowering water levels at Montreal by 0.2 to 1.2 metres thanks to the effects of climate change.

The major recommendation of the report called attention to the use of hydro-electricity. As it becomes an increasingly appealing energy alternative, WWF recommended that policymakers focus on improving the efficiency of existing electrical infrastructure rather than building new dams. It noted that new construction could cause significant alteration to water flows, and thus damage ecosystems.

“We want government to ask what is driving the demand [for energy]; is it the level of consumption that is calling for a higher electrical demand, which could be monitored and controlled, or is it a response to the transition away from coal-fired electrical generation, as in the case of Ontario? Our perspective is to design and locate dam placement that mimics or respects water flow,” said Tony Maas, the WWF-Canada’s national advisor on freshwater policy and planning.

Adriana Mugnatto-Hamu, climate change critic for Canada’s Green Party, did not expect the Canadian government to heed the WWF report’s warnings.

“I am very hopeful but to tell the truth, I kind of doubt it, particularly with the current government. This government has been almost in denial about climate change, and they are very tied to the energy operations of the tar sands…and that directly affects the Athabasca River,” said Mugnatto-Hamu.

Save the River, an organization formed of both Canadian and American activists working to protect the St. Lawrence, have endorsed the report’s findings, and hoped that the WWF’s report will serve as a wake-up call to policymakers.

Jennifer Caddick, executive director of Save the River, highlighted the impact the report may have on their initiatives. “We’ve been working for years now to develop a new water levels plan. We are inches away from getting there…and we’re working with WWF to get this issue done,” Caddick said.

The current treaty regulating water levels is over 50 years old and has allowed for excessive damming in the region, resulting in damage to 50 per cent of the St. Lawrence basin’s wetlands and watershed vegetation, according to Caddick. At least 20 per cent of all plant and animal species inhabiting the St. Lawrence watershed are listed as vulnerable, threatened, or endangered.

Caddick hoped that the report will influence the policies of the International Joint Commission – a bilateral body that facilitates cooperation between Canada and the United States that works to prevent river degradation – to establish a new water level plan that would restore water flows to a more natural level.