Sunday, March 7, 2010

Ontario's Not So Fresh Waters

Every once in a while something triggers a must protect my habitat response in me and this was one of those times. I was reading an article this morning and it kind of came back to me that the health of the watershed isn’t just another subject in the textbook that won’t really change affect me enough to be worth thinking about past the exam. Canada has 30% of the world’s fresh water supply, over 20% of which is in the Great Lakes. If we destroy them it would be like dividing all the students in the university into 5 equal groups and then telling one of them the only way they’ll ever get drinkable water again is by begging it off the other four groups.

Last summer one of the local television stations went about asking random people on the street

“how much of the water and dirt that goes down the storm drains each year gets treated before being released back into the environment?”

the number of completely wrong answers really surprised me.

Now granted I’m from South Western Ontario and for all intents ringed in by the Great Lakes and the boarders to the states. Now that’s not to say I could hike from my house to all five of them, but like the millions of other people in the region a half day’s drive would take me to at least four of them. I was taught in grade school that Canadians are super lucky that Canada has 30% of the worlds fresh water supply and that saving water is important because thousands of people die daily because they don’t have access to clean water. And growing up where I did I was taught about the invasive species appearing in the local watersheds and throwing the entire system out of whack resulting in native species becoming severely endangered more often than most Canadian students. And like most subjects you’re forced to learn I found it boring and annoying to have the same thing keep coming up again and again and I am more than a little obsessed with animals and by extension ecosystems. What really stunned me though was Obama pledging money not to just stop pollutant run-off into the lakes but to make the water safe to drink again.

We have the technology to do so many things today and are lucky to live in what is considered one of the most advanced countries in the world, but we use that technology to enable us to ignore the fact that we’re destroying so many things. Our water today is cleaned not only before its released back into the ecosystem but also before it even gets too our taps. The few places that still use wells today take samples to be tested constantly. Beaches all over Ontario are closed each summer due to the water not being safe. The E.Coli scare a few years ago caused many people to overreact and many cities to be over cautious and put in place far more stringent water purification systems. A hundred years ago no one would have considered testing the well water for anything other than manure run off from the farms. Lakes that were unsafe to swim in were the thing of horror stories or legends involving mutating people and animals. Today you tell someone you went swimming in the canal during frosh week and they’re horrified that you would be willing to jump into something that disgusting.

Apparently its ok to spend money on bottled water but not to ensure that the sources of those bottles remain safe to drink. We have the technology to do something about this. Many cities like my hometown boast that the water that is re-released into the watershed is cleaner than the water its being released into, which quite frequently is upstream from where the next city takes it’s water from to be purified and used by its citizens. If we’re leaving the water cleaner than when we take it there shouldn’t be a problem right? Unfortunately most of the pollutants in the system come from run off streams washed into the rivers and streams when it rains. But in the city most of that contaminated water that’s full of the salt and exhaust from the roads as well as any litter that gets washed along, goes into the storm drains where its cleaned right?

Actually, that run off is funneled directly back into the watershed bypassing all the purification processes the city had. Clean fresh water is actually a limited resource on this planet and we aren’t making the situation any better by washing tons of pollutants into it. It’s something to think about the next time you see someone throwing garbage out a car window or the tv shows beer being poured into a storm drain as part of the attempts to control the drunken crowds at various national events.