Suspending water quality monitoring during pandemic a ‘serious oversight,’ says expert

Federal water quality monitoring has been suspended since the start of the pandemic, and water experts say Canada needs its data collection to be resilient even in crisis. 

“The fact that the federal government has, on the quality side, not done any monitoring during the pandemic, is a serious oversight with huge impact,” said former N.W.T. environment minister Michael Miltenberger.

Water monitoring that affects the Northwest Territories is conducted by both Alberta and the federal government, but several programs that measure water quality and give early warning of potential impacts downstream to the territory have been offline for months as a result of COVID-19.

Earlier this year, Alberta unilaterally suspended water monitoring in the oilsands without notifying its counterparts in the Northwest Territories, despite an agreement that requires it to do so. 

At the same time, many federally-run quality monitoring stations suspended their operations for the same reason, despite its commitments under the Mackenzie River Basin Transboundary Waters Master Agreement.

In a high water season like the N.W.T. is seeing, quality monitoring is even more important, said Miltenberger. 

High water scours the river banks and lakes, dragging debris and pollutants into the water — a “chemical cocktail” that normal water testing will not capture, explained Miltenberger.

He said the federal government also has obligations to Indigenous peoples through land claim agreements that water quality and quantity should not be substantially altered. 

Using a pandemic to suspend environmental monitoring is a breach of people’s trust.– Gerry Cheezie, chief of Smith’s Landing First Nation

Smith’s Landing First Nation Chief Gerry Cheezie has been vocal about the lack of Indigenous involvement when territorial headwaters are at risk. 

In February, he said his First Nation was not consulted before a decision on a major oilsands expansion that threatened downstream water quality into N.W.T.

He questioned whether agreements between Alberta and the N.W.T. would adequately protect against future threats to water.

Michael Miltenberger says in a high-water season, quality monitoring is even more important. (CBC)

Cheezie said he is skeptical the current Alberta government can be trusted to do so because of recent legislation introduced by Alberta’s United Conservative Party government, like the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act — which allows strong penalties against any person who blocks, damages or enters essential infrastructure like highways, pipelines, oil sites and dams.

“It’s a discriminatory racist document, because it’s directed right at First Nations and Aboriginal people and other people that don’t share the view that oil and gas is the only route to economic sustainability in Alberta.” 

Contaminants affect wildlife and consequently First Nations’ ability to hunt, fish and trap. 

He wants the oilsands companies and federal and Alberta governments to be more diligent in how they manage water.

“Using a pandemic to suspend environmental monitoring is a breach of people’s trust, a breach of the regulations and it’s irresponsible,” he said.

Who monitors what?

When the pandemic hit, water quantity measurements conducted by the Water Survey of Canada — the national authority responsible for water information —  were declared an essential service. Water quality monitoring, a responsibility of Environment Canada, was not. 

How much of the oilsands residue was washed down with that?– John Pomery, University of Saskatchewan professor

The N.W.T. Environment Department said it told the federal government and Alberta to reinstate oilsands monitoring as soon as possible. 

It also asked for a spot on the committee that oversees the Oil Sands Monitoring Program — jointly managed by Alberta and the federal government — to make sure its downstream interests are represented. The N.W.T. monitors waters on its side of the border with Alberta on the Slave River.

Several types of monitoring conducted upstream in Alberta give early warnings of potential impacts to water before it flows downstream into the N.W.T.  

In an email, Environment and Climate Change Canada said that to protect the health of its workforce, it suspended “non-critical” services like field and lab work to focus on meteorological forecasting and to respond to environmental emergencies. 

It will resume an adapted version of its water quality monitoring programs once its workplace safety plans are approved. 

The federal government said to bridge data gaps for quality, it will review historic water level data to determine if there were similar high-water periods with corresponding water quality data. 

“Although examining correlations with previous data clearly does not provide data on current conditions, it will provide insights into the relative increases or decreases in contaminant and nutrient loads that may be occurring under current water levels,” reads a statement from Environment Canada.

Feds must build quality monitoring resiliency: experts

John Pomeroy, the director of the Global Water Futures program and professor at the University of Saskatchewan, said that at a time when water levels are higher than normal, its quality is going partially unmeasured. That has tremendous impacts on the ecosystem and toxicity of ultimately what ends up in our fish, he said.

Pomeroy said the federal government should expand its role in water monitoring and make a financial commitment to fully implement the Mackenzie River Basin agreement.

John Pomeroy, professor at University of Saskatchewan, says the federal government should expand its role in water monitoring and make a financial commitment to fully implement the Mackenzie River Basin agreement. (Erin Collins/CBC)

Pomeroy acknowledged researchers are hindered from their research because of the high risk of transmitting COVID-19 into communities that do not have adequate resources to respond to an outbreak.

He said when the federal government establishes the Canada Water Agency — which will work with Canadian and Indigenous governments, and scientists to protect and manage water — its first priority should be to co-ordinate water quality measurements and to build resiliency. 

If done properly, communities can collect some of the data and avoid interruptions even in a situation like a pandemic. 

Fort McMurray, Alta., recently had a “once-in-a-century” flood, but that information about downstream effects went uncollected. 

“How much of the oilsands residue was washed down with that?” said Pomeroy.

“The problems we have had with COVID-19 where one jurisdiction upstream decides to suspend environmental monitoring, would be resolved by reinforcing the powers the Mackenzie River Basin board can implement.” 

Pomeroy said the board can only do what its constituent governments allow it to.

“These agreements need more teeth so that its not discretional to shut down water monitoring.”