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Water, Water

November 5, 2009

About twenty years ago Ducks Unlimited Canada proposed moving their headquarters in suburban south Winnipeg, Manitoba to Oak Hammock Marsh, an important staging area for migrating geese and shorebirds and breeding grounds for ducks about fifteen miles north of the city. For a variety of reasons it did not go unopposed.

Among the more curious opposition forces were a group of sincere yet simple and paranoid people I met at an impromptu rally.

They did not fear the possible environmental impact that a 2,000 square foot office building might have on a delicate and important ecological zone. They did not even see the irony of an organization dedicated to preserving ducks in Canada so that they could be hunted in Texas.

No. It was the era of Free Trade agreements, and they were concerned, no, they were convinced that the new DU headquarters was to become the well-head for a secret pipeline that would suck all of the fresh water out of Manitoba and pipe it to the arid US southwest. They’d probably watched Chinatown or JFK too many times, and were likely big X Files fans.

As loopy as this conspiracy theory sounds, there is an element of truth behind it. Manitoba has far more than its fair share of fresh water. People around the world, where lakes are actually quite rare, have every reason to be envious.

Lake Winnipeg is the tenth largest lake in the world. Two other provincial “great” lakes, Lakes Manitoba and Winnipegosis, added together are almost equal in size to Lake Winnipeg. Our boreal forest lakes and prairie potholes are so numerous that we laugh when Minnesota, our near neighbor to the south, boasts about its pathetic 10,000 lakes.

When it comes to surface fresh water, Manitoba is the wettest place in a very wet country. Over 60% of the world’s five million lakes are in Canada. Water, water, everywhere. Coast to coast, and US border to North Pole.

As Saskatchewan writer Allan Casey says in his terrific new book, Lakeland: Journeys into the Soul of Canada, there is nothing so uniquely Canadian as a lake.

That old American insult that Canadians are merely “hewers of wood and drawers of water” may soon come back to haunt us. Someday our water may be more valuable to everyone, including the US, than our oil or our hockey players.

Trouble is: Canada’s lakes are increasingly fragile. Large-scale cottage developments with their inadequate or non-existent sewage systems threaten. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus run-offs from farms and lawns are causing pollution. Acid rain is despoiling not only our boreal forests but changing the chemical balance of their water systems.

The irony of Winnipeg’s water system is indicative of the current continental problems. Winnipeg actually draws its water from a one hundred year old pumping plant with its origins not in Manitoba but in northwest Ontario. With all of our own water, we go elsewhere to find water that’s drinkable. And that system is ancient and desperately needs upgrading.

Only now are we beginning to understand our carelessness and wastefulness. We are not yet at the point of saying: water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink. But tough and expensive decisions are ahead to prevent that from happening.

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