Whenever astronomers search for the kind of planets that can sustain life, they are, first and foremost, searching for planets that can sustain liquid water. And for good reason: life as we know it is impossible without water.
British Columbia is blessed with abundant water. From glacier-fed rivers to ancient aquifers, the province has a wealth of liquid life. This water wealth is the foundation of healthy communities and a fountain of economic activity.
Water is a critically important resource. Without it, our commercial- and recreational-fishing industries would disappear; B.C. wineries would be wiped off the map; B.C. beef would be a thing of the past; our forest industry would disappear along with the trees—and communities large and small would wither away.
For someone who lives on the “wet coast” of British Columbia, it’s easy to forget how precious water is. In mid-November, it’s certainly forgivable to feel like we could do with a bit less of it falling on our heads. However, this seeming abundance is dangerous because it hides just how fragile our water wealth is, especially in the face of a changing climate.
We see the impacts of climate change already in our communities. From higher mortality for our Fraser River salmon as the water temperature rises to increased wildfires to declining moose populations linked to salvage logging of vast tracts of pine-beetle-infected forest, it’s impossible to ignore the realities of a warming planet.
That’s why it is more important than ever to recognize that water is never endless. Aquifers across North America are steadily being drained beyond their capacity to regenerate. For example, vast stretches of farmland in Kansas and Texas have been transformed into wasteland by drought and the depletion of the High Plains Aquifer, destroying livelihoods and undermining the economy of local communities.
Aquifers are made up of water that took hundreds or possibly thousands of years to accumulate in underground reservoirs. We’re just now starting to understand how priceless this fossil water is.
But here in British Columbia, water is treated as priceless in precisely the wrong way—as in it’s given for free to multinational companies to extract and sell. The public was, understandably, outraged to learn that Nestlé, one of the world’s largest companies, is taking our water for free and then selling it back to us in bottles. Unfortunately, this outrage is just the tip of the melting iceberg.
For the past four years, the B.C. Liberal government has been promising to update the Water Act. This promise seems to have fallen by the wayside, however, as Premier Christy Clark is far more interested in cutting deals to push oil pipelines across hundreds of B.C. rivers and streams than in taking real action to protect our water.
When the Harper Conservative government forced changes to federal laws that stripped most B.C. waterways of environmental protection, the B.C. Liberal environment minister justified and defended the changes by saying that the rules were protecting “drainage ditches”. One of the rivers that lost all protections under this legislation was the Skeena, the third-largest river in the province and the river that is most threatened by the Enbridge pipeline proposal.
It’s little wonder that Premier Clark is twisting herself in knots trying to find a way to facilitate the Enbridge pipeline, given that her government seems to think the Skeena is equivalent to a drainage ditch, and even less wonder that her government would rather give Nestlé our water for free than risk bringing in strong legislation that might get in the way of her friends in the oil business.
We can’t afford this failure of priorities. As much as those who make a profit from destroying the environment would like us to believe that our wealth and livelihoods depend solely on activities that degrade our life-support systems, the opposite is true. A healthy environment and a healthy economy go hand in hand.
Just ask those Texas farmers whose wells bring up little but sand—they can’t make a living without clean water, and neither can we.