Thursday, 1 July 2021

Where are the wetlands?

 Driving to Regina has become painful - not because of the car or the highway but the scenery flying past the window. It is impossible to ignore the unending views of wetlands in the process of being destroyed, the upended root systems of willows and poplars, reeds and bullrushes. The wind rows planted in response to the dustbowl 1930's are long gone. Soon we'll have an unobstructed view of bare fields spread out as far as the eye can see.

When water comes out of the sky and fills our lakes and ponds, our land is populated by frogs, birds and mammals. As the wetlands - the low-lying areas of the fields - are cleared for plowing, their homes disappear as well. Where does the water then go?

As Jim Harding describes in this piece, in Saskatchewan, it finds its way to the Qu'Appelle lakes, the Quill Lakes, and Last Mountain Lake. While the Quill Lakes are not recreational, they are shallow and have flooded fields and access roads as well as the International Bird sanctuary (a World Heritage site) on its East end, a tourist destination for birders. 

The Qu'Appelle Valley chain of lakes is one of Saskatchewan's jewels. Besides a site of great historic value for First Nations and settler folk alike, it is also a recreational destination for many with cottages and homes along its length. The city of Regina is repeatedly using the lake system as replacement for its inadequate sewage treatment facility.

Here's Jim's words:


 By Jim Harding

We shouldn’t be shocked that Regina has again dumped untreated sewage into Saskatchewan’s most vulnerable watershed, the Lower Qu’Appelle. There’s a long history of abuse. Nutrient buildup in Pasqua Lake, downstream from Regina, is 500% higher than precolonial times. Indigenous communities have long witnessed the deterioration, which valley residents and cottagers now also endure.

Authorities that should oversee watershed health have known the risks. A 2006 Stantec report for Regina acknowledges that “Regina effluent constitutes about 75% of the Wascana Creek flow in summer and 85% in the winter.”  The City’s 2013 Utility Budget admits that “the wastewater lagoons are overloaded.” There’s been country-wide neglect. One of Harper’s notorious Omnibus Bills deregulated the Qu’Appelle Valley waterway.

There’s been chronic denying, especially here, with Canada’s highest per capita carbon footprint, of what is in store for watersheds from the climate crisis. Extreme weather, however, was bound to intensify. In June, 2014 Regina received 175 mm of rainfall, nearly 3 times “normal”. Ill-prepared with inadequate infrastructure, the City diverted flow from sewage lagoons and the UV disinfection plant into Wascana Creek and the Lower Qu’Appelle.

Water Security Agency (WSA) tried to divert responsibility from Regina, claiming the sewage was “too diluted” to do harm, targeting “agricultural operations” and “septic systems”, erroneously claiming that Regina’s sewage was “only 2%” of the downstream flow. 

As Fort San mayor I wrote Regina mayor Fougere for some solid information. His reply repeated some WSA spin, but promised an incident report. He sent this, a private consultant’s report, on Sept. 2nd. This admitted that 900,000 cubic metres of untreated sewage had gone into our watershed, but it then engaged in political justifications. Environmental damage would be negligible “due to dilution”; Sections 3-6-3.7 of the City’s Water Permit “allow such a bypass”. It played politics with numbers, saying the releases were “within Permit levels”. They averaged all the June and also July releases and put these into a 6-month timeline. 

No admission of responsibility, just a not so clever whitewash.

On August 20, 2014 we had held a large public meeting in Fort Qu’Appelle, which, unfortunately missed the opportunity to deepen understanding and build a broad-based coalition. Since then, there has been a lot of not-in-my-back yard NIMBYism. Unprecedented flooding in the Quill Lakes, arising from extreme rainfall and decades of wetland destruction by chemical agriculture, which all threaten our watershed, has simplistically been reduced to “illegal drainage”.

When Regina was dumping sewage in 2014, it issued a press release stating it was “committed to environmental protection.” Actions speaks louder. In April, 2015 WSA issued a Non-Compliance Order to Regina because of elevated E coil levels in its discharge. May 15th, Regina issued a water restriction because the exceptionally warm spring had produced excessive algae blooms at Buffalo Pound. The Director of Water said, “It isn’t a circumstance that we had a plan in place for because it isn’t circumstance that we’ve experienced in all the time that the plant has been running.”

The climate crisis will continue to breach normal circumstances; we are already facing heat waves in the high 40 degrees. 

More was to come.

July 27, 2015 Regina again faced unprecedented rainfall (100 mm). Even with the $175 million wastewater upgrade, it had to release sewage downstream. It downplayed the impact, saying it was 1 million litres, but it had to correct itself, that it was 15 million, soon after.

The Water Director claimed that it was unexpected, as a 1 in 25-year event, which was absurd given that 175 mm had fallen on Regina the previous June. The Director, however, let the cat out of the bag saying “another big downfall could spell another similar problem.”

And it predictably did, this June 11, 2021, when, after years of drought, a 60 mm rainfall led to more untreated sewage being dumped downstream. Similar results from similar neglect.

Righteous, one-dimensional outrage over what is presently predictable is no more effective than the Province’s climate denying or Regina’s diversions. Our watershed is threatened for the same reasons as everywhere on the planet. Urban sewage and agricultural runoff, after decades of wetland destruction and neo-liberal government deregulation, will intensify climate impacts. Prairie bio-regions are particularly vulnerable.

A broad-based coalition to press for an effective climate plan, which includes immediate carbon reduction, wetland restoration, serious moves towards regenerative agriculture, and does not let Regina off the hook for ongoing pollution, is now mandatory. It would be great if the NDP opposition provided some leadership, but it, too, still seems trapped by its legacy of toxic, unsustainable energy and neglect of watershed health.

Until we start to see these changes, it will continue to feel like we are living in Groundhog Day.

Harding is a Director of the Qu’Appelle Valley Environmental Assoc, and a retired professor of environmental and justice studies. Sources are in Watershed Under Duress, posted at QVEA.CA.


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