Canada Is a Land of Lakes, but Is Falling Behind When It Comes to Tracking Their Health
This originally appeared as an op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen on July 28, 2021, and is reprinted below with permission.
As someone who has worked as a freshwater scientist for more than 20 years, trust me when I say that the recent headline news that climate change is sucking the oxygen out of lakes around the globe was shocking, yet necessary.
The havoc that the ever-changing climate is wrecking on the finely balanced ecosystems on which we depend cannot be understated. And the news that the health of our fresh water—a critical staple for life on earth—is being undermined at such a foundational level should be sounding alarm bells.
What struck me most, however, on reading the study itself, was the incredible amount of work that took place behind the scenes to pull such a pan-continental effort together. A headline that might be glanced over at the kitchen table, and maybe even provoke a perfunctory disgruntled murmur on the way to the office, was the result of decades of painstaking work by people across nearly every continent.
Here in Canada, this work has been over 50 years in the making. For example, IISD Experimental Lakes Area contributed data on the physical and chemical elements of five reference lakes that have been collected since 1969. Fifty years of data collection means thousands of early mornings with the blackflies and mosquitos, rainy treks, and soggy sandwiches for intrepid researchers throughout the decades — and that’s just one of the global study sites.
Combine this dataset and the many others from Canada and around the world. Spend hours with these data ensuring consistency between methods, teasing out trends and rhythms and drivers — all to reveal the global picture.
While the final results represent a much-needed global assessment, the building blocks are very much local.
Those building blocks are lacking here, severely in some cases, despite Canada being home to the most lakes of any country in the world, including 20 per cent of the world’s freshwater supply.
Canada has very few sites dedicated to long-term monitoring of freshwater health, providing the kind of data that built the study on oxygen levels in lakes. A few satellite stations dotted across the breadth of a vast territory won’t really cut it when it comes to building an accurate and dynamic picture of the vicissitudes of the country’s resources.
Provincial governments also have very limited systems to track the long-term health of fresh water on an ongoing basis. And at the federal level, while the nascent Canada Water Agency is an exciting new program that will reframe how we look at fresh water at the national level, we still need to support local monitoring endeavours.
We’ve seen some exciting innovation in that sphere blossoming at the grassroots level. Any fired-up citizen in Manitoba, for example, can sign up to take samples that contribute to the Lake Winnipeg Foundation’s community-based monitoring program. Groups like GLEON are helping bring researchers together to formulate questions and calls for data.
But these fine efforts are few and far between. If Canada, at a local level, is to contribute to an increasingly global understanding of the world’s environmental health, we need to put the work in.
We need a national plan to track and co-ordinate the health of our critical freshwater resources.
Our neighbours to the south have developed several national programs, such as the National Earth Observation Network and the U.S. National Lake Assessment. In Europe, the standardized monitoring of freshwater across countries is enhanced by the EU Water Framework. The standardization of monitoring programs and open data platforms are crucial because they ensure that measurements made at the local level are available to everyone and can be used to evaluate national, continental, and global trends.
Home to the most freshwater lakes on planet earth, Canada must learn from our neighbours and colleagues to implement a coordinated national program for monitoring the health of our freshwater ecosystems.
It’s going to take a lot of work, so let’s get started.
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