By ROY MACGREGOR
Saturday, November 18, 2017
The sign at Kitchissippi Point on the Ottawa River seemed particularly apt early last spring.
The message is part of a permanent display to show how once, more than 10,000 years ago, the Ottawa Valley was completely under water. The thawing of the last Ice Age led to the formation of the massive Champlain Sea that formed an inlet for the Atlantic Ocean. The brackish water ran as much as 150 metres higher than the current levels of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers.
And now, on an early May day several millennia later, both rivers were rising dramatically - if not to those levels - as snowmelt and runoff combined with rain, rain, rain, rain ... The rain had fallen for most of a week. On May 1, alone, some areas along the Ottawa River had received 55 millimetres of downpour. Records stretching as far back as 1925 had nothing to compare to it. There was flooding throughout the watershed - cottage property sliding into the swollen Madawaska River at Combermere, basements flooded at Golden Lake, roads and streets closed in communities on both sides of the Ottawa River, two schools closed and a seniors residence evacuated in Maniwaki, far up the Gatineau River, states-of-emergency called in Saint-André-Avellin and Rigaud, homes flooded on Montreal's West Island, and Ile Mercier actually submerged - all with severe weather warnings continuing and another 55 millimetres of rain predicted for the coming weekend. By that point, the military had been called in to help the hardest-hit areas in Quebec. Farther east, along the Saint John River valley, more than 100 millimetres of rain fell over a two-day span. Water, water everywhere indeed.
Monday evening, with the rain still falling, I went to Shirley's Bay, a large, lake-like widening of the Ottawa River some 15 kilometres north of Parliament Hill. The waves were rolling in, slamming into large boulders placed as a semi-breakwater along the boat ramp. With the rainfall and fog, it was impossible to see across the wide bay to the Quebec shore. I felt like I was standing at the edge of an angry ocean rather than this usually placid river. The Champlain Sea returned.
It was a choice moment to reflect on the journeys of the past three years for The Globe and Mail: 16 Canadian rivers studied in detail for their history, people, issues and future, dozens more rivers touched upon in passing either by canoe, vehicle, air or library. A person could do this forever and never finish. Roderick Haig-Brown had it right when he said, "No book could possibly tell the whole story of Canada's rivers." There are more than 8,500 named rivers alone in the country. As a journalist interested in seeing as much as possible of the country I cover, and as a passionate canoeist endlessly intrigued by what lies around that next bend, I had to accept that reality: no book can tell the whole story, no person can journey them all. It was Mole in The Wind in the Willows who believed rivers held "the best stories in the world." True in author Kenneth Grahame's England, true in Canada, true throughout the world.
Standing on the shrinking shoreline of Shirley's Bay, I could only think about how much water there has to be in the atmosphere to permit such a prolonged rain, with even more in the forecasts. Hours away, the Toronto islands were now under threat of flooding.
One of the island ferries was at the ready should an evacuation be ordered. Water, water everywhere - and yet it is rapidly becoming a central issue of the 21st century.
Not because there is so much, because there may be too little.
We often hear that water is the new oil. George W. Bush has said "Water is more valuable than oil." The mayor of Dirt in the animated feature Rango says, "If you control water, you control everything." In Canada, no one has sounded the alarm louder or more consistently than Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians. She has argued for years that water is not, as so many believe, a totally renewable resource we can never run out of - even if last spring along the Ottawa River it certainly appeared so. If no action is taken on climate change, she and others say, the war refugees of today will seem minor compared to the water refugees of the future. By 2075, Barlow says in her most recent book, Boiling Point, "The water crisis could affect as many as seven-billion people," which is pretty much everybody on the planet.
As for Canada itself, we should not be so smug as to think our supply of renewable fresh water is endless. Canada does have more water than any other nation, but Canada also has multiple rivers - the Bow River and South Saskatchewan River in the Prairies being but two significant examples - under severe threat from over-extraction. Pollution remains a major concern, as well, whether in waters surrounding major cities or in remote areas. In the first six months of 2016, there were more than 130 drinking-water advisories issued in First Nations communities across the country. Data collected by Environment Canada says that in 2015 alone, more than 205 billion litres of raw sewage and untreated waste water was dumped into Canadian oceans and waterways.
Water is unlike oil in that it returns. Oil, once used, is gone forever, its molecular structure changed, its debatable traces gone to the atmosphere. Water, on the other hand, can be cleaned and restored and used again and again and again, whether it be to irrigate, power, drink, wash, flush. ... The water going down your toilet today might soon be going down someone's throat. Nothing is more recyclable than water.
This matter that sustains us, however, is not infinite. Nor, obviously, is it equally spread throughout this planet. Canada might have 20 per cent of earth's freshwater, but other countries are already suffering desperate shortages. Ironically, water has been part of the problem. The world's population soared in no small part because of hygiene and irrigation.
More food meant more people, and healthier humans lived longer. At the turn of the century, the world's population stood around six billion. By 2050, it is estimated that number could reach nine billion, a 50 per cent increase in barely half a century.
Potable water is a valuable commodity, obviously. But one has to wonder about values when Harrod's of London offers a bottle of Svalbardi water - harvested from 4,000-year-old icebergs off the coast of Norway - at £80 ($141.52) a bottle. Bottled water, unknown to previous generations, has today become a huge international industry, worth more than $200-billion a year and recently outstripping sales of soft drinks in North America.
Sadly, the vast majority of sales are to people living with drinking water available for pennies from their taps. Who saw water becoming a fashion accessory? It can be fairly said that Canadians are waking up to the importance of their freshwater blessings.
A 2017 survey by the Royal Bank of Canada found that 45 per cent of Canadians now consider water to be the country's most important natural resource. How this natural resource should be used is, increasingly, a growing issue.
There is a national awakening under way, and this awakening can be found in every part of the country. Earlier this year, Manitoba launched a public awareness campaign called "Spot the Stripes and Stop the Spread" that is intended to encourage the public to take up the fight against zebra mussels and other invasive species. In Ottawa, the member of Parliament for Ottawa South, David McGuinty rose in the House of Commons to introduce a private member's bill calling for the creation of an Ottawa River Watershed Council. The legislation calls for a major study on how the various levels of government could "take the management of the Ottawa River watershed to the next level," and is modelled on such initiatives as the Fraser Basin Council in British Columbia, as well as the Red River Basin Commission that includes both Canadian and American members.
Canadians need to "revamp our thinking when it comes to managing the way we do business and the way we relate to something as essential as a watershed," McGuinty told the Commons. "It is an incredible opportunity for Canada, not just in the context of the Ottawa River watershed but right across the country." McGuinty's cross-river colleague, Bill Amos, representing the Quebec federal riding of Pontiac, stood immediately to support the bill.
A few weeks after the Great Spring Flood of 2017, I took a drive along the Ottawa River to see what the situation was like now that the waters were receding. The damage was obvious - ruined carpets, furniture and appliances at the side of shoreline roads waiting for pickup, empty and filled sandbags piled to the sides of homes, some still guarding the water's edge, a few small places still jacked up in the hopes the owners could somehow escape the damage.
And yet, it wasn't all damage.
Where the river had backed away from property it had briefly claimed, daffodils and tulips were already up. Along the Deschenes and Remic rapids at the western edge of the city, some early kayakers already out dancing toward summer. At Chaudiere Falls close to Parliament Hill, you could not only see but you could feel the power of this amazing river that, within the span of a few weeks, managed to bring such destruction and then such new and welcome life to the region.
The Ottawa River - so important to First Nations, to exploration, to the fur and timber trades - was the closest and first river I wrote about.
The others (Saint John, St. Lawrence, Gatineau, Rideau, Dumoine, Muskoka, Don, Grand, Niagara, Red, North Saskatchewan, Bow, Columbia, Fraser and Mackenzie) showed me how deeply those who live along those rivers treasure them, and worry about what will become of them.
At the end of this long journey through so many, as well as so few, of Canada's rivers, I cannot help but think of Judith Flynn-Bedard who spends much of the year on her boat in the Ottawa River and dreams of a day when her grandchildren can swim in clean water that washes down from the capital.
I hope Wally Schaber gets his beloved Dumoine River declared a protected park so that it can remain that "beautiful, wild, freeflowing river" he so loves. May Floyd Roland see that "green" economy that will mean the communities along the mighty Mackenzie will thrive into the future. Let us all trust that Canada and the United States listen to Bob Sandford, who says that there is a great opportunity to "get this one right" in the renegotiation of the critical Columbia River Treaty. When Lynda Shneekloth, of the University of Buffalo, talks of the necessity of "Rethinking Niagara," it is a philosophy that could be applied to hundreds of rivers in North America that pass through urban and industrial areas.
When Michael Yee, the biologist with the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority, says that "people are more engaged, taking ownership" of their watersheds, he speaks of something needed across the land. Also needed are scientists like Matt Windle, of the St. Lawrence River Institute of Environmental Sciences, who is helping the American eel up and down past the dams. And who ever imagined that the brown trout would one day return to the polluted Grand River in such numbers that Rob Heal could run a successful flyfishing and guiding operation?
When Kevin Van Tighem, once the superintendent of Banff National Park, devotes so much volunteer time to protecting the Bow River watershed, it underscores his belief that "the most important resource in the province, and the rarest, is water." It is a belief shared by people like Arlen Leeming, of the Don Valley Conservation Association, who speaks so surely of "hope" - and finds it in something as small as the return of mink to what was once the most abused and polluted river in Canada.
I think of all the inspirational young people I met - teens like the Gaspe de Beaubien cousins and their AquaHacking conventions, Kingston's Robyn Hamlyn and her campaign against bottled water - but also of older Canadians like Bill Purkis, of Bala, who says he will fight to the end to prevent another dam from rising on the Muskoka River. As Jacques Courcelles put it as he stood along the Red River where now five generations of his family have lived, "Sometimes you have to think beyond your lifetime."
I find that I agree with Gilbert Whiteduck, former chief of the Kitigan Zibi First Nation along Quebec's Gatineau River, that we must continue to fight "complacency." As another native leader, Sonny McHalie, of the Sto:lo First Nation along the Fraser River, put it, "We are the river and the river is us." And more than anything else, I take from the North Saskatchewan River the lessons of Okiysikaw Tyrone Tootoosis and Cree elder Emil Bell. "Water is life," Bell says. "No water, no life - it's that simple."
Excerpted from Original Highways: Travelling the Great Rivers of Canada by Roy MacGregor. Copyright © 2017 Roy MacGregor. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
The Ottawa River rages after passing the dam at the Chaudiere Falls in Ottawa in May, 2017, when the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers reached levels unseen in millenniums.
Patrice Pepin walks with his boat down Fournier Street in the flood zone along the Ottawa River in Saint-André-d'Argenteuil, Que., in May, 2017.
DARIO AYALA/ THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Roy MacGregor says that while Canada has more fresh water than any other country in the world, we can't take the valuable resource for granted.