The Pipelines We Need

Effluent to the affluent.

By Kevin Van Tighem

Read any of Alberta’s daily newspapers and you will know that our province’s only hope is new pipelines. Nothing else will save us. I took some convincing, but I’m in. In fact, I’d like to propose two new pipelines.

These pipelines, unlike Trans Mountain or the thankfully dead Northern Gateway, should be less controversial. As water pipelines, they shouldn’t require environmental double-speak and weird rationalizations about “ethical oil” and how pumping more bitumen will reduce greenhouse emissions. If one leaks, that’s just a duck pond. People like ducks, at least live ones.

One of my proposed pipelines would draw water from the delta of the Peace and Athabasca rivers in Wood Buffalo National Park. Its purpose: to provide drinking water to towns and cities from, say, Red Deer northward. The other would draw water from the South Saskatchewan River near Empress, downstream of Medicine Hat, to serve southern Alberta communities. Both pipelines would replace existing water sources.

The farther downstream one goes, the bigger the river, right? So these two pipelines should deliver more than enough water for the future needs of our province.

Well, maybe not that southern pipeline. The South Saskatchewan carries the combined flows of the Bow and Oldman rivers. But a 2009 government study found that before the river crosses into Saskatchewan, more than half of its summer flow is sucked out to irrigate crops. The World Wildlife Fund says that up to 90 per cent of the Bow’s flow goes to farms some years. At times it’s possible to walk across the river near Bassano and barely wet your knees—try that in Calgary.

That water grows potatoes for potato chips, beets for sugar and forage crops for cattle. Irrigation proponents often insist their crops are feeding a hungry world. But irrigation agriculture, like any other industry, is driven by profit margins. The hungry people of the world can’t afford most irrigation crops.

If the people of Edmonton and other large communities got their drinking water from the Peace-Athabasca delta, you can bet we’d keep it clean.

Replacing existing wells and dams with a pipeline from the downstream limit of the South Saskatchewan River would force us to rethink how generously we subsidize the fattening of our nation with river water. Irrigation makes sense in that drought-prone region, but only for growing food that’s actually needed. A more conservative approach—irrigating for food and not for fat—would leave more water in the rivers. More water in the rivers would also improve water quality. A 2009 Alberta Agriculture study found that the lower Bow and Oldman rivers have the worst riparian health values possible, and that pesticide loads exceed levels harmful to fish and invertebrates.

But there is big money in irrigation; I expect stiff opposition to my pipeline proposal. The northern pipeline proposal will face resistance too. It would draw water from the heart of Wood Buffalo National Park, which is recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Educational Commission (UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site. We don’t want to ruin world heritage, do we?

Actually, we’re already ruining it. The BC government permanently impaired the Peace River’s flow when it built the W.A.C. Bennett dam in 1968. The Peace–Athabasca delta promptly began to dry out. Engineers tried building weirs in the park to replace the flood flows but the deterioration continues. BC’s Site C dam, now under construction, will make things even worse. Most Albertans live upstream of Wood Buffalo, which is probably why they aren’t kicking up a fuss about the price that muskrats, moose, wood bison and small Cree communities will all pay.

They’re already paying another price: The Athabasca River is chronically polluted with chemical residues from oil sands mining in Alberta. Fish have tumours, cancer rates are high and the people whose families trusted the river for generations no longer consider its water safe.

A 2017 UNESCO study found that nearly every indicator of well-being for this World Heritage Site is degraded, mostly because upstream abuse sends sick rivers into the delta.

That’s why we need the pipeline. If the people of Edmonton and other large communities had to drink that water, you can bet we’d keep it clean. We’d fight hard to keep both those rivers healthy. For now, however, we happily pocket our profits from river abuse, ignoring the plight of the park and its politically powerless Indigenous communities.

Good neighbours don’t hog water and flush their problems down the river for the ecosystem and the next guy to cope with. But we do. We divert pristine waters to our towns and cities, and send shrunken, polluted rivers out of the province. If our drinking water came from the downstream ends of those rivers, we’d be more motivated to keep them well watered and clean. That would make us better neighbours. Actually, it might make us better people. It’s time to lay some pipe.

Kevin Van Tighem’s latest book, Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta, was released in spring 2017 by RMB.

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