Water – Life’s Rare Elixir
AWA’S VISION FOR WATER
For the well-being of all living things, Alberta has healthy, natural ecosystems in its river headwaters. There is plentiful clean water for all Albertans; province-wide awareness and stewardship of water as a precious, life-giving resource; and effective, ecosystem-based management of Alberta’s watersheds, groundwater, river valleys, lakes, and wetlands.
Water sustains life. It is critical for our food, sanitation, industry, recreation, and solace. Indeed, water has become a symbol of the health and vitality of both humans and ecosystems. In its many forms, it is also a significant symbol of Canada, pervading our visual art and literature.
Since AWA’s beginnings in the 1960s, we have focused on the health of Alberta’s watersheds, wild rivers, and wetlands, which we consider integral to the maintenance and well-being of all Albertans, including wildlife. We recognize that education, protection, and regulated management and use are the most democratic and efficient means of securing long-term water quality and of conserving aquatic ecosystems and their biological diversity.
Water relies on healthy ecosystems to remain clean, pure, and available. Protecting watersheds, wetlands, and wild, natural rivers is the cheapest and easiest way to provide clean, safe water, as well as many other benefits, including wildlife habitat, flood control, sanitation, and places for healthy forms of recreation.
With each passing year, water events like prolonged droughts and declining river flows, shrinking glaciers and increased flooding are increasing our awareness of the importance of water. Yet the multitude of threats that impact our water quality and quantity are increasing dramatically. Very few of Alberta’s watersheds remain intact. Our watersheds are being degraded at an alarming rate by activities such as forestry, oil and gas development, cattle grazing, residential sprawl, and off-road vehicle use. But we, and our governments, are doing very little to conserve and protect this precious resource.
When conflicts arise, government decisions do not reflect what is needed to maintain healthy watersheds. Water quantity and quality, it seems, is not a high priority. If we are to protect and preserve our water heritage, this must change, and change quickly.
There is an emerging realization of the importance of the water that flows through rivers and wetlands in sustaining healthy ecosystems. The final report of the 2003 conference on Canadian Wetland Stewardship placed the value of wetlands to Canadians at $20 billion annually. In 2004 Environment Canada estimated the value of freshwater to the Canadian economy to be between $7.5 and 23 billion annually – which puts the value of fresh water on par with the gross figures for agriculture and other major economic sectors. Although we need to value fresh water for more than its economic worth, putting a dollar value on nature’s services helps us to understand them within the context of our society’s usual way of measuring worth.
The Ecological Society of America describes ecological benefits or services as “the conditions and processes through which natural ecosystems, and the species that make them up, sustain and fulfill human life.” These benefits include water filtration and purification, waste disposal and detoxification, habitat for plants and animals, production of fish, flood control, recreation, tourism, and aesthetic appreciation.
Ecological services are expensive and even impossible to replace when aquatic ecosystems are degraded or lost. Today however, degradation and loss of these critical ecosystems are occurring at the greatest rate ever. Seventy percent of Alberta’s wetlands have been lost, mainly to agriculture.
Public Lands Policy
The health of aquatic ecosystems is largely dependent on issues of land use. The province of Alberta has been dragging its feet on developing a land-use strategy for over 15 years. Currently, the provincial government’s goal is to release a draft Land-use Framework in early 2008.
AWA has played a leading role in advocating for such a strategy, focused in particular on public lands management. In the fall of 2004, AWA convened a public land roundtable to begin developing a vision and fundamental guiding principles for our public lands. We followed this up with A Review of Public Land Policy in Alberta, British Columbia, the United States and New Zealand, completed in August 2005. During the summer and fall of 2007, we participated in the Land-Use Framework Working Group sessions, providing input for the Land-Use Framework promised by the government.
“Water is a sacred gift, an essential element that sustains and connects all life. It is not a commodity to be bought or sold. All people share an obligation to cooperate to ensure that water in all of its forms is protected and conserved with regard to the needs of all living things today and for future generations tomorrow.”
(Keepers of the Water Declaration, September 7, 2006)