This week, the Chilliwack Times published an op-ed that Larry Commodore and I wrote together. Below is an expanded version of that piece.
In recent weeks, Chilliwack has been ignited by the decision of the Fraser Health Authority (FHA) to chlorinate its drinking water. Despite strong local concern, the permanent use of chlorine seems to be here to stay. But this shouldn't be the end of the debate. Our concern over this issue can help spark a broader movement to protect our water wealth.
Three things we’ve seen in the chlorination controversy can help guide this movement.
The first is that local residents have immense pride in our award-winning water. We want and deserve to have a say in decisions that affect both our drinking water and the pristine sources from which it flows. Yet our local voices were discounted by the FHA, which did not allow for community member input and only disclosed reasons for its decision after public outcry.
The second lesson is the need to ensure we prevent contamination of our drinking water source in the first place. While most of the focus has been on end-of-pipe treatment, surprisingly little discussion has centred on the vulnerability of where our water actually comes from-the Sardis-Vedder aquifer.
This shallow aquifer lies underneath local industry, suburbs and farmlands. In 2010, B.C.'s Auditor General described the aquifer as "heavily used and highly vulnerable to contamination." The City of Chilliwack told the AG that contamination of the aquifer itself would cost taxpayers $30 million.
The third lesson is the importance of protecting all our home waters in order to secure a safe water supply. The Sardis-Vedder aquifer is connected to a larger system of water flows, including the Vedder, Chilliwack and Fraser rivers. And these connect with the broader watershed of the Fraser Valley. This valley is the homeland of the Sto: lo Nation ("People of the River") who held sole jurisdiction and have been stewards of these waters for thousands of years. Guided by tradition, the Sto: lo believe that water is more than a resource but also has cultural, spiritual and ecological values that must be protected. This wisdom is something we all stand to benefit from.
The reality is that our home waters face grave threats and we need to come together as community members to protect them. Chlorination is an immediate concern and it’s important to continue asking questions about how it impact the health of us as local residents.
However, there are also a number of pressing issues threatening our water wealth. The transportation of heavy bitumen from Alberta's oil sands through the Trans Mountain pipeline presents serious risk; the pipeline crosses 98 streams and cuts across our drinking water aquifer. Kinder Morgan plans to triple capacity to over 800,000 barrels per day by building a new mega-pipeline along the same route. The corporation says pipelines are safe, but Trans Mountain has experienced four ruptures since 2005. U.S. government statistics show that pipeline accidents have killed over 500 people, injured 4,000, and cost nearly $7 billion in property damage since 1986.
Other major threats include the controversial Aggregate Pilot Project, which seeks to carve up the Fraser Canyon & Fraser Valley into gravel mining safe havens - including in-river gravel mining - despite the potential for degradation of the Fraser watershed and our source waters.
And then there are issues of rapid urban sprawl and intensive industrial agriculture that generate tonnes of run-off laden with pesticides, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals that contaminate our local waters.
So what can be done? Water experts universally agree that protecting the water source is the first, best and cheapest line of defence for ensuring clean and healthy water.
Many jurisdictions now require source water protection plans because of these benefits. After the tragedy of Walkerton, communities in Ontario are developing some of the strongest source water protection plans informed by the input of local people.
In contrast, B.C. hasn't given the go-ahead to a single source water protection plan under its Drinking Water Protection Act. In fact, in spite of promises made to the contrary, water protection has not been a real priority of the provincial government for a long, long time. BC’s major water legislation, the Water Act, is over 100 years old. It was developed in 1909 and despite suggestions from a large number of diverse groups like the Union of BC Indian Chiefs and EcoJustice to modernize the Act in a way that prioritizes fresh water, it continues to be subordinate to the interests of the Mining Act and the Forestry Act - highlighting that the priorities of the provincial government are still locked in the 20th century.
It is essential that this lack of proactive planning to safeguard our fresh water systems change.
Since Chilliwack's aquifer is vulnerable to a range of threats extending beyond the city's boundaries, a comprehensive source protection plan is essential. To be effective, the plan must come from those most directly affected and indigenous rights must be upheld.
One model that has successfully empowered local decision-making is the Citizens' Panel.
Operating much like a legal jury, the panel would be comprised of a dozen or so Fraser Valley residents who call the region home, chosen to represent the diversity of grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and friends within the community. They would have the right to call upon experts, balance the facts, and develop an enforceable plan to safeguard our shared home waters.
It is apparent that the status-quo is not working and that our home waters are suffering because of it. It is time to move the power away from Victoria and Ottawa back to the local level. We support 100% community control over decisions that impact our home waters. We are driven by the principle that the people most directly impacted should have the right to say yes or no to decisions that will affect them, their children and their grandchildren.
Care and concern for the health of our freshwater is abundantly flowing in Chilliwack. Let's turn this into a flood of support for a thoughtful and responsible community protection plan for our shared home waters, supported by strong laws that empower local communities, and that prioritize clean and flowing fresh water. That would be a vote of confidence in our future.