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Canada's watershed protection action guide

Think Canada, and you think water. More than two million lakes and one-fifth of the world's fresh water lie within our borders — our pockmarked landscape was practically purpose built by retreating glaciers to pool water. Now forget all that. The number you need to remember is 6.5 percent. That's the amount of the world's renewable fresh water we have at our disposal (not an awful lot, considering our land mass). The supply is only 2.6 percent in southern Canada. Use more, and we risk gnawing away at our water capital — draining our aquifers and lakes rather than living sustainably and using the water that precipitation replenishes each year. So Canada's water wealth? A myth. That's why it's critical for us to safeguard our waterways, to ensure they're managed well. In the face of climate change, a global water crisis, rising energy demands and urbanization, our water resources don't just become more valuable. They desperately need our help.

1. GET YOUR HANDS WET — AND DIRTY

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"I was walking down the creek and counting the dead," recounts Paul Cipywnyk, president of the Byrne Creek Streamkeepers Society in Burnaby, B.C. "You saw these beautiful little fish alive days before, and then they're all gone." A fish kill in March 2010 decimated the coho salmon smolts and fry in Byrne Creek, one of Burnaby's half dozen remaining salmon-bearing streams. The culprit: someone had washed a pollutant down a storm drain. "We like to joke with locals and say, 'Hey, you guys all live on waterfront property,' because the streets drain into the creek," says Cipywnyk. Levity aside, the best way for people to connect the dots is to get off the couch and into the creek bed. "You have to get outdoors," he says, "to understand how your watershed works."

Cipywnyk, a self-described "accidental environmentalist," is a testament to the charisma of nature. When he and his wife moved into their Burnaby townhouse 10 years ago, they had no idea that a creek even ran 25 metres beyond their back door. "We saw our first spawning salmon that fall and were absolutely enthralled," he says. Cipywnyk joined the Streamkeepers that year. "There's this sense of camaraderie that develops out of sweat equity. When you pull together on something, your vested interest increases dramatically. It becomes our creek, my creek."

"When you are out there overturning logs and pulling garbage out of streams, you really see what's going on," says John Werring, an aquatic biologist with the David Suzuki Foundation in Vancouver. Of the Fraser Valley's 779 creeks and streams, 117 have been lost altogether and many of the rest suffer habitat degradation and pollution. It's a tale of loss echoed across the country. "We need more people out there," says Werring. "That's absolutely critical."

TOOL BOX

If you're keen to spend your own "sweat equity" protecting your watershed, start by identifying the conservation groups that safeguard your local stream, lake, bog or river. Canadian Geographic's comprehensive "Protect your watershed" interactive map (www.canadiangeographic.ca/watersheds) is a great starting point. From here, the details of enlisting are up to you. Members of the Byrne Creek Streamkeepers, for example, take turns as pollution sentinels, naturalists, field biologists, ambassadors and lobbyists for their creek. Dedication is the common denominator, and a willingness to muck around won't hurt. Nearly half the group's volunteer hours are typically clocked "in stream" — surveying insect biodiversity, manning fish traps, pulling out invasive species and supervising preschoolers as they scramble through the creek's ravine. So invest in a good pair of boots, and wait for the rewards. "People who have a higher exposure to nature have a much happier life," says Werring. "They recognize and connect with their surroundings."

2. HELLO, CLASS: I'LL BE YOUR WATERSHED THIS TERM

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On the shore of a beaver pond that feeds a tributary of New Brunswick's Saint John River lies a watertight ammunitions box containing a pamphlet about the watershed written by students, along with three rubber whales and some fish stickers. It's one of four geocaches stashed by the Outdoor Pursuits class of Saint John High School as part of Environment Canada's nationwide Geocache Your Watershed project (www.ec.gc.ca/geocache).

"There are so few opportunities for children and young people to get outdoors," says Bill Mahaffy, who teaches the class. "It just makes things more real to them." One of his class's geocaches is near an osprey nest. From another, his students can catch a glimpse of a beaver, if they're quiet. Mahaffy has found that getting students outside is a shortcut to fostering their conservation values. "If it's part of your life's experience, you take it into your heart and say this is important."

Agreed, says Michael Léveillé, an elementary school science teacher at St-Laurent Academy in Ottawa. Eight years ago, Léveillé adopted Macoun Marsh, an urban wetland tucked away next to a cemetery, as his outdoor classroom. Since then, his students have identified 1,308 species at the marsh (the number is constantly climbing) and, in the process, have become the marsh's stewards and ambassadors, celebrating it as a haven for biological diversity and defending it against threats ranging from minor (littering) to major (urban development). "In a world that's so two-dimensional," says Léveillé, "a three-dimensional experience like this changes their lives."

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The good thing about outdoor classrooms is that they're everywhere you look. College and university students across Ontario can help fight alien invasions by attending invasive species summer schools and attacking aquatic intruders such as zebra mussels (www.invadingspecies.com). You can expect your kid to return a budding water warrior after visiting the annual Haliburton-Muskoka Children's Water Festival (www.hmwaterfestival.ca), which takes place in late September in Minden, Ont. Throughout the country, Parks Canada offers school programs that deliver provincial curriculum, such as the Marmot Learning Centre in Jasper, Alta., home to a ski-in, ski-out classroom offering free on-mountain classes. The Royal Canadian Geographical Society's lesson plans (www.canadiangeographic.ca/watersheds) also share tips on how to get kids seeing blue throughout the country.

3. THE PEN IS JUST AS MIGHTY AS THE PADDLE

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Brooks may burble and lakeshores may lap, but our waters are mute where it really matters: in our courts, legislation and Parliament. "One part of us loves our water. It's in our mythology, it's in our history, it's in our music," says Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians and one of the country's leading water advocates. Yet we don't take good care of our water, she continues, "and that schizophrenia is a problem because our so-called love of water doesn't translate into good law." Witness the stale 40-year-old Canada Water Act or the loophole in the federal Fisheries Act that can allow pristine lakes to be used as tailings ponds by mining corporations. Barlow doesn't hesitate to throw down the gauntlet: "My challenge to Canadians is this: if you really love Canada's water, you've got to work to protect it."

Not that you need to become a hard-core activist to foment big-picture change. "The idea that you need to hang off a building with a protest sign to make your point is not the case at all," says John Bennett, executive director of Sierra Club Canada. "It's much simpler to communicate than that." Call up your MP or municipal councillor. Write a letter. Demonstrate your personal commitment to an issue in a manner befitting your comfort zone. And, above all, know that we all have "a right to care," as Barlow puts it.

"The world is a different place than it was in 1970, when I left high school," says Bennett. "The skies aren't grey and cloudy in every industrial city in North America anymore, and a lot of rivers have come back. And it was environmentalists who demanded change." Yes, our rivers roar and rage, but the onus is on us to give them a voice loud enough to be heard by the policy-makers who decide their fate.

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Even though watersheds don't fit conveniently into manmade jurisdictions, the responsibility for water issues often lies at the local or municipal level, where citizens can wield a lot of power. "You're dealing with an issue that is probably personally affecting the person you're trying to lobby as well as your neighbours," says Bennett. "There are huge opportunities for change, especially at the municipal level." As a class activity, he suggests getting students to develop policy or bylaws and present them to a member of their city or town council. "Councillors are busy people, but give them a chance to participate for a couple hours a year with a high school class. They'd just love it." There's also, of course, the jurisdiction you have over your own property, which is all the more important if your land is lakeside. Ensure that your local lake or landowners' association champions and lobbies for healthy waterfront practices. For cottagers in Ontario, the Lakeland Alliance's Shoreline Advisor Program is a good start (www.lakeland.greenup.on.ca).

4. WATER IS OUR CULTURE

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We are a nation of water lovers and embrace that fact in many ways. "Canadians play in it, sail on it, paddle it, dive into it, skate on it, fish it and drink it," says Mark Mattson, president of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. "Water plays a central role in most Canadians' work, recreation and geography, and accordingly, it becomes a central focus of our music, art, poetry and literature." Just look at the Group of Seven: Lawren Harris's icebergs and Franklin Carmichael's gradient skies reflected on still lakes. Canada's water, in all forms, was a muse to each of them.

Today, the medium is different but not the message. Witness SwimDrinkFishMusic.com, an online subscription-based music club that gives members access to songs donated by Canada's top artists, such as The Tragically Hip's Gord Downie or the Great Lake Swimmers. Membership in the club — whose name is a dig at the "Don't Swim, Don't Drink, Don't Fish" signs along Toronto's shoreline — has more than doubled over the past year. "It's been an amazing way for environmental advocates to link with artists in a way that benefits both," says Mattson. "The site is building a new generation of people who care for a swimmable, drinkable and fishable future for all Canadians."

As water animates the arts scene, its advocacy is also moving to the fore. "Water does have a particular significance to Canadians," says Julian Kingston, project director of the Royal Ontario Museum's "Water: The Exhibition," which runs until Sept. 5. The museum has taken more of an advocacy stance around this exhibit, says Kingston, pointing out, for example, how closely our water footprint is tied to energy consumption or food items. "We are going out of our way to say, 'Here are some things you probably need to think about.'"

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The newly minted RBC Blue Water Gallery at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa is definitely worth a visit. Then there's the "Canada's Waterscapes" exhibit touring the country, also designed by the Canadian Museum of Nature (the exhibit is at the Peterborough, Ont., Centennial Museum & Archives until September). Beyond that, there are some great water-friendly documentary and film events to check out. Paddle Canada's Waterwalker Film Festival stops in most major Canadian cities, and Liz Marshall's feature-length documentary Water on the Table is touring with screenings. Or, bless the internet, turn your home computer into your own theatre. Waterlife, the National Film Board of Canada's remarkable documentary and online experience, narrated by Gord Downie, charts the story of the last great fresh drinking supply on Earth: the Great Lakes. It's at waterlife.nfb.ca.

5. BE A GOOD WATER RESIDENT

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"I was looking at a Super Soaker toy water gun, and it dawned on me that perhaps you could pressurize a rain barrel itself," says Samuel Melamed, a mechanical engineer who was shortlisted for the 2010 James Dyson Award for his rain-barrel design, the Saguaro, while studying at the University of Toronto. The result of his eureka moment: a rain barrel that gives your garden hose some oomph. According to one study, rainwater collection can decrease household water use by as much as 47 percent.

"Almost everything needs to be redesigned now so that it fits into our energy and water resource limits," says Melamed, who is working with Algreen Products to bring the Saguaro to market in the near future. He's talking about a complete overhaul from that tap-running-while- tooth-brushing no-no to fixes such as installing low-flow toilets and showers. "You can make a change on a behavioural level," he says, "and on a technological level as well."

 In North America, 60 percent of household water consumption happens outdoors, where it is spent watering gardens or washing cars. But people are increasingly realizing that "they don't need to use drinkable water to do that," says Melamed. Rainwater is a free and relatively clean source of water. But once it hits the pavement, it becomes polluted with metals, motor oils, pesticides and E. coli — ingredients of our cities' urban patina. When untreated, storm water drains into creeks and rivers, where it both pollutes and erodes riverbanks, damaging habitat critical for aquatic life. As a result, storm-water management is one of North America's chief water concerns.

"The more hard surfaces we generate, the more stormwater runoff we create," says Michael D'Andrea, director of water infrastructure management at Toronto Water. Since 8 in 10 Canadians live in an urban environment, our lifestyle is the main culprit. If your roof has downspouts, then the solution is simple: install a rain barrel. Also, choose porous surfaces instead of concrete when landscaping, and ditch the fertilizer and pesticides. "The more that is done on a daily basis across the watershed," says D'Andrea, "the better off the health of the watershed will be."

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Consider the fact that 200 litres of water go into producing that grande latte in a disposable cup that escorts you to work in the morning. The "virtual water" cost of an object — how much water goes into its production — is invisible. But the same rules should apply to your water footprint as to your sustainable lifestyle choices: buy local, buy less, buy for life. The Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia's Guide to Less Toxic Products (www.lesstoxicguide.ca) gets right to the nitty-gritty of which household products are more eco-friendly — right down to anti-static sheets and oven cleaner — while suggesting less toxic and DIY alternatives. Vinegar, baking soda and borax, for instance, can do the work of most commercial household cleaners. Gardeners: turn your green thumb blue by eschewing products that end in "-cide" and by planting endemic species that can better handle the rigours of seasonal weather. And if you live in rural Alberta, contact the Alberta Riparian Habitat Management Society, commonly called Cows and Fish (www.cowsandfish.org), which empowers ranchers and farmers to restore their riparian corridors.

Action Guide

Water, by the numbers

  • Average daily household water use in Canada, in litres: 343
  • Health Canada's daily recommended freshwater usage, in litres: 60 to 80
  • Minimum water use required daily per person for survival, in litres: 5
  • Canada's international ranking in per-capita water use: 2nd
  • Percentage of Canadians who try at least reasonably hard to conserve water: 78
  • Percentage who admit to leaving the tap running when washing dishes: 44
  • Percentage who admit to hosing down their driveways: 19
  • Percentage of the world's wetlands in Canada: 25
  • Estimated number of lakes in Canada: 2,000,000
  • Approximate percentage of land area covered by lakes in Canada: 8
  • Percentage of Canadians who have "no idea" where their tap water comes from: 25
  • Percentage who feel freshwater is Canada's most important natural resource: 49
  • Percentage concerned about the quality of water in lakes where they swim: 83
  • Percentage who believe the quality of their swimming lakes is getting worse: 68
  • Number of large dams in Canadian rivers and streams: 849
  • Percentage of Canada's energy generation derived from hydropower: 59
  • Number of Canadians who live in watersheds where people use at least 10 percent of stream flow: 22,000,000
  • Percentage of freshwater used by the manufacturing industry: 19
  • Amount of water required, in litres, to produce one car: 250,000
  • Amount of water required, in litres, to produce one computer: 33,000

App that

In the 21st century, your watershed's best friend may be your smartphone. Not only can you use it to call a pollution hotline to report a misdemeanour, but it can also visualize your water footprint. The Virtual Water iPhone app ($1.99) and the Water Footprint Calculator (free) are two ways, and IBM's Creek Watch app (free) can help ground-truth your local creek's water quality. If you're desk-bound, countless web resources are at your fingertips, such as Environment Canada's A Wise Use of Water Guide, which shows how to reduce water use in your home. And don't forget Canadian Geographic's interactive map (www.canadiangeographic.ca/watersheds). Next time you head for the beach, make sure you've got Lake Ontario Waterkeeper's Swim Guide iPhone app on hand, along with your sunscreen and towel. The app, which launches in early June, gives you real-time updates on which public beaches have the OK from health inspectors. "The information and content available at the press of a button will revolutionize the connection between water and communities by making it easy and convenient to find a safe beach for recreation," says Lake Ontario Waterkeeper president Mark Mattson. This beach finder is the first phase of the group's plan for watershed-awareness domination: Swim, Drink and Fish iPhone apps to span North America.

10 ways to love your watershed

1. Become an expert

Pick an issue, any water issue, and do a deep dive. National water policy? Combined sewage overflows? More than 1,500 boil water advisories in effect across Canada? Get smart about your watershed by viewing the Canadian Atlas Online Watershed awareness thematic.

2. Stick a paddle in it

Hop into a canoe, and paddle down two or three rivers in your watershed. Visit their headwaters. Brave their rapids. Don hip waders, and go angling in their riffles. The more you see and experience firsthand, the better you’ll understand the interconnectivity of your watershed.

3. Clean up its act

Roll up your sleeves, and pull on your boots. Donate your brains and brawn to a “riverkeeper” group and help with stream cleanups, riparian restoration efforts, public engagement, species counts or creek monitoring.

4. Obstruct your lake view

Canada has some two million lakes; that’s a lot of cottage real estate. The healthiest shorelines have plenty of vegetation to limit runoff and pollution. The message: plant a native-vegetation buffer of even three metres along the shoreline to stabilize the soil and reduce erosion. While you’re at it, be a good boater: reduce your wake, and install a bilge filter.

5. Lay out some geo-breadcrumbs

Into geocaching, that treasure hunting game played with GPS devices? If so, create a geocache trail at key points in your watershed, and include bits of information about the waterways and neighbouring lands.

6. Advocate

Our waterways don’t have a voice of their own, so that’s your job.
Join a local water advocacy group. Write a letter to your elected leaders, newspaper editor or friends to build awareness. If your watershed lacks a watchdog organization, start one using an online social-networking site such as Ning.

7. Tap into your own water supply

Most tap water in Canada is safe to drink. Not only is bottled water redundant, it is water-intensive to produce (not to mention expensive). Three litres of water are used to produce one litre of bottled water.

8. Revive the hydrological cycle

Reduce or eliminate the herbicide, pesticide and fertilizer you use in your backyard. Get rid of that thirsty green carpet and plant a rain garden, or use drought-tolerant plants. Use rain barrels to reduce storm-water runoff.

9. Enlist Fido’s help

Shunning poop-and-scoop etiquette risks more than some poor sod stepping in Fido’s deposit. Dog poop is a leading contributor to high E. coli counts that shut down our beaches and lakeshores. Got the scoop?

10. Channel your inner artist

Express your watershed admiration. Shoot a video at your local wetland, and post it to YouTube. Take photographs, and use them to make greeting cards. Create a blog, and share four seasons of sights, sounds and impressions from your watershed. Don’t be shy; we know you have it in you.