October 4th, 2023
Canada’s freshwater: a call for proactive climate-ready infrastructure investment
When a watershed is healthy and maintained, it can minimize climate change risk, support local wildlife populations, clean drinking water, and increase disaster resiliency.
This article was orginally published on The Hill Times
Once again this spring and summer, Canadians have experienced the extreme and harmful effects of wildfires and flooding due to climate change. It was the longest and worst wildfire and drought season on record, claiming lives, causing loss of homes and crops, and challenging Canada’s freshwater security.
It’s never been more critical for Canada to proactively invest in climate-ready infrastructure to build climate-resilient communities. The federal government needs to act now.
The costs associated with the climate crisis will continue to rise unless we take a different approach. The adage of “an ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure” certainly applies here so that as a country we are prepared for the next devastating flood, drought, or wildfire.
In British Columbia, the province I call home, the rivers and lakes are the cornerstones of local economies, forests, fish, food crops, quality of life, and cultural memories. Yet, watersheds in B.C. and across Canada face increasing pressures as extreme climate events threaten their stability. When a watershed is healthy and maintained, it can minimize climate change risk, support local wildlife populations, clean drinking water, and increase disaster resiliency.
First Nations, local governments and communities are working every day on the front lines of the climate crisis with limited resources to keep watersheds healthy and secure. Indigenous and western science confirms that healthy watersheds protect against climate disasters, like drought, wildfire, and floods. Healthy watersheds serve as natural defences against the climate crisis. Wetlands act as natural sponges, purifying water. Streambanks filter polluted runoff and provide shelter for salmon. Mature forests retain water and release it when needed most.
The International Institute for Sustainable Development highlights that natural infrastructure, such as forests and wetlands, can provide the same services at a lower cost compared to built infrastructure. These natural defences are not only cheaper to build, but also more cost-effective to maintain. They appreciate over time.
We need bold federal leadership and investments in natural infrastructure to address the climate crisis in B.C. and across Canada. The watershed sector in B.C. is a major employer and economic driver, generating more than 47,000 indirect and direct jobs and contributing $5-billion to GDP through activities like restoration, monitoring, technology, and urban and industrial management.
The recent investment of $100-million by the B.C. NDP government in the co-developed Watershed Security Fund with the First Nations Water Caucus is an important start, but the federal government needs to be at the table with a federal investment.
So where would the federal government find the money needed to invest in the important work of rebuilding our natural infrastructure, namely Canada’s watersheds?
The federal NDP suggests it can be done through a reformed Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB). It is time for the Liberals to make the CIB a public bank with a public purpose and invest in the B.C. Watershed Security Fund, giving First Nations, and provincial and municipal governments the resources needed for better planning and decision-making, rebuilding natural infrastructure, and bolstering collaborative monitoring.
As the federal government develops the Canadian Water Agency, we can look to B.C.’s co-developed watershed security strategy and fund as a model for the rest of Canada.
It’s past due for Canada to be putting public interest ahead of private profit. Protect watersheds—nature’s infrastructure—and use the CIB for good.
Bonita Zarrillo is the NDP MP for Port Moody–Coquitlam, B.C., and her party’s critic for infrastructure and communities.