Flooding, sewage overflow, blue-green algae and poor water quality have become all-too familiar issues in New Brunswick, and they are raising concern about the health of the province’s bays, rivers and streams.
New Brunswick urgently needs watershed protection legislation now, more than ever.
Issues in the St. John River and Northumberland Strait watersheds
New Brunswick is made up of 13 major watersheds, meaning the area that drains all the rivers, streams and wetlands. About 40 per cent of New Brunswick’s population gets their water supply from surface watersheds.
In 2018 and 2019, nightmares became reality when record-high flooding hit the St. John River, New Brunswick’s largest watershed. The historic floods left New Brunswick in a state of disarray – it devastated thousands of properties from Fredericton to Saint John, causing tens of millions in damages. And it did more than just that. The flooding compromised sewage systems and oil storage tanks, causing overflow into the St. John River, and contaminating the water.
As if flooding and sewage leaks weren’t enough, blooms of blue-green algae also became a threat to New Brunswick’s watersheds in recent years. High temperatures fed the toxic bacteria, helping it grow rapidly in rivers and lakes across the province. Blue-green algae is naturally occurring, but excess amounts of nutrients like phosphorus make it worse. Several dogs suddenly died after playing in the St. John River in recent summers and blue-green algae was found to be the culprit.
The Northumberland Strait, home to New Brunswick’s iconic Parlee Beach, has also had its fair share of water quality issues. During the summer of 2016, Parlee Beach experienced poor water quality which left the water unsafe to swim in for a total of 10 days. In 2017, the provincial and federal governments invested $3 million to fix the decades-old sewage system and the provincial government now follows Health Canada’s guidelines for recreational water quality at Parlee, and eight other provincial park beaches.
No-swimming advisories caused by high levels of E. coli in the water continue to plague the beach. Business owners have struggled due to the low tourism numbers and citizens feel more work is needed to restore water quality and safeguard Parlee Beach from future contamination.
Need for stronger laws and enforcement
Protecting our water is quickly becoming a major priority for New Brunswickers, as we increasingly feel the forces of climate change first hand. A survey conducted by the Conservation Council found that 70% of New Brunswickers believe that governments are mismanaging fresh water supplies.
In many cases, the province’s current water regulations do not have the strength they need to be enforceable, nor do they provide the appropriate resources for enforcement.
For example, the Water Classification Regulation was intended to provide a framework for watershed management in New Brunswick, but was never implemented due to “deficiencies within the regulation that prevented its use”.
Following the flood of 2018, CBC reported that watercourse and wetland alteration (WAWA) permits, which are intended to protect watercourses and wetlands from the effects of development, have been on the rise, with the Fredericton region having the highest number of permits in 2017, at 456, up nearly 200 permits from 2013.
Making watershed protection a priority
In December 2017, the provincial government released a water protection strategy which lays out smart steps to protect water and a timeline to enact them. Among the 29 actions is one that commits to develop new watershed protection legislation by 2020.
“Introducing a new water protection act over the next two years – legislation that will both make watershed protection action plans mandatory and legally enforceable and set science-based water quality standards – is a big move, and a smart one,” said our executive director, Lois Corbett, in response to the strategy.
The issues that we are seeing in the St. John River, along the Northumberland Strait, and the province’s other 11 major watersheds are not being comprehensively addressed by current legislation.
A watershed protection act is a holistic approach to management that recognizes that even in a healthy watershed, there are many factors that can comprise its overall health. Watershed legislations means that protecting the health and resiliency of our wetlands, floodplains, forests and riparian areas is a priority, one that is detailed in law and coupled with strong enforcement.
A new watershed protection act, combined with a new regulation to protect coastal areas under the Clean Water Act (as described in the provincial water protection strategy) will go a long way to ensure the health of coastal waters so that communities along the Northumberland Strait, like Shediac and Pointe-du-Chêne can enjoy the environmental and economic benefits that a healthy watershed provides.
Flooding, sewage overflows, blue-green algae and water quality concerns are fresh in New Brunswickers minds as this summer draws to a close and we prepare to head to the polls. Many New Brunswickers will be looking for a government that will follow through with the full implementation of the water protection strategy and take action to implement a new watershed protection act by 2020. Right now, it is up to our communities to raise their concerns about health issues in their watersheds and ask politicians how they plan to address them.