It’s time to protect our watersheds

New Brunswick is rich in beautiful lakes, rivers and streams. Whether it’s our 5,000 kilometres of ocean coast, our 60,000 kilometres of major rivers and lovely streams, or our 2,500 lakes, we know them all, love them all, and argue which part of our wet province is our favourite. Citizens from all walks of life and in all communities in the province highly value this beautiful, natural heritage. A recent public opinion poll conducted for the Conservation Council finds a large majority of us are concerned about the health of our water and believe that it is at risk from too much pollution.

So it’s a good thing to see that the provincial government is working to develop a comprehensive water protection strategy.

In the old days, governments focused almost entirely on industrial pollution and sewage, and developed policy tools, like certificates of approvals, to restrict runoff at the “end of the pipe.” Those restrictions helped. A lot.

Over time, governments developed drinking water protection plans that were a bit more comprehensive — setting wide buffers zones around municipal wells and prohibiting certain types of activities within those areas.

Gradually scientists, environmental experts and policy advisors within government recognized the limits of both the end-of-the-pipe approach, and focusing solely on drinking water, and advocated for comprehensive, science-based, watershed wide protection planning. That approach needs to form the basis of the government’s strategy now. We believe that under the new strategy, government should establish a baseline water quality classification system to better understand the health of our water systems. Already adopted in many jurisdictions worldwide, the water health classification system would set transparent goals to maintain and improve water quality. The process works by “classifying” rivers, lakes, and tributaries, using scientific based parameters (for example, dissolved oxygen, nutrient status and aquatic life). Governments then work with groups in each watershed, including business, community and environmental organizations, to either protect or improve on water health. That inclusive process ensures river health is maintained or improved over time. Luckily for us, we have an existing regulation under our important Clean Water Act that we can use (or even improve on).

All over Europe, in New Zealand, and in most parts of the United States, this system of protecting watersheds has led to sustainable water management plans and restoration projects that connect the upstream and downstream communities. New Brunswick started work on this science-based system over 15 years ago, with the intent to “eventually classify all waters in the Province, watershed by watershed.”

It’s high time we got this done.