Keepers of the Water: Day 1

The first full day of the Keepers of the Water VI conference set out the stark contrasts over what to do with water and about the link of water and energy. As may be expected, the bulk of the discussion focused on Northeastern B.C. with additional places getting some attention (i.e. northern Alberta and the N.W.T.).

The day started off with welcomes from several folks and a short video that brought the concerns of Fort Nelson First Nations elders on water to a larger audience. Then Wade Davis presented. His main argument was twofold. First, he argued that the ‘modern industrial carpet’ of the western world does not hold the monopoly, or even the majority stake, in understanding water or our obligations to the planet. It only does so in one cultural imagination where other cultures represent failures at becoming modern. Second, he argued that all cultures be given equal consideration for the adaptive insights they give into the human condition. He referred a number of times to the ‘sacred geography’ that comes about when individuals make sacrifices of time, energy and goods to sustain particular places. These themes were interwoven in numerous stories about peoples and practices the world over. And his message was warmly received. What was additionally interesting to me were his conclusions regarding how climate change is a psychological problem for individuals and groups who believe they have a personal responsibility for taking care of the earth. He argued that, when viewed through a cultural lens, many non-western cultures are doing more to fight climate change than the west, particularly by changing their long-standing rituals for sustaining good earth relationships. They are making changes (too many to detail here) because they see themselves as failing to prevent rapid global environmental changes and this is causing severe psychological distress.

The rest of the day focused more on practical problems in the Arctic Ocean Basin. And a particularly interesting debate emerged between a hydro-geologist from Victoria and B.C.’s Oil and Gas Commission. The hydro-geologist made several arguments regarding the potential long term problems with fracking. These included the use of old wells from the 1950s and 1970s for disposing of wastewater and the industrial slurry from fracking operations. His view was that these old wells had the potential for leakage at multiple points that could affect groundwater. His second big point was that, because the effect of hydrofracturing can be to lower subsurface pressure of different bedrock formations, there exists a possibility that higher pressure groundwater nearer to the surface could been drawn down to areas of lower pressure. This could, in his view, draw down the water table considerably either through existing pathways in geologic formations or through manmade conduits, such as old wells. This seems an important consideration since western Canada has somewhere around 500 000 wells. So he made the case that the long-term effects of fracking include the possibility of dewatering many tributaries and rivers where these pressure gradients exist. A final point was the approvals for water use in fracking were made based on mean annual flows while rivers fluctuated drastically from the spring freshet to low winter flows.

The B.C. oil and gas representative argued that the hydrogeologist got the facts wrong, particularly on the mean annual flows. He argued that, in fact, water withdrawals are tied to actual surface water availability and that withdrawals are stopped when water levels are low (for instance, no withdrawals have been allowed since July of this year).  Along the way he gave some really interesting facts. For instance, 2/3 of B.C.’s natural gas already comes from unconventional sources (i.e. they come from wells made active by fracking). In 2011 the Oil and Gas regulator approved the withdrawal of 3.7 million cubic meters of water for these activities. Some of that water comes from surface water sources, but in other cases from deep saline aquifers. Interestingly, these deep aquifers have water with high contents of carbon dioxide and sour gas (H2S). The sour gas is removed before the water is used because it has market value and is too dangerous to pressurize for fracking. The carbon dioxide is off-gassed into the atmosphere in what is presently an unaccounted for dimension of greenhouse gas emissions from fracking that uses this water source. Privately, I asked if this would amount to very much carbon. The answer was yes. But no figures were given.

Ben Parfit, from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, made some really nice points about how to increase water oversight of fracking operations and in policy more generally. One I found particularly interesting was that, at present, the Oil and Gas industry in B.C. is the only sector with its own regulatory commission. Every other sector (forestry, mining, etc.) has to go through an independent body for water licenses (whether they are long-term licenses or short term permits). On the face of it, it just doesn’t look good because it has the appearance of special treatment. Further, B.C.’s oil and gas commission both issues permits and does the enforcement. It was interesting that in the question period it came out that only 1% of the Oil and Gas regulator’s staff are dedicated to issues affect water. In real terms, there are two people.

I will give the last comment on the day to Sam Gargan, a former Grand Chief of the Dene Nation. I doubt he has ever read John Wesley Powell’s 1888 article titled, “The course of human progress” where Powell argues that man “adapts the environment to his wants”. But Sam railed, in virtually the exact same language against the notion of adapting the world to us. His view was one of us adapting to it.

I am up today, right after the manager of Water Strategies and Conservation from B.C.’s Ministry of Environment. Then I have the pleasure of leading a working group session on issues of water, ethics and leadership. My presentation and the workshop will focus on the role of norms in complex systems and how our background assumptions lead us to characterize systems that we have incomplete understandings of (and which are changing in ways that make an objective view of them impossible) in ways that reinforce particular narratives, or conceptions, of overall systems dynamics. I’ll be drawing on my own work and on Luna Leopold’s short 1977 essay “Reverence for Rivers”.


  1. […] an extra time slot was made before the official program to pick up on the debate I referenced yesterday. That debate is essentially about whose numbers to trust (and why) when it comes to the links of […]

  2. […] these pdfs in my earlier posts about the Keepers of the Water VI last month in Ft. Nelson B.C. (here, here and […]

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