What shutting down the Experimental Lakes area says about water’s value

Today, Canada’s official opposition party will make a last ditch effort to stop the government from shutting down the Experimental Lakes Area – a world-class site for conducting ecosystem scale experiments in freshwater environments.

The closure of the ELA is being described in all sorts of ways: a war on science, an instance of ideological politics, even as a vendetta where the Prime Minister exacts revenge on David Schindler, one of the world’s foremost ecologists who ran the ELA and who has, with his uncompromising but endearing demeanor, identified the many gaps in Canada’s freshwater monitoring (particularly with respect to energy development).

I imagine there could be grains of truth in any (perhaps all) of these descriptions. But whether or not there are, and certainly there are sharp disagreements over just what the government is up to, I think there is something very basic that is being overlooked: water’s value.

Until a spring storm postponed my talk at Acadia today, I planned on giving a lecture on the value of water tonight. That will now happen in early April, just days after the ELA is officially shuttered.

My sense is that there is something deeply amiss when water’s value plays no role in either side of the debate about things like the ELA. Potential ‘wars on science’ and ‘ideology’ are important, no doubt, but unless they are connected to what is deeply, if implicitly troubling about failing to steward water, my sense is that there is a missed opportunity to forge the connection from political decisions to personal life.

Why should the average person care about the ELA? Of what difference to me does some experiment in northern Ontario make?

Articulating the concrete link between water’s value and public policy decisions is what makes things matter; not the games over science and energy policy played thousands of kilometers away in Ottawa. It matters that my kids cannot swim in the lake where their summer camp is, that we cannot eat the fish we catch, that buying bottled water makes me feel ‘safe’ from who-knows-what.

So while policies are important, perhaps critical, they are not so because science tells us what to do, but because without good science we are left with fewer tools to ensure that water’s value is respected.

Strangely, however, we find again and again that discussions of water’s value are rarely, if ever, explicit.

I don’t claim to offer answers regarding what water’s value is, in toto, across space, time or culture. That is something to be determined by those who share water. But until the connection is made to water’s value, it seems unlikely that politicians on either side of the debate will be able to make explicit what is of most consequence in decisions like that regarding the ELA. Namely, that water is what enables the lives and life projects that we value and so its value is central to sound public policy.