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Study to assess Ontario water supply and demand
A scientific study has been launched to more accurately determine the source and abundance of surface and groundwater supplies in the Great Lakes Basin and assess their vulnerability to growing human water demands and environmental stress, including the impacts of climate change.
The project, which will also assess the vulnerability of inland aquatic ecosystems, is important preparation towards the eventuality - perhaps within this decade - of increasingly tough choices between competing needs and uses of water in Ontario.
"This is an unprecedented effort to quantify and analyze at the local watershed level the source and abundance of Ontario's surface and underground water resources so that we can track them over time and make rational choices about meeting future needs," said Wendy Leger, federal coordinator of the Water Use and Supply project at Environment Canada. ""Given that Canada per capita has 10 times more water than the United States per capita and 20 times more than Mexico, the reality of finite, and even scarce, water resources is surprising, particularly to those who live within the Great Lakes Basin," she added.
The five-year study, to be showcased at the international "Managing Shared Waters" conference in Hamilton June 23-28, will determine current sources, available quantities and withdrawals of groundwater, predict future seasonal water supply and use, and gauge the sensitivities of watersheds to climate change and to forecast increases in demand.
"Our large groundwater resource varies greatly across the Basin," said scientist Andrew Piggott of Environment Canada's National Water Research Institute. "It meets some 30% of the province's total water needs and supplies 90% of all water used in rural Ontario. This study will add significantly to the knowledge we'll need to cope with the twin stresses of increasing demand from population and industrial growth and drier conditions predicted due to climate change."
Among major uses of the research will be the identification of priority areas for water conservation strategies. It will also assist future federal, provincial and regional water managers coping with growing competition for water supplies in the Great Lakes Basin.
Involving more than 20 federal and provincial scientists and managers, the project helps respond to information gaps identified in recent major reports by the International Joint Commission, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, the federal Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development and the Walkerton Inquiry.
Major differences exist in the amount of precipitation received annually across Southwestern Ontario - from approximately 800 mm along the northern shore of Lake Ontario to almost 1,200 mm along the eastern shore of Lake Huron - a 50% difference over just 150 km.
The study will detail variations across the province in how much precipitation received in a given area is retained and recharges the local groundwater supply and how much runs off directly via lakes and rivers.
Research already completed shows a large portion of the flow in many streams in southwestern Ontario is from groundwater (the range is 10 to 80%, with an average estimated at 40%).
In 1998, a particularly dry year in Ontario, conditions were so extreme in the Hamilton area that the headwaters of some local creeks dried up, prompting a rescue effort to save some of the several thousand stranded fish.
Yet not all provincial watersheds were affected to the same extent by conditions that year, researchers say.
Environment Canada's National Water Research Institute (NWRI) is the country's foremost freshwater research facility, with centres on the Great Lakes in Burlington, Ontario and in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
The Managing Shared Waters conference is co-organized by Pollution Probe, the United Nations University's Hamilton-based International Network on Water, Environment and Health and the Coastal Zone Canada Association. Environment Canada is one of the main sponsors of this event.
Study members Wendy Leger and Andrew Piggott of Environment Canada are available for advance interviews Wednesday, June 19 and Thursday, June 20. They will also take part in a media conference call Thursday, June 20, 1:30pmEDT. To join the call: 1-888-265-0903, followed at the prompt by 1050#