Canada: Big Farms a Big Threat to Water Quality : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Ottawa Citizen

Big farms a big threat to water quality, says government scientist


SASKATOON (CP) - If Canadians want to stop the decline in the quality of their drinking water sources, they need to start thinking of big-scale agriculture as being less like farms and more like factories, says a senior government scientist.

And John Lawrence, director of the National Water Research Institute, says Canada needs national water standards enforceable from coast to coast. "We've got to start treating these things as basically industrial process plants instead of farms," Lawrence said Sunday, a day before he was to address a national conference on drinking water in Saskatoon.

"The guidelines under which agricultural practices develop were developed on the basis of small-scale farms. That isn't appropriate any longer."

The conference comes as the city of North Battleford, just a 90-minute drive away, grapples with the effects of water contamination by a parasite that has sickened dozens of people and is suspected as a factor in three deaths. The cryptosporidium parasite is commonly found in human and animal feces.

Lawrence compared the current state of knowledge on large-scale farms - which can produce as much fecal waste as a small city - to the understanding of the environmental impact of pulp mills 10 years ago.

"We've been through this the last 10 years with the pulp and paper industry," he said.

Human activity of all kinds is affecting drinking water, said Lawrence.

"It's a concentration issue, whether it's agriculture or whether it's urban development."

Little research has been done in Canada to try to gauge the public health effects of contaminated drinking water. Most often, said Lawrence, problems go unreported.

"One or two people get sick. Is it the water or is it something else?"

But the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Ga., did studies in the early 1990s suggesting water-borne viruses that cause diarrhea and other stomach upsets contribute to the deaths of several hundred infants and up to 1,500 elderly people every year in the United States.

"There's many more outbreaks that occur that we don't even identify," said Shay Fout of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Rural communities - with less money, fewer staff and more agriculture - are most at risk, said Lawrence.

Aboriginal communities face even worse odds. The Assembly of First Nations reports that 79 such communities, or 12 per cent of the total, have what Health Canada calls "potentially dangerous" drinking water. Assembly officials suggest the real total is even higher.

Lawrence said the one thing that would do the most to improve Canada's drinking water would be to set national standards and enforce them uniformly. Although Health Canada sets guidelines for safe water, not all provinces enforce them.

Environment ministries across the country are starting to look at that, said Lawrence.

"They are working to try to address some of these issues on a national basis," he said.

In the U.S., such national regulations are established and enforced, said Fout.

"That's the way it really has to work," he said. "Something like health issues are national issues, in my mind."

Lawrence said that despite the fear that the outbreaks in Walkerton, Ont., and North Battleford have created, drinking water in large Canadian centres - where most Canadians live - is fine.

"When you get outbreaks like Walkerton and North Battleford, there is some cause for concern. That doesn't mean the whole infrastructure of communities across Canada is failing."

"(But) I think these two instances certainly have been a wake-up call."

-- Rachel Gibson (, May 07, 2001

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