New Water Act may help protect endangered Sacred Headwaters

By Karen Tam Wu, Special to the Sun

The last Sunday of September marks Rivers Day, the day when people around the world celebrate one of the planet’s greatest resources — our rivers. This Rivers Day in British Columbia, however, may be one to mourn.

In May of this year, the headwaters of the Skeena, Nass and Stikine Rivers, an area known as the Sacred Headwaters, were declared the most endangered rivers in our province. Royal Dutch Shell’s plan to drill for coal-bed methane (CBM) is the biggest threat to three of our greatest salmon rivers.

During his keynote address at the World Energy Congress in Montreal last week, Royal Dutch Shell CEO Peter Voser extolled the virtues of unconventional sources of natural gas as the answer to worldwide hunger for energy, and he claimed the risks associated with extraction were worthwhile. Voser dismissed public concern about the impact of hydraulic fracturing, a technique used to drill for natural gas, on freshwater resources. Voser called for relaxing of regulations to allow natural gas development to “reach its potential.”

Seen somewhat as the messiah who can lead the world to B.C.‘s wealth of natural gas, Bill Bennett, B.C. minister of energy, mines and petroleum resources, became an instant celebrity at the congress.

Given Bennett and Voser’s comments last week, it sounds like B.C. is going full speed ahead in the natural gas business. While some risks of development may be mitigated, ecologically unique and sensitive areas, such as the Sacred Headwaters, should never be endangered in the first place.

The Sacred Headwaters is an intricate complex of lakes and streams, amid delicate alpine meadows, lush with alpine shrubs and flowers. The Skeena is the second longest river in the province and the second-most productive salmon-bearing river in North America. Subjecting an area so abundant with pure freshwater to gas extraction and the subsequent impacts on the local and downstream communities, wildlife and fish that depend on the rivers — the arteries of the landscape — is cause for grief.

Well pads, pipelines and roads associated with CBM would transform this picturesque landscape into an industrial checkerboard. Burying our heads in the sand would only review an equal, if not worse horror underground.

To fracture rock seams to allow the gas to rise to the surface, hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is employed. Millions of gallons of water spiked with an industry trade-secret recipe of hydrocarbons (e. g. diesel, benzene, MTBE) and sand are blasted into the ground at high pressure. Some of the injected fracturing fluids are recovered, but much remains underground. Where these toxic chemicals flow underground is unknown and unpredictable. Thanks to loopholes in, and exemptions to, regulation, companies are not required to disclose the full ingredient list of injected chemicals, or which are toxic and/or carcinogenic.

The impacts of fracking that communities have reported in the U.S., where commercial-scale CBM extraction has been occurring, are frightening: fish and other aquatic life suffering from decreased water flow in streams and lakes; residents lighting their tap water on fire; drinking-water wells, and even homes, exploding; fish kills due to fracturing fluid spilling into wetlands and creeks; and cattle dying due to contaminated surface water.

This could sound like the makings of a eulogy for the Sacred Headwaters, but there’s hope. The B.C. government is modernizing the Water Act. It was originally passed in 1909 — a time when the West was being settled. Social, economic and ecological conditions were very different from current reality.

To protect our precious water resources, a modernized Water Act must:

- Prioritize values such as basic human needs (e. g. clean, non-flammable drinking water) and ecologically based flows to protect fish and wildlife.

- Regulate groundwater usage.

- Require oil and gas companies to fall under the same requirements as other users, and apply for a licence from the Ministry of Environment, rather than repeatedly obtaining short-term leases through the oil and gas commission.

- Enable local involvement in water resource planning and management, which will prevent firms from monopolizing the resource.

These simple principles will go a long way to addressing the loopholes that currently allow the industrial free-for-all on our water resources that is taking place in the extreme corners of our province, unbeknownst to most of us. A strong Water Act, which protects our water and our rivers, and allows unique places, such as the Sacred Headwaters to thrive, will be cause for celebration.

Karen Tam Wu is an energy campaigner with ForestEthics, a non-profit agency with staff in Canada and the United States.

Read more