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Canadians don't know our rivers, and that could cost us

Water demand and pollution are growing threats, says author Sean Fleming.

Canadians live, work and play near rivers like the Fraser River, but we don't really understand them, Sean Fleming writes.


Canadians live, work and play near rivers like the Fraser River, but we don't really understand them, Sean Fleming writes.

Canada has an incredible wealth of fresh water, much of it in rivers — from rushing giants like the Niagara and Yukon River to the swimming hole in your neighbourhood. After 10 years researching rivers, Sean Fleming, hydrologist, data scientist and adjunct professor at UBC’s department of earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences, has come to a conclusion: we don’t know enough about rivers. And if we aren’t informed, we can’t protect them. Fleming’s new book, Where the River Runs: Scientific Reflections on Earth’s Waterways, aims to fix that. We asked him what we can do to help rivers run better.

Is there anything in your research that would surprise people who don’t know much about rivers?

The example folks in Canada may not be aware of is the Colorado River. The Colorado River Compact was put together in the early 1900s to divide the waters of the Colorado River between different states and Mexico. It was derived on the basis of the data available at that point. As a matter of sheer bad luck, that period of time happened to be one of the wettest periods in several hundred years. That wasn’t discovered until the 1970s. Because of that, the Colorado River no longer flows to its mouth. Knowing more about the science of rivers has real, serious implications.
What needs to be done to protect rivers?

One: We need to understand how rivers work. We need better models for simulating what they’ll look like in the future, and how climate changes will affect them. That provides the information we need to make decisions. Secondly, reducing needs. Global water demand is expected to increase by 55 per cent by 2050. That’s a huge problem, given that a billion people already do not have access to adequate clean water. But there’s a silver lining. For example, in the U.S. water demand has stabilized at 1970s levels.

Is it the same story in Canada?

Canada’s track record with water management is not the best compared to other western countries. And that’s simply because we’re really lucky — we’ve got a lot of empty space and a lot of water. Vancouver for instance, is a very wet part of the world. It wouldn’t seem like you’d ever run into water supply issues, but it’s happening, because you’ve got such a tremendous congregation of people in such a small area, and the water is seasonal. That’s going to be a huge challenge.

You have a chapter about how clouds talk to fish. What?

Weather literally transmits data to fish species (living in rivers). When it rains, river levels go up. That affects ecological systems. One example is salmon runs on the west coast. If the fall rains come too late or they’re too weak, the river levels will not rise enough for salmon to make a successful spawning run. Conversely, if it’s too stormy in the winter, it can excavate the fish eggs out of the creek bed.

What can individual people do for rivers?

There’s a tremendous amount you can do. There are watershed clean-up days. You can get involved with riparian planting (restoring trees and vegetation around rivers). In terms of your personal choices, watch what you flush down the drain and how you dispose of things like paint. It can help a great deal at the local level.

Do you have a favourite river?

Oh my goodness. Maybe the Cowichan in British Columbia or the Rio Grande in the U.S. southwest. I love the landscapes around both of them. They both present a lot of opportunities and challenges.

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