By Jeff Wells
For those of us fortunate enough to enjoy the luxury, water is as accessible as our kitchen tap. While water makes up more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, only .013 percent of it is readily available fresh water. What most of us experience as abundant is actually a precious commodity.
Water scarcity and contamination are serious and growing global concerns for people and nature. We have already seen how mismanagement of water resources can lead to enormous environmental disasters, such as the drying up of the Aral Sea or groundwater arsenic pollution in Bangladesh.
Enhanced regulatory oversight is critical, but one of the best and most affordable things we can do for future generations is to identify and protect the Earth’s remaining pristine lakes, rivers and wetlands. There is no better place to start than Canada’s boreal forest, where we have the rare opportunity to safeguard one of the last, great storehouses of our global freshwater supply.
I worked with a team of scientists on the Pew Environment Group’s recent report, “A Forest of Blue: Canada’s Boreal Forest, the World’s Waterkeeper,” which found that Canada’s boreal—the largest intact forest on Earth—supports 25 percent of the world’s wetlands, as well as millions of pristine lakes and thousands of free-flowing rivers. It contains 197 million acres of surface fresh water, an area twice the size of California. It harbors more surface area of fresh, clean water than any other ecosystem on earth.
The values of this impressive wealth of fresh water and wetlands go beyond its sheer volume. Boreal waterways play a critical role in both Arctic and climatic health.
North-flowing boreal rivers are crucial to Arctic ice creation and impact ocean currents that travel thousands of miles. These river deltas and estuaries are rich with nutrients and attract high concentrations of oceanic species, including large numbers of beluga whales during calving and molting stages.
The boreal provides an estimated $700 billion annually in climate mitigation and ecosystem services.
They also safely store large quantities of carbon; the Mackenzie River Delta alone stores more than 45 billion tons of carbon in its sediments. The vast wetlands scattered across Canada’s boreal store at least 147 billion tons of carbon, and the boreal provides an estimated $700 billion annually in climate mitigation and ecosystem services.
Similar to the Amazon, hundreds of indigenous communities still live in the boreal and rely heavily on waterfowl, beavers, fish and other aquatic species of the boreal for food, and many use the lakes and rivers as transportation where no roads exist.
Boreal Home to Ocean Fish
The boreal is also home to some of the world’s largest remaining populations of freshwater and sea-run migratory fish. While a large fortune has been spent restoring rivers in the northeast United States to rehabilitate declining Atlantic salmon, the intact boreal rivers of eastern Canada still produce healthy and abundant numbers.
These globally significant values, however, cannot be taken for granted without further government action protecting them for the future.
Canada’s boreal forest is under increasing pressure from industrial development. For example, due to under-regulated mining activity, 7,000 abandoned mines lie in the boreal, many of which leach toxic waste into waterways. The massive Alberta tar sands projects are the source of significant downstream oil pollution. Over 450 large dams have been installed in the boreal. While hydropower emits fewer greenhouse gases than fossil fuel-generated power, it can flood habitat, block fish passage, and disturb many indigenous communities.
Canada has made great strides in the past decade in safeguarding the forest and its ecosystems. In 2003, a group of environmental organizations, progressive industry partners and aboriginal groups created the Canadian Boreal Forest Framework advance a unified vision for the boreal forest. The Framework calls for permanent protection from development of at least half of the boreal forest and for only sustainable development to be permitted on the remainder.
In 2008, the governments of Ontario and Quebec announced intentions to protect at least half of their northern forests, and a number of national and provincial protected areas have been created since 2000, providing strict protection for more than 12 percent of the 1.2 billion acre intact boreal forest, including significant watershed protection. In 2010, 21 major timber companies and eight environmental groups reached an agreement to work together to improve logging practices and advocate for setting aside critical wildlife habitat on 178 million acres of boreal forest tracts currently zoned for logging. These dramatic steps have put Canada on track to become a world leader in conservation, but more must and can be done.
In the midst of a growing global water crisis, Canada has the opportunity and extraordinary responsibility to protect the globally-significant boreal and its pristine fresh water. It’s a chance that Canada, on behalf of the entire world, cannot afford to miss.
Dr. Jeff Wells is a Science Advisor for Pew Environment Group’s International Boreal Conservation Campaign. He received his Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Cornell University where he continues as a Visiting Fellow. Previously he served as National Bird Conservation Director for the National Audubon Society. He has published numerous scientific and popular articles and book chapters and is the author of Birder’s Conservation Handbook: 100 North American Birds at Risk, published by Princeton University Press in 2007.