Canadians see fresh water as the country’s most important resource, but worry the country faces a growing risk to the quality and adequate supply of clean water, a new poll from the Royal Bank of Canada says.

The release of the survey Monday comes after President Donald Trump released a proposed budget that week that would eliminate programs and regulations that protect the Great Lakes and other binational waterways. Mr. Trump’s proposed cutbacks are sparking new fears about the future quality of shared Canadian-U.S. water resources.

“What happens in the U.S. is of critical importance to Canada,” said Robert Sandford, chair of the water-security program at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health. Mr. Sandford has worked with RBC on its annual Canadian Water Attitudes Study, which surveyed 2,017 adults in January and was released Monday to mark Canada Water Week.

Canada shares vast stretches of lakes, rivers and coastlines with our southern neighbour and the two countries need to co-operate to ensure they remain healthy, Mr. Sandford said. Mr. Trump’s budget plan would cut the Environmental Protection Agency by 30 per cent, and eliminate funding for programs aimed at restoring and protecting the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound. Republicans in Congress have also killed an Obama administration regulation that would have protected wetlands and tributaries to important waterways.

Canadians have long seen the country’s abundant water resource as a critical part of its natural heritage, and 91 per cent of RBC respondents say it is part of Canada’s national identity. Some 45 per cent of respondents consider water to be the country’s most important natural resource, a view that is consistent across the country, except in Alberta where oil is by far the top mention.

There is a tendency to take it for granted and Canadians remain “world-class wasters,” Mr. Sandford said.

While concern about the state of water quality is far below worry about the economy or the availability of affordable health care, the RBC survey shows Canadians feel part of the country faces a risk of deteriorating water quality. Topping the list of concerns are the the dumping of toxins, the impacts of climate change, and the run-off of pollutants from land to water.

Surrounded by large population centres and intensive agricultural operations, the Great Lakes face ongoing risks that have to be managed. The International Joint Commission – a binational panel that advises governments on boundary water issues – issued a report last fall that concluded the water quality of the Great Lakes has improved since the 1970s, but new threats are emerging in the form of new chemical like pharmaceuticals; plastic materials and nutrient runoff that is causing massive algae blooms, particularly in Lake Erie. The IJC is holding public hearing this month on the state of the lakes.

“It breaks my heart. We have struggled so hard and made really critical progress on water quality and that’s now at risk,” Mr. Sandford said. “A lot of people look at regulations as standing in the way of making money or advancing industrial production or jobs. They should not be viewed that way, they should be seen as protection for critical water supplies.”

Canada’s Environment Minister Catherine McKenna met last week with Scott Pruitt, administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, and urged the administration to continue to co-operate with Canada of Great Lakes protection. Her meeting came the day Mr. Trump’s proposed deep budgets were released.

Several Republican and Democratic politicians from the eight Great Lake states have condemned the proposed cuts, which will have to be reconciled with congressional budget plans. Ohio’s Republican Senator Rob Portman issued a release last week calling for full funding of a $300-million (U.S.) Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which Mr. Trump would eliminate.

Wayne Redekop, mayor of the Ontario town of Fort Erie, said the extent of proposed cuts is “staggering.” His town lies at the northeastern corner of Lake Erie, where it empties into the Niagara River.

The administration proposal shows “no recognition of how important clean drinking water is to the health and safety of citizens of both Canada and the United States,” Mr. Redekop said. “It’s about far more than the drinking water – which is necessary to sustain human life. This is also a great industrial resource we have in terms of fishing and recreation.

“So any effort taken to undermine the initiative taken over the past few years to clean up and maintain and revitalize the waters of the Great Lakes is startling to say the least,” the mayor said in an telephone interview.

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Mar. 20, 2017 6:00AM EDT
Last updated Monday, Mar. 20, 2017 8:39AM EDT