OTTAWA - The federal advisory body on sustainable development wants governments to put a price on water used by industry — even though Canada is awash in H2O, and companies are getting better at using it efficiently.
"A price on water reduces intake by industry resulting in more water conservation and better water use efficiency," the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy says in a new report.
Researchers working with the federal round table — a government-selected group of business, labour and academics — developed a model that projects industrial water usage to the year 2030.
They found that while water-heavy industrial activity is expected to increase by about 40 per cent over that time, water usage will rise just three per cent.
But it's three per cent Canada may not be able to afford, especially because usage is much higher in some regions, the advisory body says.
"Past assumptions of water governance and management may no longer be applicable in the face of anticipated pressure on water resources," says the round table's vice chair Robert Slater.
"In a world of increasing competition for access to water, new pressures such as climate change are emerging that could put the long-term sustainability of our water resources at risk."
By highlighting the lack of information about Canada's water and alerting policymakers to potential problems down the road, the round table hopes to encourage governments to act early to prevent water shortages, added the round table's president David McLaughlin, in an interview.
"We have some time here. Clearly, the forecasts are not for an acute forecast."
The panel's study found that natural resource sectors account for 86 per cent of Canada's overall water use. For now, the largest user by a wide margin is the thermal electricity sector, although this sector also recycles most of its water.
The oil and gas sector is not a major consumer of water at a national level, the research shows. But regionally, it is. And in the future, water consumption by companies involved in the extraction of tight gas and shale gas is expected to soar, the panel's modelling shows.
So policymakers would be wise to put a price on water usage soon, the report says. History in Canada and around the world shows that companies react quickly to such price signals, even if they are small.
"The interesting thing is that for most of them, across the board, a very small price would result in a very large gain is sustainable, which would then keep the sector viable economically as well," Mark Parent, a former Progressive Conservative environment minister from Nova Scotia who is now vice-chair of the round table,
The report's forecasters find that water intake could be cut by 20 per cent with water prices ranging from five to nine cents per cubic metre — a price that would not have any major competitive ramifications.
"Water charges that put a price on the volumes used could send a strong signal that water is valuable and must be efficiently used and conserved," the report states.
Voluntary efforts to reduce water usage have not shown great success in the past, the report says.
And more radical controls such as setting up a water permitting system should be approached with caution in case they distort economic activity, it adds.
Pricing bulk usage of water, on the other hand, is relatively easy since many provinces already have the bones of a system to build on.
The round table also deplored the lack of reliable tracking of water usage across the country, and urged governments to quickly get a better grip on who is using how much water, and for what.
Governments are focused on water quality, but not quantity, said McLaughlin. He wants to see Ottawa publish an annual report that would gather national information on how much water Canada has and how much it is consuming.