Man on water: Saving a depleting resource

Man on water: Saving a depleting resource

Photography by George Webber Image by: Photography by George Webber Author:


Man on water: Saving a depleting resource

This story was originally titled "Man on Water" in the April 2009 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

Bob Sandford leans against his walking stick and lifts his pale blue eyes toward the horizon. The 59-year-old resident of Canmore, Alta., has just reached the top of Parker Ridge, a trail high above the Icefields Parkway in the Rocky Mountains. He's looking out to the impressive mass of ice that very nearly took his life almost 40 years ago.

Twenty years old and a park naturalist at the time, Sandford was hiking down the Saskatchewan Glacier in Alberta's Columbia Icefields when he slipped and disappeared into a huge crevasse. Miraculously, he survived to tell the tale of how he tumbled through this "planetary artery" – a world of glowing blue subglacial light, falling rocks, freezing cold water and ice – and was quickly and "unceremoniously" spit out of the glacier into what is the birthplace of the North Saskatchewan River.

Sandford – more like Indiana Jones of the Rockies in his trademark brown felt hat – maintains that this event changed the course of his young life, giving him a profound respect for the earth's natural water systems. The experience also drove home an awareness of what it means to be Canadian – our identity being so closely linked to the snow, water and ice that surrounds us – and the importance of managing the natural resources that sustain us and shape our identity.

The myth of abundance
Telling the stories of Canada's glaciers, rivers and streams is what Sandford does. With his book Water, Weather and the Mountain West (Rocky Mountain, 2008), the author and self-taught natural scientist endeavours to give voice to Canada's waterways. He believes that their stories need to be heard.

More than anything, though, Sandford wants to dispel the myth that we have a limitless abundance of water, and make Canadians understand the urgent need to protect the glaciers, streams, rivers and lakes that generate, purify and transport this vital resource.

"We're used to taking water for granted in Canada. We don't think about how much we have," says Sandford, who travels throughout the country and around the world in his various professional roles. "Our populations are growing. Our needs are expanding exponentially and climate change is reducing the amount of water we have in many parts of the country."

To make his point, Sandford speaks about the Rockies and the interior ranges of British Columbia, where "glaciers are shrinking and water sources are becoming less dependable." Then there's the southern plains stretching from Alberta to Manitoba. River flows have been reduced by as much as 40 per cent as a result of longer, warmer summer seasons, smaller snow packs in the mountains, and heavy water use from cities and agriculture.

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Farther east in Canada, large populations and expanding industrial activity are reducing the level of the Great Lakes. "Some areas are now at the limits of their development based on current water supply," says Sandford. He adds that in the north, permafrost is disappearing, glaciers are melting and water reserves are being diminished.

Sandford isn't alone in his concerns. "For the first time in Canadian history, we have major river flows that are becoming insufficient to match our water use – this is happening in the Saskatchewan River system that drains the Rocky Mountains," says John Pomeroy, president of the Canadian Geophysical Union and Canada research chair in Water Resources and Climate Change. "Declining snowfall and warmer winters are reducing river flow, and at the same time we want to use more water for crops, industry and homes. This means that we have to manage our water supplies and water use better so that demand does not exceed supply and water shortages do not develop." Hans Schreier, a professor at the Institute for Resources and Environment at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, adds, "All we need are a couple of dry years and we're in real trouble."

Man on a mission

A married father of three teens, Sandford has been widely recognized and praised for his efforts to raise awareness about protecting water resources – at home and around the globe. He has earned a reputation in his high-profile role as Canada's chair for the United Nations Water for Life Partnership. The body addresses global water quality and availability issues. What's more, Sandford represents Canada on the prestigious Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy, designed to spur on global discussions on water management issues. Last year in Spain, forum members and international water advocates focused on how our planet would provide water to the people who will populate the earth this century: a staggering number that currently stands at six billion and is expected to rise to nine billion by 2050.

Mike Demuth, a glaciology research scientist with Natural Resources Canada, says he appreciates Sandford's efforts to link scientists with the general public. "He's trying to shape a movement," says Demuth, a contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change who shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. vice-president Al Gore.

At home this past December, Sandford helped organize a conference of experts on the world's water in Canmore "to pool our resources and improve our ability to predict how much water we will have in the future." He's also collaborating with the Canadian Water Network and the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation along with the University of Toronto to reform national water policy. "It makes your brain hurt when you think about how big a task this is," says Sandford.

Canada's water guru is urging us all to take up the water conservation challenge. He works on a national campaign, Go Blue, which calls on Canadians to cut their water consumption in half. He also developed the popular Every Drop Counts video series, available to Grade 8 students across the country, and launched a national public service campaign on water issues, UN Water for life, with the Global Television Network.

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Sandford's children have been a big influence on his desire to raise the profile of Canada's water politics. "I wouldn't be working at the level I'm at now if I did not look across the breakfast table every morning at three children who are going to inherit the circumstances that we will bequeath to them," muses the father of Reid, 19, Amery, 16, and Landon, 14.

Everyone can help
The good news is we can all help in conserving water. "We use about 350 litres of water per person each day in Canada. People in most European countries use about half of that," says Schreier. "If we all used water meters, low-flush toilets and water-saving showerheads, we could easily get down to 150 to 180 litres per person per day. It's really that simple and not that expensive." (See "10 Simple Ways to Save Water," next page.)

Sandford uses every imaginable water conservation device – from low-flow showerheads to low-flush toilets to rain barrels. "You can put low-flow devices on taps and toilets and get involved in supporting and protecting local watersheds," he says. "It doesn't have to be onerous and you can feel good about it. Individuals can and do make a difference all the time."

Sandford's daughter, Amery (named after a mountain in Banff National Park), says her father has had an influence on her outlook on the environment. "I have a lot of my dad's characteristics," she says. "If I see people littering, I have to do something about it. If I want to change [something], then I will go and do it. I'm proud my dad can take on so much, that he is trying so hard for change."

Take a stand
Despite his knowledge of the daunting environmental challenges facing us, Sandford doesn't have a doom-andgloom outlook. "I am optimistic because of the inherent resilience of natural systems and because of the intelligence, enthusiasm and persistence of the next generation. They refuse to accept that the problems we have created can't be solved."

It's not too late for our generation to make changes and progress, either. Sandford says Canadians just have to look at their provincial and national park systems to see that they're capable of recognizing the value in protecting our natural systems. "When we started settling the west, we tore the whole thing apart – gave it up to private interests. Then, we saw how valuable it was," he says. "We reversed the process with the creation of provincial and national parks, starting with Banff National Park. Over a 50-year period, and without always knowing what the final goal was, we created a system of national and provincial parks and buffer zones that now protect our upland watersheds. If we did this once – saw what we had and reversed our direction to protect the value of what we had – surely we can do it again."

It's no wonder Sandford returns to the high altitudes of the ridge on a regular basis. The sheer mass of the Saskatchewan Glacier is overwhelming – even from the distance of Parker Ridge. The view is enough to make anyone stop in his tracks. And as a cold sleet starts to fall, it seems a message from its frozen soul. "The more I look at that glacier, the more I'm impressed with what creates and drives our climate," says Sandford of the mass of ice that, like others around the planet, is beginning to thin.

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This is the land where Sandford once observed a grizzly stalk a herd of mountain goats; where 350-million-year- old fossils can be easily found on mountain paths; where a remarkable man who cares deeply about his country can look out at a glacier and remember an incident 40 years ago that almost ended his young life.

"I owe this place a lot of gratitude," says Sandford. "It remains a place to which I return regularly to be reminded of my life's purpose."

10 simple ways to save water
Shorten your shower time. A 15-minute shower uses more than 300 litres of water. Cut your shower time in half and save up to 300 bathtubs of water a year.

2. Go low-flow
. A low-flow showerhead will reduce your water use by at least 25 per cent. A family of four could save more than an average swimming pool full of water a year.

3. Don't flush it all away
. On average, Canadians flush their toilet 4.9 times a day. You can install watersaving devices or get an ultra-low-volume toilet. If everyone in Canada installed a low-flush toilet, we'd save about 25,000 Olympic swimming pools of water each year.

4. Use a rain barrel
. On average, we water our lawns 1.5 times a week in the summer months. Purchase a rain barrel and get your water for free, leaving more of this precious resource in nature.

5. Let your lawn water itself. Lawn clippings are more than 50 per cent water. Instead of raking them up, leave them on your lawn. You'll use less water and fertilizer as a result.

6. Shut off the hose
. When washing your car, you can save as much as 150 gallons of water if you turn off the hose between washing and rinsing. Use a bucket of soapy water and a trigger nozzle instead. You can also use any water collected in your rain barrel, or simply go for longer stretches between car washes.

7. Fix leaky faucets
. One drop per second from a leaky tap wastes about 10,000 litres of water a year.

8. Fill the dishwasher first. Running it when it's full will save up to 10,000 litres of water a year. To go even further, choose the short cycle or install a high-efficiency model.

9. Don't let the water run. Wash your fruits and vegetables in a sink half full of water and save up to five litres of water each time. And when boiling vegetables, use just enough water to cover them, and put a tight-fitting lid on the pot.

10. Only wash full loads of laundry
. The average family could save 2,000 litres of water a month. For more water-saving tips, visit Go Blue.
– Miriam Osborne

Read more:
How saving water will save you money
Saving water: How to conserve water in your kitchen
Water conservations: Why Canada needs a national strategy

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Man on water: Saving a depleting resource