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Experts predict drought for 2021, discuss water and climate change

File photo of a waterspout off West Lake taken by R Halsey.

By Sharon Harrison
Despite endless rain recently, another drought scenario is a likely predication for 2021 in the Quinte area, including Prince Edward County, based on the current trend and data, according to Brad McNevin, CAO with Quinte Conservation.

“We look at the last three months of precipitation, as well as stream flows, and we are close to Level 1 drought conditions right now,” McNevin said.

As key speaker at the monthly Bay of Quinte Green Party of Ontario’s speaker series, McNevin was joined by Jane Lesslie, Prince Edward County Environmental Advisory Committee chair.

Water as a vital need and basic commodity was the topic of conversation, along with the broader area of climate change and how it is affecting the region.

More than 50 people joined the Zoom meeting hosted by Amy Bodman, president of the Prince Edward County Field Naturalists.

“Brad and Jane are representatives of two organizations that the Field Naturalists really respect,” said Amy Bodman. “For those of us who love nature, truly cherish and visit our local conservation areas, consult Quinte Conservation over many matters, and recognize the importance of the difficult and essential job they do in terms of stewarding our hydrology and teaching us about nature.”

Bodman also noted how pleased they were when the decision was made by the municipality to form an environmental advisory committee; something she said had long been needed in the County.

“We are impressed with all that the committee has managed to accomplish in its first year under Jane’s leadership and in very difficult times.”

Lesslie, a Picton resident, has had a long career in global asset management where she developed environmental, social and governance risk screening of national governments and now maintains a private consulting practice.

Her presentation focused of the Prince Edward County Environmental Advisory Committee (PECEAC) and how the region can begin to participate in wider climate initiatives.

She noted the PECEAC does not have statutory authority, and its role is to advise and provide recommendations to council and staff. One of its main mandates is advancing the environment aspects of council’s strategic priorities, as the municipality declared a climate emergency in May 2019.

PECEAC was given five priorities by council – including mitigating the effects of climate change; encouraging water and energy conservation measures; fostering waste reduction (reuse and recycling programs); encouraging conservation restoration of natural habitats; and identifying new opportunities for business, employment and housing that climate change mitigation efforts may offer.

“The problem with the phrase ‘global warming’ is at times it defeats our cause; it sounds like something that is happening ‘out there’,” said Lesslie. “Regional warming trends alarmingly show, even under the most optimistic warming scenario assumptions, we are heading for a three degree increase in temperatures if we don’t take any action.”

She reminds the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 set a target of 1.5 degrees.

Lesslie noted that despite being surrounded by water, Prince Edward County “at the same time, is in the red for drought risk,” explains Lesslie. “In the County, we have a one-two climate punch coming at us.”

The County has the longest shoreline in Canada at about 500 kilometres.

“It’s not surprising with the floods of 2017 and 2019 that we got hit to the tune of $1.7 million in flood-related costs, and that’s directly in the County with its own budget.”

She said that figure was equal to about 8.5 per cent of one year’s spending by the County.

“It is not just shoreland flooding, it is inland flooding due to the increased incidents of flash floods and the nature of our geology, and how we are approaching development.”

As of February 2021, more than 500 municipalities across Canada have joined the Partners for Climate Protection (PCP) program, a free program offered through the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and Local Governments for Sustainability.

“If 500 other municipalities can be part of this program, why can’t we?” said Lesslie.

“We’ve got 44 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada under the direct or indirect control of municipalities, so there is a fair amount we can do.”

With a long history in environmental consulting, Brad McNevin, who lives on Moira Lake, has worked with Quinte Conservation for more than 15 years. He is knowledgeable about all water-related issues in the region.

McNevin covered a broad spectrum of areas in his extensive presentation especially pertaining to water issues in the Bay of Quinte, drought and flood, which included an overview of Quinte Conservation and what it does. He also touched on climate projections.

“A changing climate affects everything and everybody,” said McNevin.

Quinte Conservation is a community-based environmental protection agency providing cost-effective environmental expertise and leadership.

“Everything we do has some sort of climate lens to it and it all shines a light on climate and is looking at changes and trends within the environment,” he said.

Quinte Conservation is one of 36 conservation authorities, and covers a region of over 6,000 square kilometres, including Prince Edward County. McNevin notes that the majority of the province’s conservation authorities are located in southern Ontario, and he noted Ontario is the only province in Canada to have conservation authorities.

The region Quinte Conservation covers has about 167,000 people and serves 18 municipalities. Quinte Conservation owns more than 30,000 acres of land: 8,000 acres is managed forest plantations and 22,000 acres are sensitive lands set aside as conservation reserves, which include areas of scientific interest, wetlands, rock barrens, waterfront and natural forest cover.

“The key concept for Quinte Conservation is the idea of foundational watershed management activities,” he said. These include monitoring, data collection, green infrastructure, and education outreach.

“Everything that happens in the up-stream areas or in the tributaries, affects the entire region.”

The mandate of the conservation authorities is to ensure conservation, restoration and responsible management of Ontario’s water, land and natural habitats.

Of its programs and services, a primary program is flood protection.

“Our role is to reduce the threat of loss of life and property damage and we do that through flood warnings, forecasting, and we have the operation and maintenance of flood control structures.”

Quinte Conservation also coordinates the low water response team, which provides information, leadership and preparedness in the event of a drought.

“One the important pieces of this puzzle are water quality monitoring,” explained McNevin. “We sample in rivers, streams, small water courses and that is to help understand water quality because that really gives an indication of watershed health.”

There are 31 water quality monitoring ground water wells located throughout the region which are sampled on an annual basis. Many are hooked-up to automatic gauges to watch for fluctuations, especially useful in a potential drought situation

McNevin said conservation authorities also facilitate in the development of drinking water source protection plans.

As far as dam operations go, Quinte Conservation owns 39 water control structures, 14 are for flood control.

In terms of development and planning, McNevin says, “floodplains and wetlands are not good places to build from impacting the ecological benefits of those areas to impacting people’s properties because they flood, so we try to encourage and have regulation to make people build outside those regulated features.”

While Quinte Conservation also focuses on many educational and stewardship activities, he says they work with local groups to do outreach.

“We really try to make a difference through the education lens because we know it has to start with the young kids, teaching them the importance of nature and then they grow-up with that appreciation.”

Specific to climate change and water, continued growth of greenhouse gas emissions are changing the environment we live in, explains McNevin.

“Global temperatures are on the rise with the warmest years on record in the recent past, weather patterns are changing and the occurrence of extreme weather events are more prevalent,” he says. “In this region, we are experiencing these events on a regular basis with some of the biggest flooding events of the Quinte area occurring within the past decade.”

He said on the other extreme is dry conditions with significant drought also occurring more frequently, especially in the summers of 2012, 2016, and 2019 being most notable.

“We are looking at another drought scenario likely for 2021 based on the current trend and data,” McNevin added.

The impacts of climate change range from water to land to air, he said.

“Impacts most evidence in the natural environment with changes in hydrology of watersheds due to more intense rainfall events, even changes of snow melt conditions, prolonged periods of little or no precipitation, these changes impact the quantity and quality of the water resources in our watershed.”

McNevin said these climate-related impacts have triggering effects on other factors related to availability of safe drinking water supplies, impacts on agricultural crops, health of forests and changes in the habitat and geographical ranges of terrestrial and marine species that live in our natural environment.

“We are in a good position to monitor changes that are happening in our water resources.”

Important to note, McNevin said the majority of our water, so the surface water evaporation is over half of what happens in our water cycle.

“We lose a lot of water in region just purely by evapotranspiration, which is the water going up in the sky over our surface water.”

“We know our climate is changing, the average temperature in the region is really closely related to the population growth in global population, and is driving the increase in temperature, we can relate that back to humans are the problem and it is not some mystery.”

Quinte Conservation’s low water program has three stages where their promotion is to conserve and reduce water use.

“There are more years were we are declaring some low water declaration than there are that are not, so we see a trend of having continuing water-related issues in this region

“The good news is people are adaptable and I do think we can adapt and people just have to make the right choices and water conservation is one of those key choices.”

“Let’s be creative and adapt our homes so clean water is used for what it’s meant to be used for, and that is drinking.”

McNevin also touched on tree planting as being important and something that will help to cool houses in summer, block wind in the winter, and help water get absorbed down in the soil through root systems.

“Instead of having mowed grass around every street, plant rain gardens to capture the storm run-off which also capture sand and salt.

“There is a better way,” concluded McNevin.

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  1. Dennis Fox says:

    The threat of a drought would make life very interesting, if not difficult for many. As we know. the Great Lakes water level has been lowered due to the actions of the International Lake Ontario – St. Lawrence River Board – at the request of shoreline municipalities. This decision came about due to the high water damage experienced over the last few years. As a result, Lake Ontario’s level is quite low – despite all the rain we have had. My fear is that a drought this summer could leave our lakes at an artificially low level, preventing cargo shipping on the Great Lakes, and poor water quality for us to drink.

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