Environmental effort promising

It’s far too easy to sacrifice the environment when economic conditions deteriorate. So it’s refreshing and reassuring to note that federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice’s visit to Red Deer last week wasn’t just about platitudes and empty promises — it was about action.

It’s far too easy to sacrifice the environment when economic conditions deteriorate.

So it’s refreshing and reassuring to note that federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice’s visit to Red Deer last week wasn’t just about platitudes and empty promises — it was about action.

Prentice was on hand for the announcement of a $2.4-million corporate donation to conserve 1.2 million acres of land 10 km east of Red Deer.

The Conservative philosophy is clear: partner with business and the community to achieve mutual goals, and to spread the cost of reaching those goals.

Sometimes that works; sometimes there are no mutual goals. In this instance, it would appear to be applied with promising results.

The $2.4 million was presented to the Nature Conservancy of Canada by TransCanada Corp. over three years. It represents seed money that has attracted other funding, from Ottawa’s Natural Areas Conservation Program and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to generate $5 million for the Red Deer River Natural Area. In total, the Canadian government has put $225 million in trust for Nature Conservancy projects, including this one.

The Red Deer River Natural Area extends north of Bashaw and to south of the Rumsey Ecological Reserve and Natural Area. It is a critical wetlands area for migratory birds. Species such as the endangered piping plover and the vulnerable American white pelican can be found there.

The project couldn’t come at a more appropriate time.

A Red Deer River Watershed Alliance report delivered this spring said that most watersheds within the Red Deer River system are significantly tainted.

The non-profit group said that just two out of 15 sub-watersheds in the Red Deer River system get a passing grade; the rest received poor or fair grades. Loss of native vegetation and wetlands, higher surface water nutrient levels — like fertilizer, manure, sewage contamination — road development, and oil and gas activity were all blamed for the watershed woes.

But all is not lost: the City of Red Deer receives praise for its watershed management, and its aggressive pursuit of quality, long-term waste water management.

The city’s Wastewater Treatment Plant Master Plan outlines $367 million in upgrades to the system through 2032. The regional system it will ultimately serve will ensure consistent standards of waste water treatment throughout Central Alberta, and help protect the Red Deer River.

And new provincial legislation, Bill 26, the Land Stewardship Act, could encourage further conservation. It would compensate landowners who are affected under conservation and stewardship programs. It would also establish a uniform set of laws to preserve natural areas and wildlife.

But the ultimate success of water conservation efforts rests with Prentice and the federal government.

He told the independent Institute for Research on Public Policy recently that “what Canadians expect from the government right now is that our environmental policies include, in addition to climate change, policies that have tangible effects on water and the quality of the water around us.”

A recent Nanos Research poll showed that 62 per cent of Canadians identified fresh water as the country’s most important natural resource, by a margin of three to one over oil and gas. By the same margin, respondents also said that Ottawa, and not the provinces, should be responsible for managing water.

Certainly there are concerns: while the federal government is pushing for better water management, the provincial government is pulling back its funding for the nine regional watershed councils in Alberta. For the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance, the new $250,000 funding cap means a reduction of $74,950 from last year. The council monitors and makes recommendations related to all streams flowing into the Red Deer River from between the Banff Park boundary and the Alberta-Saskatchewan border.

And the nature of Alberta’s development puts our water system in peril. A Pembina Pipeline Corp. oil line break at a Red Deer River crossing last year put 28.1 cubic metres (177 barrels) of oil into the waterway.

But if Prentice and his government are intent on taking the lead on conservation, and drawing corporate money to the cause, we should all be encouraged. We should be no less vigilant, but we should be encouraged.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

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