What Lessons can we Learn from the River

Our rivers are teaching us that ignorance and indifference are destroying our water resources and strangling our human existence. Around the world our water systems are polluted from agricultural runoff including pesticides and animal wastes, from chemicals and industrial wastes and liters of raw sewage. Canadian citizens, businesses and the Canadian government are guilty of complacent behaviors. We see rivers as nature’s garbage disposals that conveniently carry evidence of our excess away. The Ottawa River in Canada demonstrates how government apathy, industrial preference, and population indifference are destroying a vital source of drinking water for over 1 million people.

Ottawa, Ontario and Gatineau, Quebec lie on either side of the Ottawa River and share this important resource. The river flows 1,271 kilometers (790 miles) south along the Ontario-Quebec border into the St. Lawrence Seaway that empties into the Atlantic Ocean. The Ottawa River’s total drainage area is approximately 146,300 square kilometers (90,720 square miles) and was once some of the world’s most pristine land. Several factors beyond ignorance and indifference contribute to the ongoing pollution problem.

Ottawa is a fairly inland city that conveniently expects this fast flowing river to carry away its refuse and our guilt. As recently as 2006, over 700 million liters of raw sewage was knowingly dumped into the Ottawa River. This severely elevated the E.coli bacteria counts which are already vulnerable; heavy rainfalls consistently close area beaches for several days. In 2007 Ottawa and Gatineau sent their raw sewage straight into the Ottawa River on at least 1,700 occasions. These modern communities callously dump their pollution into the very source of their drinking water. Neither the Quebec nor the Ontario provincial governments have offered any practical solutions to end this practice.

The area’s agricultural industry is made up primarily of dairy farms that pollute the river with natural and chemical fertilizers. Originally transportation hubs for the lumber industry, the river’s log booms have been replaced by industrial waste. This area is not as industrialized as other areas, but there is no immunity from pollution. The Chalk River Nuclear Reactor leaks up to 7,000 liters of radioactive water every day, on top of a major spill on December 5, 2008, and this aging reactor is in serious need of upgrading.

The Ottawa River has been treated as a convenient garbage disposal for too long. We keep adding our refuse and hope it goes somewhere, anywhere, as long as it is out of our sight. Yet we are merely fooling ourselves if we think that our rivers can deal with this waste and rejuvenate themselves without intervention on our part.

Our world’s rivers are suffering from neglect and indifference as we expect our water systems to correct our mistakes. Killing our rivers with pollution and complacency is slowly killing our planet. We can learn from our rivers but the question remains are we willing to be willing and responsible students?