At the bottom of the path that runs through the woods behind Meredith Brown’s house in Quebec, Canada, the Gatineau River breaks over a small rapid, sending an eddy back upon itself. It carves out a favourite swimming hole for Brown and her young family. However, it is another great river that she is focused on protecting. Namely, the Ottawa River.
“I’ve never met a kid who isn’t drawn to the water.”
That is a simple enough truth. For the Riverkeeper of Ottawa Riverkeeper it’s also a rare moment when things around the Ottawa River watershed are simple, uncomplicated.
Meredith has led Ottawa Riverkeeper since 2004. For more than a decade, she’s worked in a watershed, which spans 200 municipalities, two provincial jurisdictions, two legal systems, and two official languages.
Many of us are passionate about waterscapes in some form, swimming, sailing, surfing, or just lounging on the beach. For most of us, those places are by the ocean or the lake. But not Brown.
“The river is the place to be. I’ve just always been fascinated with the diversity of rivers, from the small tributaries to where they run like the great waters of the Ottawa River or the St. Lawrence River.”
Brown’s early career focused on streams so marginalized that they couldn’t even be seen. She worked on “daylighting” projects in Vancouver, British Columbia. Daylighting is a type of aquatic forensics or hydrological archaeology.
The early history of many cities included a time where local streams were used as open sewers. As the cities grew, these streams were choked off. They become cesspools, disease-ridden, and then finally paved over. Buried and forgotten. Daylighting resurrects those waters.
Brown worked on the China Creek project on Vancouver Island that helped dig up and rehabilitate some of those lost streams, reconnecting them to the visible and more viable urban landscape.
“When we put water underground in pipes or cage it in concrete, it’s out of sight and out of mind. And people don’t want to spend infrastructure dollars where they can’t see it. So when you put all your dirty water underground it’s out of mind for people.”
Eventually, Brown grew tired of working on the engineering side.
“I wanted to get involved in policy, to start addressing the root of the problem instead of just trying to fix it after the fact.” That policy role puts her at the centre of the multi-linguistic, multi-jurisdictional knot that is Ottawa River.
Brown has untangled at least one major tangle recently, one cross-border success. After years of work, Ottawa Riverkeeper has finally been able to bring together two provincial environment ministers, Glen Murray of Ontario and David Heurtel of Quebec to create a joint water management board.The board will work together to protect the Ottawa River, Great Lakes, and the St. Lawrence River. A first for the Ottawa River.
Brown says most people think, when it comes to something as basic to survival as water, it should be reasonably straightforward. They assume there is a set of government agencies regulating and overseeing the health of the Ottawa River watershed.
“But it’s not that black and white, not that easy. Governments don’t want to get involved with each other’s jurisdictions, regulations are not that tight. It’s perfectly legal to dump untreated sewage into the river when it rains. I think to most Canadians that would be unacceptable.”
Part of achieving success in the policy and political field means educating those Canadians and letting people know what’s going in their river. The heightened awareness of sewage spills and health threats gets the public engaged and forces political action. But for Brown that heightened awareness also has some pitfalls.
“I get people coming up to me saying, “you know Meredith I grew up swimming at Britannia Beach but I wouldn’t go near it now.”
Brown points out the irony that those childhood swims in the 60s and 70s were when the Ottawa River was at its worst, with towns dumping completely untreated sewage and no regulations on the old pulp mills. The Ottawa River has come a long way since then.
“We need to talk about what’s going on now but we don’t want to create the perception that our water is so polluted you can’t swim in it. I always tell people there is a time and place and the river is a fantastic place, just don’t swim after it rains or near sewer outfalls. Waterkeepers are always trying to connect people to their water because people will protect what they connect with, what they love.”
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