WATER FIGHT: A profile of the symbolic guardian known as the Ottawa Riverkeeper

WATER FIGHT: A profile of the symbolic guardian known as the Ottawa Riverkeeper

The crusade to clean up the Ottawa River is both monumental and complicated, given the size of the waterway and the number of jurisdictions it flows through. Can one person — a symbolic guardian known as the Riverkeeper — wield enough power to effect real change?
By Ron Corbett

Testing the waters: Though progress on tackling pollution has been slow, riverkeeper Meredith Brown is encouraged by the city’s decision to launch the Ottawa River Action Plan. Photography by Julie Oliver.

MEREDITH BROWN is standing before a wall map of the Ottawa River watershed, pointing to where the problems are. Where Ottawa’s sewage system breaks down after a heavy rainfall. Where — to put it indelicately — the shit hits the water. “Here … and here … and here.” Her fingers move across the large map hanging in the office of the Ottawa Riverkeeper. “There are just as many entry points in Gatineau. After a bad storm, well, let’s just say it’s not good, what happens to the river.”

Like the time in 2006 when a billion litres of raw sewage was dumped into the river after a bad summer storm. It happened when an aging water control regulator on Keefer Street jammed open for two weeks. The Ontario Ministry of the Environment fined the city $450,000 for that mistake.

But three years later, the city managed to dump another billion litres of storm water and raw sewage into the river over the course of a year. The only difference was that in 2009, there was no mistake — it was Ottawa’s sewage- and storm-runoff system operating the way it should, the storm water being diverted to sewage pipes. (Last year we dumped another 400 million litres of raw sewage into the river.)

Sadly, this polluting of one of Canada’s great waterways is nothing new. The City of Ottawa used to dump raw sewage directly into the river. Pulp mills used to dump chemicals and Lord knows what else. Every summer, beaches in Ottawa are invariably closed after each heavy rainfall because of high E. coli counts, and while the city does test for E. coli and releases the results, there has never been a comprehensive public study into just how polluted the Ottawa River actually is. (Tiny lakes in the Gatineau Hills we know about; the second largest river in eastern Canada — a mystery.)

There are many reasons behind this state of affairs, but the most obvious is ownership. Because of the many jurisdictions along the river — two provinces, scores of municipalities, the National Capital Commission, and the federal government for some stretches of the waterway — no one has ever taken ultimate responsibility for the Ottawa River. Its sheer size — while adding greatly to its grandeur — has also worked against any organized campaign to clean it up.

Ten years ago, some people came together and tried to change that. Tried to give the Ottawa River — the Rodney Dangerfield of Canadian waterways — a little respect. Ideas were tossed around to make this happen. Perhaps the river could be designated a historical waterway? Perhaps a conservation authority could be created, similar to what is in place for the Rideau River and the Mississippi River?

In time, someone suggested the Riverkeeper model. Under this model, a guardian is appointed to oversee the river. He or she acts as a symbolic spokesperson and passionate defender of the waterway. A kick-ass palace guard, if you will.

The slight woman in front of me pointing at a wall map of the Ottawa River watershed is the river’s third riverkeeper.