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The fragility of the water table is beginning to surface in Quebec

In the span of 15 years, Quebec has taken giant strides to better understand groundwater. Despite the progress of science, knowledge struggles to reach the decision-makers who, in many cases, manage the development of cities blindly, without taking into account the limits of water levels hidden in their basements.

Underground springs map

At the turn of the millennium, Quebec knew almost nothing about its groundwater, a resource that nonetheless irrigated a quarter of Quebec’s population. It was not until 2008 that the Ministry of the Environment, instigated by the Liberal government, launched Projects for Groundwater Knowledge Acquisition (PACES), a massive project that rallied the university community throughout Quebec.

PACES has enabled knowledge of groundwater properties over nearly the entire province of Quebec. “We have data on the geological composition of the aquifers, their capacity for recharge, that is, their ability to renew themselves, the quality of the water, and the pressures, that is, where pumping is exerted on the flow of water running into the groundwater as well,” explains Marie Larocque, professor in the Department of Geosciences Atmospheric and research chair holder in Water and Territory Conservation of the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM).

beginning of may, The first inventory of scientific knowledge about groundwater On the Quebec Ministry of the Environment website, the first step towards establishing a groundwater observatory in Quebec. The result of two years of work, this inventory concentrates in one portal “almost everything that Quebec has on groundwater,” explains Marie Larocque. “We’re way too late,” says the researcher. We made up for that delay a bit today: We have maps everyone can use and our groundwater monitoring network has 263 stations in Quebec. »

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Knowledge exchange with municipalities

Since 2011, the Quebec Groundwater Network (RQES) has been dedicated to knowledge acquisition and, above all, knowledge sharing with Quebec water managers.

“Research is good, but it also has to be used for something,” says Marie Larocque. In recent years, the expert notes, the world of municipalities has whetted its appetite to plan its development based on groundwater sources. Several municipalities, such as St. LynnLaurentide and Sutton learned the hard way what it costs to reach the maximum water table.

“We are aware, especially since 2021, that there are more and more problems with groundwater,” notes Marie La Rocque. Policymakers are eager to know what to do with it. »

In a brief submitted on May 9, the Federation of Quebec Municipalities (FQM) recommended that Bill No. 20 of the Blue Box Foundation, currently under consideration, requires better knowledge transfer and, above all, provision of city planning tools and regional coordination mechanisms.

“Projects underway in certain areas of Quebec that aim to protect and develop groundwater as a follow-up to PACES do not currently benefit from any government support,” the FQM frowns. The consequences of laissez-faire can be costly, as recent examples show.

A resource that must be protected

Groundwater supplies water to a quarter of Quebec’s population, more than two million people. The small town of Saint-Hubert-de-Rivière-du-Loup learned last week of the fragility of this resource – and the extremely high cost of replacing it in the event of contamination, a palpable possibility since its main well was contaminated. for hydrocarbons.

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Ile d’Orléans has had recurring water quality problems for decades. Groundwater meets almost all the needs of the inhabitants of Orléans: an economic solution, but one that carries risks in an area 95% dedicated to agricultural activities.

“We know that we have to be very, very, very vigilant to protect what we have,” assures the warden over the Ile d’Orléans MRC, Lina Labbe. Building an aqueduct would cost a fortune. »

The dome-shaped topography of the island causes the water used for agriculture to flow in the center, towards the wells that water the inhabitants spread out on the periphery. This geographic reality makes underground springs more vulnerable to contamination: in 1995, poor water quality led to an outbreak of hepatitis A among Orleans residents. Over the past 30 years, analyzes have significantly revealed significant concentrations of nitrates, pesticides, and coliform bacteria in island wells.

The governor ensures that the agricultural world increases its efforts to conserve the resource. “They know this and they want to protect the water,” says Lena Labbe. However, anxiety exists among Orleans residents. According to a survey conducted by female master’s students at Université Laval in 2022, two-thirds of the 180 respondents said they were “very concerned” about the quantity and quality of water on the island.

Among them, 35% refused to drink the water coming out of their tap.

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