• Photo: John Kealey

Whether fresh or salt, water must run in the veins of the legendary Cousteau family. Alexandra Cousteau, founder of water conservation group Blue Legacy and granddaughter of ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, came to Canada’s National Capital Region in September for the de Gaspé Beaubien Foundation’s River Mission, which aims to clean up the Ottawa River. Cousteau tested the water of the river and its tributaries and interviewed dozens of locals, and will release three short documentaries in late 2014 about water quality, dams and biodiversity and the need for better collaboration between the Ontario and Quebec sides.

On her devotion to water conservation

I was brainwashed from birth. Seriously though, I grew up travelling and seeing different water treasures around the world, and I’ve seen those places change or start to disappear. Some of the places from my childhood that I wanted to share with my daughter are simply not there anymore.

Why the Ottawa River?

We did a number of stories when we passed through Canada in 2010 on Blue Legacy’s North American expedition, but we didn’t tell the story of the Ottawa River. When the de Gaspé Beaubien Foundation’s River Mission was conceived, I realized I would have to come back.

Overall impression 

Telling the story and hearing the voices of this river has been tremendously exciting and also a little bit concerning. Not just because of the state of the river or the environment around it, but because people didn’t want to talk to us — it’s as if they were afraid of losing their pensions if they did. That was disappointing, and a big concern for those who treasure free speech, community action and scientific research.

The water in the capital region 

We learned that the quality is fairly good — certainly better than South Asia’s Ganges, I can tell you that much! But we don’t know about heavy metals, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, endocrine disruptors and other contaminants. Those are harder to test for, and it’s a reminder that grassroots organizations don’t have the funds to perform expensive lab-based testing.

The good

It’s thrilling that on this river you can see frogs living in the middle of downtown Ottawa, and they don’t have five legs! This river is absolutely beautiful, and there are organizations like Ottawa Riverkeeper, who are building bridges across the cultural, language and legislative divide, all for the river’s benefit.

The bad

I was shocked that environmental legislation from municipal to federal levels is not being implemented or enforced and that there are communities across this watershed which have seen the environment they love being bulldozed and wetlands being filled. Our environment, water and forests belong to us, and we must be allowed to steward them for future generations.

On cross-border rivers 

What’s interesting about the Ottawa River is that its middle is the dividing line between Quebec and Ontario. And everything changes from one side to the other, from language and culture to legislation and the level of investment in infrastructure. The lack of collaborative governance is a big problem for this river, because when one side does a whole lot and the other does little, it still suffers.

Our attitude about water 

Canadians definitely take their water for granted, and I can understand why. Just driving through this area we’ve seen lake after lake. It’s easy to think there’s such an abundance that we don’t have to take care of it. Yes, it’s renewable, but it’s also very vulnerable.

Water conservation now versus her grandfather’s day 

Everything has changed in the past 70 or 80 years. We’ve learned more about our water planet than ever before, but we’ve also lost more of it than ever before. And with growing populations comes an increasing need for food and energy and water, more waste and more manufacturing, so our water sources are under greater pressure. Climate change, of course, is making us feel water issues even more acutely. The urgency of solving these problems is even greater than it was when my grandfather started.

Wider impacts of local projects 

The problems affecting our rivers are pretty well defined. You can have issues with general water quality, hydro power and dams, agriculture and industry. The challenges that we’re facing on the Ottawa River are shared by communities elsewhere in Canada and the world. My hope is that the story we’re telling about this place is relevant to people elsewhere, that they’ll be able to use this film to talk about their own issues and learn from them.

How to engage people 

We love what we know, and we protect what we love. So the most important thing to do is help people be in touch with whatever water body defines and shapes the land that they live on.

What we can do 

If you’re interested in your river, call your local river keeper or equivalent, ask them what’s going on with your water, what’s impacting its quality near where you live, your ability to drink, swim and fish in it, and what kind of help they need. They make this river better every day, but they need you to roll up your sleeves and get involved.  If that continues to happen, then even damaged waters will come back, and will be there for your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, and for mine as well.