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Former politician and lawyer advocates for better water management

As a former politician and lawyer, an Alberta woman has made it her mission in retirement to advocate for water and its management, something she admits she became passionate about out of anger. When officials in Cochrane, just west of Calgary made a decision to fill in a picturesque gully behind her house, she became incensed.
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As a former politician and lawyer, an Alberta woman has made it her mission in retirement to advocate for water and its management, something she admits she became passionate about out of anger.

When officials in Cochrane, just west of Calgary made a decision to fill in a picturesque gully behind her house, she became incensed.

"I realized the water was going to tear down there, it was such a waste and it just seemed wrong," said the 62-year-old mother of two. "I didn't start out as an environmentalist, but as an angry person."

Stewart became involved in Cochrane's Sustainable Communities Initiative as a town councillor, and then, as a mature law student she decided to specialize in environmental law.

She served on the Alberta Water Council Policy and Issue Gaps Project Team as a Bow River Council Committee representative for many years, and was often frustrated by what she called the government's lack of action on her group's recommendations.

Still, she believes her outspokenness has made a difference in raising awareness about water management over the years.

"I'm proud of the work I've done," she said, adding that she much prefers working quietly behind the scenes as opposed to the time she spent as mayor of Cochrane.

"That was the worst three years of my life," she admitted. "I represented a loud, aggressive, educated minority and that wasn't what most people wanted."

What Stewart would like to see happen in Alberta is an official regulatory system that allows people to be more creative when it comes to conserving water.

"The regulatory system has to change because it's outdated," she said, citing the example of the "lazy river" that runs through some modern public swimming pools, often leading into wave pools. "We bring in this treated water which is then exposed to the air and has to go to the wastewater treatment facility to be treated again. It can't be reused or rechanneled, so it's a very expensive process, especially when we live in a community that's so short of water."

Stewart explained there's no mechanism to allow us even to use grey water to flush toilets.

"It goes against our building and plumbing codes," she said. "If our government was smart it would encourage innovation in order to decrease water consumption."

Over the years Stewart has lent her legal skills to the development of a waste management bylaw and water conservation policy in Cochrane, and she has played a key part in developing a wetland policy for the town of Strathmore, and the wetlands and riparian lands policies for the county of Rocky View. As a member of the Bow River Basin Council Legislation and Policy Committee, she also helped draft a template of municipal policy statements and land use bylaw provisions to protect water resources and environmentally sensitive lands that is widely available for all municipalities to use.

The process is slow but, says Stewart, it's moving in the right direction.

"Back in the 90s riparian wasn't a word you heard, it wasn't something we talked about, so there has been change in how people think about wetlands," she said. "So yes, it's really slow, but it's happening and I like to think I've been a part of it."

Stewart admits her outspokenness doesn't always help in sensitive negotiations with the government.

"I'm extremely arrogant and that's not a good thing," she chuckled. "I should probably take a course on getting along with others."

Stewart says there are lots of small things that individuals can do to help conserve water.

"You don't have to be fanatical about it," she said. "But pay attention to water. Be aware when water is running."

She added that one thing most homeowners like to take for granted is entirely unnecessary.

"Why on earth do you need a lawn?" she asked. "What's it for? You hardly ever use it and it wastes a lot of water. People spend a fortune on it, but the whole idea needs to be examined."

Still, Stewart added, it's not necessary to go to extreme measures to conserve water.

"I'm not saying you should only shower every three days or even time yourself in the shower," she said. "I'm just saying you should be aware."





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