Guardian of the Grand River basin

Barbara Veale poses by the side of the Grand River.

Barbara Veale grew up by the banks of the Grand, in Fergus. Though her mother worried, she was always down by the water. Sometimes, as a young girl, she’d go fishing and cook and eat her catch right on the shore.

She has never really left the river. Now the University of Waterloo alumna is co-ordinator of policy, planning, and partnerships for the Grand River Conservation Authority. She has spent nearly 34 years working for the GRCA, mostly on water issues.

Veale gained a more academic interest in water issues when she was in high school. She read Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring, among others, and took an advanced class in geography. So when it came time to choose a university, she knew Waterloo was where she wanted to go.

She finished her undergraduate degree in geography in 1976 and started working for the GRCA in 1978, while she was also doing her master’s at Waterloo. That initial job was a contract position working on a Grand River basin water management study.

At the time, there were serious issues with water quality and supply. After decades of pollution, the rivers and great lakes required a lot of remedial work. A massive flood in 1974 had also underscored the need for a better flood management plan.

The water management plan the GRCA implemented starting in 1982 was successful. Brown trout returned to the Grand River in sufficient numbers to make parts of it fishing and recreation meccas. The river also had plenty of human heritage features along the way. So Veale led the process to apply for Canadian Heritage Rivers designation for the Grand and its main tributaries.

“We were the first highly settled river in Canada to achieve that designation in 1994,” says Veale.

Another career highlight was winning the Theiss International river prize in 2000 for the best-managed river in the world. Veale went on to get her geography PhD from Waterloo in 2011. She now sits on Waterloo’s senate as an alumni representative.

Today, however, stresses are increasing on the Grand. Though per capita water use has dropped significantly, the population has boomed. Even in rural areas, land use is changing. There’s also the impact of climate change to consider.

So Veale’s career has “come full circle,” she says. Now, in collaboration with all the municipalities in the watershed and other stakeholders, she’s working with other GRCA staff on another large-scale water management plan for the next 30 years or so.

“It’s not just a job,” she says. “This is something I believe in."