An internationally renowned environmentalist

By Dorothy Isted
Special to the Pioneer

While many people have heard of Rhode’s Scholarships, most don’t realize the intention in granting them. They look for people who have proven academic excellence and demonstrate sympathy for and protection of the weak along with a moral force of character and the instincts to lead. Dr. David Schindler, a dual Canadian-U.S. citizen, who retired to Brisco at the end of an illustrious career in 2014, was such a man.

Born in 1940 in North Dakota, he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in 1962 and was selected to study as a Rhode’s Scholar at Oxford University in England. He earned his PHD in Ecology in 1966. For two decades in Ontario, starting in the 1970s, he led a team in the Experimental Lakes Area project, conducting original research into the role of phosphorus from agriculture and detergents in producing uncontrolled algae blooms, which killed fish and degraded drinking water in freshwater lakes. He also demonstrated acid rain destroyed those lakes at drastically lower levels than thought at the time. We have him to thank for the phosphate free laundry detergent that we use today.

An innovative idea was to place a large rubber barrier to divide a lake. The astonishing picture taken, showing a pristine half with very polluted, scummy water on the other side, was published over 400 times and was instrumental in convincing sceptical politicians to regulate phosphorus. His work on acid rain helped convince the U.S. and Canadian governments to sign the 1991 Acid Rain Treaty, considered by many to be one of the most successful accords signed for environmental protection in North America.

hough disliking cities, Dr. Schindler accepted a teaching post at the University of Alberta in 1989 in Edmonton; and chose to live 100 kilometers away so that he and his wife, Suzanne Bayley, could have a sled dog kennel of 90 dogs. He made the long commute to work in exchange for the peaceful outdoors he loved and the excitement of racing the dogs across western Canada.

In 2009, he was dismayed to hear a politician bragging that the expansion of the oilsands project would have minimal impact on local waters. He initiated two studies showing the Athabasca River was being polluted by the oilsands operations in Fort McMurray up to 30 times more than officially permitted. This work led the Alberta government to establish independent oversight of the industry. Concerned for the Indigenous communities that lived downstream and depended on fishing for their livelihoods, he worked for free, attempting to come up with ways to combat the pollution.

Throughout his career, Dave Schindler advocated for First Nations people whenever he saw their lives were being negatively impacted and was regarded as one of the first scientists to defend First Nations values in treaty rights. He also chaired the board of directors for Safe Drinking Water Foundation, which educated students to protect fresh waters and assists aboriginal communities with their water problems. 

Dr. Schindler received over 100 science awards. One, The Stockholm Water Prize, is considered equal to a Nobel Prize. He was honoured with the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, an international award given to individuals in recognition of their outstanding scientific knowledge and public leadership in their effort to preserve and enhance the world’s environment. Besides his many international awards, he received Canada’s highest science award in 2001, the Gerhard Herzberg Gold Medal for Science and Engineering.

Understanding the interconnectedness of humanity and nature, he was passionate to share his science with the public, giving many public lectures so they could understand the benefit of their tax dollar investment in him and his field. He realized the information sitting as studies on university and government shelves wouldn’t impact or change people’s minds unless he gave it to them.

Retirement didn’t stop his work. He and his wife, Dr. Suzanne Bayley, moved to the Columbia Valley in 2014 to enjoy birding, fishing and hunting. She is currently serving as president of the Columbia Wetlands Stewardship Partners and he assisted her with the scientific studies this local NGO is doing to conserve the environment of the Columbia Valley.

Dr. Schindler also volunteered with Living Lakes Canada, serving as a board member. He helped their staff and volunteers to comprehend the science of water, making complex principles understandable. Executive Director Kat Hartwig was a neighbour and close friend. She said, “Dave was a scientific giant. His assessments and opinions were in high demand and sought after by governments and scientists from around the world. We were exceptionally privileged to be able to have just some of Dr. Schindler’s time and wisdom, and this privilege is truly irreplaceable.”

Dr. Schindler died in Golden Hospital on March 4, 2021, after a two-year illness.