January 3, 2005

Ontario toughens rules governing water withdrawals; permit fees coming this spring

New rules governing water takings in Ontario are intended to ensure rigorous reviews of water-taking permits and stronger conservation measures. The Water Taking and Transfer regulation (O Reg 387/04) under the Ontario Water Resources Act (OWRA) came into effect January 1, replacing the former regulation 285/99. At the same time, Environment Minister Leona Dombrowsky lifted the one-year water-taking moratorium (on December 31, as scheduled) and released the recommendations of two expert advisory committees on watershed-based source protection. She further announced that the government intends to introduce administrative fees for permit to take water applications starting April 1, 2005. The fees will cover the cost of processing, evaluating and issuing the permit.

"Under the old rules we didn't know how much water was being taken or how much water was available," Dombrowsky said. "It was like repeatedly taking money out of your bank account, without knowing the balance. The system we're putting in place will give us the information we need to make intelligent decisions."

Section 34 of the OWRA requires anyone taking more than a total of 50,000 litres in a day, with some exceptions, must obtain a Permit To Take Water (PTTW). Takings for which permits are needed include: municipal, commercial, industrial, private communal water supplies, agricultural irrigation, institutions such as hospitals and schools, recreational uses such as golf courses and ski facilities, water bottling, and other uses such as construction de-watering. Uses that are exempt from the permitting requirement are individual households, direct watering of livestock and poultry, and water for firefighting.

The regulation now in force prohibits new or expanded takings that would remove water from watersheds where there is already a high level of use. It clarifies and strengthens the factors the Ministry of Environment (MOE) must consider when assessing PTTW applications, in order to:

* protect the natural functions of the ecosystem by considering impacts to water flow and water levels, relationships between groundwater and surface water and water quantity and quality;

* ensure that water is available for existing uses and future development;

* ensure that water conservation measures are implemented;

* ensure that the water is needed and will actually be used in the near future; and

* take into account the existing level of water use in the watershed.

Where there is already a high level of water use in a watershed, relative to the existing water flows, the MOE will refuse permit applications for new or expanded takings. This does not apply to water taking for the following purposes: agriculture; municipalities; portable ready-mix concrete manufacturing facilities (permanent facilities are not exempted); pulp and paper production; extraction of aggregates where water taking is incidental; and ethanol production.

The three high-use watersheds are all located on the shore of Lake Erie. The Big Creek watershed in the Long Point area is high use throughout the year. The Lower Grand River watershed and the Niagara Peninsula watershed are high use in the summer. New or expanded takings that remove water from these watersheds will not be permitted in late summer when water flow is low.

As a means of increasing local knowledge regarding proposed takings, the ministry will notify all affected municipalities and conservation authorities of PTTW applications posted on the Environmental Bill of Rights registry. This will help municipalities and conservation authorities provide timely comments and serve as local sources of information for people and groups who have a strong interest in an application.

All permit holders will be required to report water takings every year. This information will support decisions on permit applications and other efforts to protect water resources such as source protection planning. The monitoring and reporting requirement will be phased in as follows:

* Municipal drinking water systems, major industrial dischargers and users who remove water from the watershed must start monitoring on July 1, 2005 and report by March 31, 2006.

* Other industrial sectors, commercial use and wildlife conservation purposes must start monitoring on January 1, 2006 and report by March 31, 2007.

* Other takings not covered in Phase 1 or Phase 2 must start monitoring on January 1, 2007 and report by March 31, 2008.

The final regulation is posted on the Environmental Bill of Rights registry (www.ene.gov.on.ca, reference No RA04E0011. The posting includes a link to a draft manual providing direction and guidance on key components of the Permit To Take Water program. Written comments on this draft will be accepted until January 27, 2005.

A year ago Dombrowsky appointed two expert advisory committees made up of water experts from the municipal, conservation, resource, agricultural and health sectors to recommend how to implement source water protection. The just-released reports from these two committees outline key threats to watersheds across Ontario and make a total of 261 recommendations on the best ways to develop and implement a source protection plan for the province. They call for new controls on activities around wells and drinking water intakes to ensure that the water does not become contaminated. For example, communities will be urged to determine potential threats to water sources, such as gas stations, or farms, and ensure that there is no pathway for these contaminants to travel to the source.

The Implementation Committee's report makes recommendations on tools and approaches to implement protection plans, including funding methods. The plans would include water budgets that would determine how much water is in a system. The committee also recommends that source protection plans have primacy over other laws, such as official plans.

The Technical Experts Committee's report makes recommendations on how to detect and effectively address possible threats to drinking water. It proposes the establishment of 100-metre zones around each wellhead in which no septic systems would be permitted, and no manure could be spread. The committee also recommends regular inspection of threats over a much wider area.

The experts' recommendations will form the basis of legislation to be introduced in the spring to establish an innovative, province-wide water resource protection system. It will bring together detailed scientific information and local partnerships to address risks.

The committees' reports have also been posted as information notices on the Environmental Bill of Rights registry for a 60-day public comment period (reference Nos XA04E0021 and XA04E0022).

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