April 4, 2005

Landmark study analyzes current state of groundwater management in Canada

A landmark study on Canada's management of groundwater, released last week, shows that Canada suffers from a patchwork of standards, regulations and permitting processes. Buried Treasure: Groundwater Permitting and Pricing in Canada, prepared for the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation, "is intended to provide a snapshot of the current framework for groundwater management in Canada," commented report author Linda Nowlan on behalf of the Foundation. "We wanted to shed light on the variation among jurisdictions, examine "best practices", and highlight the gaps that still exist."

The Foundation says its report provides the first-ever comprehensive compilation of groundwater permitting requirements, reporting requirements, pricing structures and public reporting requirements to date. It also raises concerns about the potential for problems to arise given the lack of knowledge about groundwater resources and groundwater use, the patchwork of regulations and lack of consideration of environmental impacts in permitting decisions. Groundwater, it says, is a "buried treasure" that needs to be protected and managed for sustainability.

The report provides significant findings about groundwater management in Canada, which serve to fill an important information gap. For example:

*Canadians rely significantly on groundwater for municipal supplies. Quebec has the greatest number of municipal systems reliant on groundwater (142), but Ontario has the largest population dependent on it (1.3 million). Industrial or municipal sectors account for the highest proportion of groundwater allocation in each region where it can be evaluated, except Manitoba where agriculture claims the highest proportion.

*Only six of the 13 provinces and territories make specific provision for public participation opportunities in the water permit decision-making process.

*Most provinces do not require a licence or permit to be obtained until a certain threshold amount of water is to be used, but that threshold varies significantly. Only BC has no general licensing requirement for groundwater extraction above a defined threshold level.

*The duration of permits for groundwater extraction ranges from one to 25 years or even in perpetuity (i.e. PEI, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and historical licences in Alberta).

*Only six provinces take into consideration cumulative impacts and ecosystem protection to some degree when making groundwater allocation decisions. Other provinces cite lack of staff and competing priorities as reasons for not doing so.

*Criteria for issuing groundwater permits vary throughout the country, with Ontario' being the most detailed. Its recent regulatory amendments address protection of natural ecosystem functions, water availability and water use; an application may be refused if the proposed water-taking is in a high-use watershed.

*Water laws in Canada historically have not placed a premium on conservation. Only Ontario requires conservation to be considered when reviewing permit applications under its new water-taking and transfer regulation.

*Canadian jurisdictions remain reluctant to charge for water use, or to charge enough even to cover the costs of infrastructure. Only six of the 13 provinces and territories charge fees for groundwater extraction.

Groundwater represents almost all of the world's supply of useable fresh water (i.e. that not stored in glaciers and icecaps). It contributes a significant amount to surface waters, and 30% of Canadians rely on it exclusively for drinking water. There is considerable reliance on groundwater for industrial and agricultural uses as well, yet most users pay nothing for it. Although Canada is a comparatively water-rich country, groundwater "hot spots" are beginning to emerge in many provinces, notes the report.

The Buried Treasure report includes full chapters on:

*the state of groundwater science in Canada (including a case study by Alfonso Rivera, chief hydrogeologist for the Geological Survey of Canada);

*groundwater allocation and permitting law in Canada (including a case study by Susan Rutherford of West Coast Environmental Law);

*provincial groundwater permitting requirements;

*public participation opportunities in groundwater permitting; and

*groundwater pricing requirements (including a case study of pricing policies by Randy Christensen of the Sierra Legal Defence Fund).

Canadian knowledge about groundwater resources and dynamics lags far behind understanding of our lakes and rivers. This is likely the biggest obstacle to better management, says the report, noting that Canada does not have a current national-scale inventory of its groundwater resources. There is scant knowledge about the interactions between surface water and groundwater and about the links between groundwater allocation and instream or environmental flows.

Other factors cited as obstacles to improved groundwater management include:

*lack of information for regulators regarding groundwater use. Six jurisdictions studied lacked readily available data on use, and most jurisdictions track only volumes of groundwater allocated, not volumes actually used.

*legal doctrines governing water regulation in Canada, which may not promote the optimum use of water and are too rigid to adapt to changing societal priorities.

Monitoring and permitting use of groundwater is a provincial responsibility, and legislation varies considerably across provinces. There will be a need for co-operative dialogue about the management of groundwater resources, particularly those that cross borders. To foster this, there is also a need for evaluating the state of groundwater knowledge, current legislation permitting groundwater use, and the degree of monitoring of actual use across the country.

The Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation plans to host a series of workshops with regulators, policy-makers and NGOs to address the findings of the Buried Treasure report and explore best practices and ways to move forward with strengthened and perhaps more standardized regulatory and policy regimes.

The full report and summary may be viewed on-line at www.buriedtreasurecanada.ca.

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