December 12, 2005

Proposed law would strengthen local power to protect drinking water sources

New legislation introduced in the Ontario legislature on December 5 is designed to protect both existing and future sources of drinking water. Under Bill 43, the proposed Clean Water Act, communities would, for the first time, be required to work together to create and carry out a plan to protect their drinking water sources.

The proposed Clean Water Act would do three things:

*direct local communities to look at any activity that could threaten water quality and take action to reduce or remove that threat;

*give local authorities the power to take preventive measures before a threat to water can develop. This means municipalities and conservation authorities can take action on both existing and potential future threats to water quality; and

*require that the whole community be given a chance to participate in finding workable, effective solutions through full and public consultation. The province would not accept plans that have not had full consultation with towns, farmers, industries, health officials and the public.

This new approach is based on good science, increased vigilance and the necessary foresight to avoid potential problems, rather than simply dealing with immediate ones.

The government backed up the draft law with a financial commitment of $67.5 million, to ensure that communities are able to fully complete these studies. This includes $51 million over five years for technical studies and $16.5 million over the next year to enable conservation authorities to build up their staff and resources (ELW December 5, 2005).

If passed, the government says the Clean Water Act would help integrate water protection and growth planning and ensure that growing communities can continue to have an appropriate supply of safe, clean water. The act would better protect both the quantity and quality of the water in Ontario's aquifers, rivers and lakes, including the Great Lakes.

The proposed act sets out five steps for communities to follow when developing their own plans to protect their drinking water sources.

(1) Pinpoint vulnerable water sources: Conservation authorities and municipalities would map out drinking water sources needing special protection. These include areas immediately around wellheads and water intakes, recharge areas and aquifers.

(2) Build on good science: Local authorities would use a science-based approach to measure threats to water quality and quantity, and decide that a threat either needs immediate action, needs monitoring to ensure it doesn't become more serious, or can be managed over time with voluntary action.

(3) Bring local partners together: Once they have determined the threats, municipalities would work with conservation authorities, farmers and other landowners, industry, community groups and the public to come up with workable, effective plans to address them.

(4) Put plans into action: This can be done through by-laws, education programs, incentives, land use planning initiatives and partnerships. Municipalities would be given special authority to take action on significant threats to vulnerable drinking water supplies.

(5) Stay vigilant: The plans would include continuous monitoring and reporting to measure the effectiveness of the actions taken to protect drinking water sources and ensure they are protected in the future.

Municipalities would develop and implement strategies to manage risks around municipal water supply wells and intakes. They would have the authority to require businesses, farmers and other landowners to take steps to remove significant risks to drinking water.

Conservation authorities would co-ordinate planning across watersheds by supporting local municipalities, gathering information, assessing and ranking threats, consulting, and integrating municipal strategies into larger watershed plans.

Industry, businesses, farmers, other landowners, community groups and the public would be involved in helping to find solutions early on through representation on the local source protection committees.

The Clean Water Act would help protect the Great Lakes by requiring source protection planning to consider the existing agreements related to the Great Lakes Basin and through meeting water protection targets that could be set by the Minister of Environment. The act would also allow the minister to create committees to provide advice on matters affecting the Great Lakes.

The proposed legislation is part of the government's commitment to implement all of the recommendations of the Walkerton Inquiry. It specifically responds to 22 recommendations on protecting drinking water at its source, made in Part 2 of the inquiry report.

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