August 28, 2006

Environmental, professional groups voice support for Ontario drinking water source protection act

Ontario's proposed Clean Water Act is essential for the long-term health of the province's communities and environment. Accordingly, it should be made as strong as possible, says a joint statement issued by 16 citizens' and environmental groups at the start of legislative committee hearings on the act. Measures recommended to achieve this goal include adoption of the precautionary principle, meaningful involvement of First Nations, MÈtis, and Inuit peoples, sustainable funding for program implementation, strong conservation measures, and a firm commitment to Great Lakes protection.

"Protecting our sources of drinking water is pure common sense," said Dr Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence. "This Act is a big step forward for water protection in Ontario, and it should be as strong as possible."

"This Act makes drinking water source protection a top priority in local and regional planning decisions," said Jessica Ginsburg, a lawyer with the Canadian Environmental Law Association. "Its innate flexibility will allow communities to identify their true priorities and design solutions which are workable and effective."

Bill 43, the Clean Water Act, 2006, was introduced last December, received second reading in May and was referred to the Standing Committee on Social Policy, which held hearings on the draft legislation during the week of August 21 in Toronto, Walkerton, Cornwall, Bath and Peterborough.

The act lays out a formal process for identifying threats to drinking water sources and establishes local committees to address those threats. It also provides tools to enable municipalities better protect their waters. Potential threats the act will help address include bacterial contamination from human or animal waste, industrial pollution, urban runoff and water depletion from overuse.

In 2004, a coalition of citizens' and environmental groups endorsed the Ontario Source Water Protection Statement of Expectations, which laid out an initial set of recommendations for the province's source water protection legislation. In their joint statement last week, the groups said the Clean Water Act will help the province live up to 12 of those 16 recommendations. The Act also supports the implementation of 22 of Justice O'Connor's recommendations from the Walkerton Inquiry.

The groups participating in the hearings offered seven specific proposals for strengthening the Clean Water Act.

*Adoption of the precautionary principle: As drafted, the act does not contain a single reference to precaution, and the groups call for its inclusion as a guiding principle in the purpose statement and in the administration of the act, for example, as an operational component of the source protection plans.

*Meaningful involvement of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples: In its current form, the Act does not include provisions related to drinking water systems on reserves, nor does it in any way include First Nations peoples in the source protection process. They should be full participants in source protection planning and implementation, in addition to allocating appropriate resources to facilitate meaningful involvement.

*Sustainable funding for the program's implementation: The statement calls for a sustainable and reliable approach to securing funds for the implementation of source protection plans, and urges the government to consider funding mechanisms such as water-taking charges, water rates, pollution charges, incentive programs, general revenues, and stewardship approaches. The funding system should also allow for the equitable reallocation of funds and reaffirm the principle of water as a public resource.

*Equal source water protection for central and northern Ontario and for private water systems: As currently drafted, the act is weighted towards protection of municipal drinking water systems in southern Ontario. The statement strongly recommends extending the right to source water protection to people who rely on private water systems and water systems in central and northern Ontario.

*Incorporation of strong water conservation measures to protect both water quality and quantity: For example, says the statement, groundwater aquifers could be better preserved by setting clear guidelines limiting the spread of impervious surfaces in key recharge areas.

*Strong commitments to Great Lakes protection and integration with Great Lakes agreements. The new act, says the statement, should be a starting point for renewed leadership in Great Lakes protection. This would include integrating source protection measures with existing Great Lakes programs, data collection, and inter-jurisdictional agreements, including the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the Annex 2001 agreements.

*Extensive, continuing public participation and education: At a minimum, meaningful engagement requires the involvement of landowners, industries, businesses and the general public in source protection committees; financial support for participation outside of the committees; and the opportunity to comment on proposed terms of reference, assessment reports, and source protection plans before these documents are finalized.

Signatory groups to the joint statement include: Environmental Defence, Canadian Environmental Law Association, Concerned Walkerton Citizens, Canadian Federation of University Women/Ontario Council, Georgian Bay Association, Waterfront Regeneration Trust, Sierra Legal Defence Fund, Federation of Urban Neighbourhoods of Ontario, Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy, Federation of Ontario Cottagers' Associations, Friends of the Earth Canada, Riversides Stewardship Alliance, Ontario Headwaters Institute, Sierra Club of Canada (Ontario Chapter), Citizens' Environmental Alliance, Pollution Probe.

More information, including the joint statement, is available on-line at www.TheWaterHole.ca, a grassroots water protection web site operated by Environmental Defence and the Canadian Environmental Law Association.

The Ontario Medical Association (OMA) also offered its support for the legislation in a presentation to the Standing Committee. "Having worked on the front lines in Walkerton, our physicians know all too well the devastating consequences of unsafe water sources," said OMA president Dr David Bach.

Since the Walkerton crisis, the OMA has participated in several advisory committees on safe drinking water with the provincial government, as part of its advocacy for health protection. "We applaud the commitment the government has shown to restoring Ontario's system of water protection," said Dr Bach, adding, "Access to safe, clean water is a basic health necessity that must be vigorously protected and we believe this new law does just that."

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