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  • Writer's pictureSave Our Water

Save Our Water Comments on ERO 019-2017

February 3, 2021

Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks

40 St. Clair Ave. W., 10th Floor,

Toronto, ON M4V 1M2

Submitted by email to:

Attn: Brent Taylor

Water Policy

Re: Proposed Implementation of Updates to Ontario’s Water Quantity Management Framework

Environmental Registry of Ontario Number 019-2017

Dear Mr. Taylor,

Save Our Water, a residents group in southern Ontario, values the Ministry’s efforts to better understand and manage Ontario’s groundwater with respect to issuing permits to take water.

This is an important process, since it could be decades before the water management program is updated again. We want to see regulation in place that will ensure Ontario’s water is not compromised under current situations, such as climate change and fast-growing urban development, as well as under future potential threats that we can now barely foresee, such as unprecedented droughts that last years, or speculators banking water permits as is now happening in the United States.

1. Implementing area-based water quantity management

We applaud the Ministry for preparing an impressive document outlining a water-taking management strategy for water quantity stressed areas. Although Ontario has a reputation for being “water rich,” some rapidly developing areas face legitimate concerns about the adequacy of long-term water supplies and the impacts of competing uses. The water management strategy represents a comprehensive new undertaking for the Ministry in managing permitted water takings (PTTW) in these areas. A few questions arise with regard to its implementation.

a) Who is going to do this work? The MECP reviews all PTTW applications and issues permits, which involves processing about 1,500 applications per year. In 2012 there were over 6,000 active PTTWs in effect in Ontario, the vast majority of them clustered in the densely populated areas.[1] Very little is now spent on monitoring existing permits.[2] Given the cutbacks of Ministry staff at the Regional level who are already overworked, including the absence of a Director for the West Central Region, how will it be possible to ensure the effective review and processing of PTTW applications as well as ensure the completion of these new water management projects?

b) Where is the Ministry going to get the information? Pages 5 and 6 of the proposal Guidance document list sources of available data for the water management strategy. Source Protection Area water budgets are an excellent new source of information. However, over the same time as this document was being prepared the Ministry has been reducing other sources of information.

The Source Protection water budgets required under the Clean Water Act, 2006, focus exclusively on protecting municipal drinking water sources. Locations where water quantity stresses do not affect municipal drinking water will not be flagged as concerns, since water budgets will not be prepared. Pump tests, now exempt from the PTTW process, have become exercises without either stringent Ministry oversight or public consultation. Water Permit reporting requirements are limited to impacts only in the immediate area of the water taking. The Ministry in Bill 197 reduced the number of Environmental Assessments. The Province has cut funding and reduced the mandate of Ontario’s 36 Conservation Authorities, who monitor and collect data for managing water quality and quantity in the province’s watersheds.[3]

So where will the Directors, the ‘gatekeepers’ of water permits and area water management, get the information necessary to fulfill the responsibility of managing sustainable water use?

c) Who represents the needs of ecosystems? Under the proposed updates to the regulation, the Director can determine that “the cumulative impact of multiple water users withdrawing water may affect the sustainability of the water resources and as a result, other water users and the aquatic ecosystems that depend on them.” (Guidance document, p. 2) But the MECP provides no clarity on how it intends to assess the needs of the ecosystems (rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands) that would naturally be receiving the water in the absence of that pumping. These impacts are hard to measure.

Some of that extracted water would otherwise have discharged to springs, rivers or wetlands where it would have performed some hydrologic function. Wetlands provide benefits such as climate resiliency from floods and droughts, protecting rivers, lakes and aquifers by removing pollutants, reducing erosion, sequestering carbon, providing wildlife habitat, supporting biodiversity and maintaining aquatic ecosystems.

For example, municipal water supply modelling in our area predicts that future municipal pumping would reduce discharge to two extensive wetland complexes by 12 to 15%. But because they are not evaluated as ‘provincially significant’, at no point in the permitting process will anyone assess impacts to the ecosystem services of these wetland complexes. South-western Ontario has so far lost 85% of its wetlands, and the MNRF has determined that all wetlands are sensitive ecosystems under threat while being vital to the health of our province; none are expendable.[4]

While Ontario’s water-taking policies recognize the need to protect ecosystem functions, Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner pointed out the difficulties in assessing the critical tipping-points. “The Ministry does not monitor stream flows itself, nor does it generally require permit holders to do so. [The Ministry] also does not monitor the condition of fishes and invertebrates.”[5] “For some permits, [the Ministry] stipulates that the water taking shall not exceed 10 percent of available stream flow. But such a threshold limit is too simplistic to protect all ecosystem needs, since hundreds of variables may be relevant. Stream-dwelling species, such as fishes or invertebrates, have evolved to expect highly variable habitat conditions over their life cycles. Depending on season and life stage, they may require: fast or slow water; high or low nutrient levels; shallow riffles or deep pools; and silt or gravel streambeds...Consideration of a single, minimum threshold flow, to the exclusion of other ecologically relevant flows, is no longer an acceptable approach to in-stream flow management.”[6]

Although the strategy states that adequate attention should be paid to ecosystem needs when decisions are made about water taking, there is no protocol for Ministry collaboration with the MNRF to develop guidance on how to prioritize, monitor and protect the key indicators of ecosystem functions in relation to water takings. Recent cutbacks to Conservation Authorities only exacerbate the problem, which requires more resources to adequately measure, monitor and forecast effects of short-and long-term threats to water sustainability as recently outlined, for example, in new policy recommendations to the Lake Erie Source Protection Committee.

d) Who can determine aquifer sustainability? Aquifer sustainability is a more difficult problem than is presented in the draft Guidance document, which considers impacts on other water users and some stream flows. The principles and goals specified in the Ministry’s Statement of Environmental Values include protecting, conserving, providing sustainability and where reasonable, restoring the environment’s integrity. We conclude that the methodology for establishing cumulative environmental effects requires more information and tools than are available to the MECP.

2. Implementing priorities of water use

a) Protecting future drinking water supplies The Guidance document, p. 18, states that for municipal drinking water systems, “Ontario regulation 387/04 requires the ministry to consider the impacts that a proposed water taking would have on planned municipal use of water that has been approved (e.g., under the Environmental Assessment Act).”

A ‘planned and approved’ municipal use of water, using the Tier 3 definition, means wells already tested and approved under a Master Plan or Class Environmental Assessment process. This definition puts the municipality in an untenable situation.

The Province mandates a municipality to prepare for future growth 25 years ahead. Accordingly, municipal plans are developed with designated residential and industrial expansion. Roads are re-constructed with watermains of a required diameter to be trunk mains in the direction of proposed future well sites. Bridges are re-designed with watermain capability. Subdivision plans extend out for twenty years in stages of being draft developments, approved and registered plans. Despite this planning, the Province cannot consider the priority of a municipality’s drinking water supply until a well is approved. But a proposed well location cannot be approved and reserved in advance. The process of locating source areas, test drilling for new wells and completing environmental assessments can take many years for a single well. How does a municipality effectively and efficiently develop its water system if it cannot plan ahead for its future water sources?

Given the specific challenges faced by communities 100% dependent on groundwater that the Province targets for rapid growth, it is not reasonable for one Ministry to expect 25-year planning decisions, while another Ministry bases its decisions on short-term municipal water plans.

b) Reserving water Since the Guidance document explains that the priority of drinking water cannot be used as a mechanism to “reserve” municipal water beyond a short-term planning horizon, then corporations also should not be able to “bank” water for future use. The rules should be the same. We need a water management framework that will protect Ontario’s water resources against permits issued for the purpose of reserving water for future business speculation.

Water futures are now traded on one U.S. exchange, and this is the climate we now need to be prepared for, pro-actively, with loophole-free legislation. Are sufficient precautionary measures in place that will protect water resources from water commodity speculators, investors who would bank water permits now in order to be able to trade them as water futures, or to sell to other investors?

c) Protecting the environment The Guidance document establishes that the Director will not issue a permit for any new or increased water taking unless he is satisfied that the proposed taking will not cause unacceptable impact to the environment.

It is hard to know how the Ministry can deliver on this core commitment. Please see the comments under 1c) above.

Our residents’ group reflects many Ontarians’ cynicism about the Province’s environmental protection. Removing any water from an aquifer becomes a trade-off involving potential benefits of extraction (drinking water, agriculture, economic) versus potential benefits of allowing the water to continue its natural path (discharging to rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands or continuing down-flow to service another area). How does one effectively determine the benefit of drinking water extraction over the value of natural spring water discharged to a wetland that may support an endangered species or may provide climate change resiliency to a community?

The proposed (December 2020) amended Statement of Environmental Values (SEV) for the MECP retains the original ‘Purposes’, which include “the protection and conservation of natural resources, including plant life, animal life and ecological systems.” The Ministry’s amended ‘Vision and Mandate’ under the SEV now states the Ministry’s vision is “an Ontario with clean air, land and water with healthy communities and a prosperous economy.” We rightfully ask: what defines an unacceptable environmental impact in a situation where there is political pressure for “economic benefit,” and who will be making this decision?

It is vital that we have responsible water management at the Ministry, that we have reliable, quantifiable data, and that stakeholders, including water managers, municipal representatives, indigenous representatives, and members of environmental groups, have access to the data. The intent is to ensure that trade-offs in issuing water-taking permits are as fair and equitable as they can be.

3. Making water data more accessible Goal 3 in the June 18 Proposal Paper ‘Updating Ontario’s Water Quantity Management Framework’ stated: “Providing public access to water quantity data unlocks the value of the data and promotes increased trust and transparency in the government’s management of water resources.” This proposal expressed the value of publishing data from actual water use, as well as water levels, monitoring and flow data on an Open Data Catalogue, making the information available to water managers, water users, indigenous communities and organizations, and the public.

So far, the implementation of this goal is stated: “the Director may publish on a Government of Ontario website or otherwise make available to the public... data collected under section 9.” Section 9 refers to the daily volume of water taken by permit holders.

The Ministry, municipal water managers and other stakeholders need more information regarding water, and particularly as this relates to drought management. Ideally, this data would include annual permitted water volumes and actual volumes taken, seasonal patterns of water taking, locations including geographic coordinates, ground or surface water source, water permit expiry dates, and whether the water taking is in an identified water stressed area.

The Environmental Commissioner noted in 2015 that the Ministry failed to share vital contextual information with the public on its Environmental Registry postings. The postings did not reveal the risk level of the proposed water-takings: whether it is low, moderate or high risk. They did not always reveal the river, lake, aquifer or watershed from which the water would be taken. “None of the water proposals on the Registry offered links to contextual background information, such as the proponent’s application, or background hydrological studies, or to any relevant reports about the watershed’s water quantity status.”[7] The public needs this information.

Unfortunately, the proposed goal of greater transparency of useful water management information has not yet been forthcoming in regulations, despite the Permit to Take Water Manual, which commits the Ministry to “promoting public and local agency involvement.”

Water security requires accountability. The Environmental Commissioner concludes that given population growth and climate change, “public interest in water taking is bound to grow, and indeed a vigilant public will be vital in helping to shift water use toward more sustainable approaches.”[8]

4. Revoking the Interim Technical Guidance Document for water permits for water bottlers

The interim technical requirements were proposed “to enhance water security in Ontario, by ensuring the wise use and management of groundwater in the face of climate change and increasing demand due to population growth.”[9] The requirements under the interim regulations were designed to increase transparency, with materials related to the application as well as data from all monitoring records and also mitigation actions taken from unexpected impacts posted for public review on a website. This information should still be posted for public review.

We support keeping the water permit term at five years instead of ten years. Significant changes and new information can arise in five years.

We support a public consultation period of at least 45 days on the Environmental Registry for water-taking permits. Since the Ministry has committed to promoting public and local agency involvement in PTTW decisions, thirty days is insufficient to adequately research and prepare comments on proposed water taking. A longer response time is in the public interest and indicates a genuine commitment to developing an effective water quantity management system.

Thank you for your time and consideration of this submission.

Save Our Water

References: [1] Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 2015. “Public Participation in Water-taking Decisions.” p. 90-1.

[2] E. Schwartzel, Deputy Environmental Commissioner. Hammond Lecture, U. of Guelph, 2017.

[3] Conservation Ontario. Media Release: Province Moves to Constrain Conservation Authority Programs and Services. August 19, 2019.

[4] Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. 2017. A Wetland Conservation Strategy for Ontario, 2017–2030.

[5] ECO. 2012. “Water-Taking: Leave Something for the Fish.” p. 109

[6] ECO. 2012.p. 109

[7] Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 2015. “Public Participation in Water-taking Decisions.” p. 90-1.

[8] ECO. 2015. p. 91

[9] EBR Policy Notice (012-9151)

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