Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner says that the province has so far been acting blindly in the allocation of water-taking permits, with potentially dire consequences for Ontario’s groundwater supply.
“We’re making decisions with our eyes closed,” said Commissioner Dianne Saxe. “We don’t have enough information yet we’re allowing millions of litres to be taken every day out of the ground.”
The comments come in light of Premier Kathleen Wynne’s recently imposed two-year moratorium on new bottled water permits, itself a product of concerns over Nestle corporation’s application for a bottling permit for a well in Wellington county near Guelph. Public outcry over the seemingly small sum the province has been charging ($3.71 for every one million litres) to bottling companies to extract the resource -as well as news that the township itself has an interest in using the same well for community purposes- seem to have triggered the moratorium. Nestle currently uses two other wells to extract fresh water in Wellington at Aberfoyle and Erin Mills, both of which have permits to extract a combined total of 4.7 million litres of water per day.
Centre Wellington Mayor Kelly Linton has said the halt in issuing new permits should force the government to work on giving communities more say in the use of local groundwater. “Hopefully, municipalities will be given more opportunities to influence water-taking in our community based on solid scientific data and a long-term perspective of our water needs,” Linton said.
Yet, the province will have its work cut out for it, according to Saxe as well as Environment Minister Glen Murray, who states, “Climate change is creating such rapidly changing situations with water quality, air and forests that the amount of data you need to manage these things is enormous.”
Murray has promised that the current review of bottling water permits will be extended in the near future to look over water-taking permits for businesses such as mining, construction and golf courses, all high users of Ontario’s groundwater. “We just passed the Great Lakes Protection Act and we’re doing groundwater, then we’re going to deal with the other water issues after that,” said Murray.
Tasked with being the province’s independent environmental watchdog, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario is concerned about public access to information on water-taking permits under the province’s current practices. “The public gets no notice at all for three-quarters of water taking permits, including a large number of high risk permits,” said Saxe. “And of the ones where they do give notice, they don’t attach enough information so the public cannot make sensible comments.”
Saxe stresses that the public needs to be aware of and make use of Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights, which requires that the government hear public input on policies, regulations and approval structures with environmental impact, a process which can have profound effects on future government directions and decisions, says Saxe. “Most people in Ontario don’t know they have environmental rights. It’s an important route for public participation,” says Saxe. “Those opportunities to comment matter a lot. If people don’t comment, they’ll think it’s not important.”