Why new regulations for water bottlers are still flawed

The Ministry is going through this process of creating new policies and regulations for water bottlers and we could end up with something less satisfactory than we had before!

On April 21, 2016 the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change announced new procedures and guidelines that apply to water bottling permit renewals. The new requirements were established, in the Ministry’s words, “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.” But these new regulations are still not good enough.

  • Aspects of the new regulations are worthy of support:
  • The permits will now be for a maximum of five years, not ten.
  • Climate change and drought conditions will be part of the assessment.
  • Mandatory decreases in the volume of water-takings will be triggered by drought levels.
  • The water bottler’s operation will be more transparent, with all data from monitoring water levels and all mitigation actions taken from unexpected impacts (e.g. lower water levels in private wells) to be posted on a website for public review.

However, there are serious omissions, and new issues have now arisen with these new guidelines. The following are some of these concerns:

  • Science for the application will be undertaken by the applicant. Work that was previously the responsibility of the Regional MOECC office is now downloaded onto the applicant. This will reduce the cost in public tax dollars of the administration of the water management program, but we have serious concerns that these proponent-driven science reports will not be disinterested and unbiased studies. They need extensive third-party oversight.
  • Consultation with First Nations has been downloaded to the applicant. This change is huge. A consultation process is necessary; Save Our Water agrees with that. But if the applicant does the consulting, and the Ministry is not part of this process, what does this look like? This changes the conversation. For one thing, it puts a burden on First Nations to have the relevant information and expertise with which to consult, while the applicant has full-time highly paid professionals. The Ministry still agrees that it has a legal duty to consult with first Nations, but where has this process gone? They now oversee the applicant’s consultation process.
  • Consultation with municipalities has also been downloaded. A new mandatory pre-submission discussion between the permit applicant and Ministry staff prior to the PTTW application allows for an opportunity for the Ministry to advise that such an application would not be accepted in any case, for example within the boundaries of a municipality targeted for accelerated growth. Following that, however, a ministry-municipality consultation process has now become an applicant-municipality consultation. This allows for the applicant to enter into negotiations with the municipality. Again, this is not a disinterested consultation. This is pressure.
  • Climate Change considerations are not stringent enough. Considering that a level 3 drought has never been officially reported even when the situation has warranted it, specifically during the serious droughts in 2012 and 2016, how often will the mandatory decreases in water-taking be triggered? We feel that during droughts serious enough that a watershed is experiencing several months with only about a quarter of the rainfall expected, the 20% mandated decrease in water taking is an inadequate reduction. Further, there are more aspects to climate change than drought and temperature. The new guidelines do not take into account high intensity rainfall events, whereby water flows directly into creeks and streams, storm sewers and rivers rather than replenishing groundwater. Given the high uncertainty of the future, we would like the Ministry to consider other climate and weather variables and to follow precautionary principles.
  • Potential impacts to ecosystems are left to the applicant’s assessment. With these new guidelines there is no improvement in the section on impacts to ecosystems. This may be the most significant concern. Potential impacts on ecosystems require provincial oversight, and the MNR should be involved in a collaboration to protect ecosystems. Consideration of a single threshold flow in a river, to the exclusion of other ecologically relevant considerations is not a satisfactory approach to quantifying ecosystem needs. An allowable 10% reduction in stream flow is not acceptable. Strong sustainability principles acknowledge the lack of knowledge about the functioning of complex natural systems. Strong sustainability proponents also recognize that the uncertain state of knowledge about ecosystems makes it very difficult to judge what are critical thresholds. We must re-define water use based on a finite supply and inclusion of all freshwater ecosystem needs. This is not for the applicant to measure!
  • Watersheds need protection. Since ecosystems are tightly linked to the watershed catchment of which they are a part, we need better policies to protect watersheds. Currently, and under these new guidelines, the Ministry takes into account impacts of water uses in local sections of the watershed, but not the cumulative effects of all threats to the watershed as a whole. Considering that the vast majority of water permit holders are clustered in the densely populated parts of Ontario, these threats to watersheds are accumulating. The Grand River Watershed has over 700 active Permits to Take Water, with permits constantly being issued, renewed and expiring, including significant municipal water takings. Both Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner and the Ministry of Natural Resources have advised that better assessment is needed at the watershed level. We need policies for water permits that take into account the cumulative impacts of all water uses within a watershed.

We need a water management process that sets a gold standard in water protection, a management process that considers groundwater as part of a freshwater system connected to rivers, lakes and wetlands with ecological purposes, and not simply as a water supply for human needs.