Health of P.E.I.’s aquatic ecosystems must be goal of Water Act

This OpEd was published in the Charlottetown Guardian December 14.

The final presentations to the Environmental Advisory Council (EAC) regarding the Water Act have been made.
The EAC will continue to accept comments and concerns until January 15. (See the government Water Act page here.)

The process has been open, transparent and participatory. The sessions were well-attended, and many people took the opportunity to ask questions or make comments during the open mic part of the evening.

It was impressive how many wonderful, detailed and well-researched presentations several groups and individuals made. Many of the people who worked on those presentations are volunteers. It just shows how important and meaningful these public sessions were, and how serious the issues regarding our water are for Islanders.

Members of the EAC have a daunting task ahead of them. At the final session, following presentations by Crop Life and Fertilizer Canada, it was mentioned that the EAC and the report must “find a balance.” What are we trying to balance? Is it economic growth with the health of the environment? The health of P.E.I.’s aquatic ecosystems must be the goal of the Water Act and our first and non-negotiable priority. If our environment continues to be degraded, it stands to reason the economy will also suffer. Management of the economy must be looked at through the lens of environmental security.

The precautionary principle was brought up in many of the presentations. This must be an enforceable principle, embedded in the act. In 1992, the United Nations adopted the following definition: “Where there may be threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation.” In 2001, the Supreme Court of Canada expanded this definition to include “human health.”

The precautionary approach recognizes that because there are limits to being able to determine and predict environmental impacts with scientific certainty, we must anticipate and prevent environmental degradation without waiting for proof that the environment will be impaired.

Many presenters also spoke about intergenerational equity, or making sure that we are protecting the environment for several generations. In what state will we leave this Island for our grandchildren and their grandchildren to come? This guiding principle should also be included in the legislation.

The Coalition for the Protection of P.E.I. Water strongly believes that citizen involvement should continue well beyond these consultations. We advocate a more democratic and inclusive process where citizens would have a collaborative role with government in the developing the Act itself, regulations, and in water governance and decision-making.

We have recommended such a “Water Board” to the EAC in our last presentation that would include a diverse group of citizens who have a primary commitment to ensuring and protecting the health of ecosystems. This board could include scientists and academics, First Nations, watershed groups, environmentalists, farmers, fishers, municipalities, and others. We will be submitting a more detailed proposal to the EAC for such a Water Governance Board in the New Year.

It is critical that we don’t take our water for granted and that we work to protect it now, and into the future.

Catherine O’Brien is the Chair of the Coalition for the Protection of P.E.I. Water.

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