Don Mazer and Boyd Allen
The Water Act Process: From exemplary public consultation to industry led policy
It took 7 years, but now Prince Edward Island finally proclaimed a Water Act. There are certainly reasons to celebrate this. The Act contains guiding values that recognize water as a common good and a public trust. There is acknowledgment of the precautionary principle and the need to preserve water for future generations. Yet, how much the Act will help to remedy the poor track record of the Government and its departments in protecting PEI’s waters remains to be seen.
The impetus for the development of the Water Act began at Legislative Standing Committee meetings in 2014. The potato processing industry was pressuring government to lift the moratorium on high capacity wells for agriculture, and many citizens and groups opposed this.
It is important to appreciate that the development of the Water Act reflected an exemplary process of public consultation, because it stands in such sharp contrast to the current approach of Minister Myers and the King government. This Water Act consultation period was a time when there was meaningful collaboration between government and citizens, when all Islanders had a chance to express their ideas, and when there were many opportunities for public input. Government was receptive to requests for transparent processes, and was flexible in meeting the needs of the public. Citizens and groups responded with enthusiasm and interest and a strong commitment to this process. The result was a series of excellent, thoughtful and well researched presentations by groups and individuals at public meetings across PEI. Government seemed to actually welcome and value public input into the development of policy. The Environmental Advisory Council report was an accurate reflection of these presentations, and included the strong opposition from a large majority of presenters to ending the moratorium on High Capacity wells for agriculture.
After being reviewed and debated clause by clause, The Water Act was passed by the provincial legislature in December, 2017. It was the ground breaking product of participatory democracy and a step toward consensus based governance.
But since that time, we have had a change in government and four Environment Ministers, each reflecting the biases current in their Caucus and the Premier’s Office. The Water Act process has been transformed through each of these changes and has fallen on and off the priority list. The robust process of public consultation on the Act was replaced by a consultant driven “dot democracy” method for the regulations, with limited opportunities for people to directly express their ideas. The current minister is unresponsive to requests for meetings.
Trust has eroded in Government’s ability to protect our water, to listen to and collaborate with citizens and to resist corporate influence. Anoxic conditions, high nitrate levels and fishkills continue to seriously impact P.E.I.’s waterways. Kilometres of Winter River stream beds continue to go dry each summer. The Government even violated its own regulations to permit a group of potato producers to extract water from the Dunk River in 2020 though the flow levels were below legal limits. In lieu of transparency, Government made this possible through closed door meetings and subsequent ministerial orders.
We have moved from a textbook template of public engagement and consensus based governance to a government led by industry, doing whatever if feels appropriate to achieve its short term goals. Virtually all lines of communication have been ignored. Portals for public engagement have been effectively blocked. The multiparty Standing Committee that Dennis King celebrated as a model of collaboration and transparency, is now presented by his Minister as a target of derision, their recommendations easily disregarded. Minister Myers’ unfettered boosterism of the potato processing industry appears to be government policy and has not been discouraged by his leader or his party.
Part II. A Water Conservation Strategy or an Irrigation Strategy?
As recognized by all parties in the Water Act process, Minister Steven Myers, and the King government have repeatedly emphasized that decisions about water use will always be based on careful scientific considerations, sound data and sustaining the water source for future generations. However, the decision to end the moratorium on high capacity wells for agriculture at this point reflects none of these values. Communications from government about this decision offer us empty rhetoric and baseless reassurances, telling us how nonexistent policies and plans will protect our water.
We now hear little about the comprehensive four year study proposed by UPEI’s Dr. Michael van den Heuvel intended to provide specific data about the impact of high capacity wells on watersheds. While there were concerns raised by environmental groups on the lack of details of this study, it was heavily promoted by industry groups and government as a prerequisite to lifting the moratorium. In Minister Myers’ latest announcement, there is no mention made of this study or anything to replace it for that matter. Minister Myers assures us that we have had all the information that we needed for 19 years to end this “silly moratorium”. The implication is that no new data is needed to fundamentally change these water extraction regulations. Perhaps the four year delay and the inability to control the resulting conclusions limited their enthusiasm.
Communications from government about this decision offer us reassurances that the protection of our water is the root of these changes. Unfortunately this is based on an undeveloped irrigation strategy and an undetermined drought contingency plans. These two ideas are vital to preventing unsustainable water extraction. Shouldn’t they be in place before all the applications for new HC wells start flowing in? Shouldn’t there be public consultation about their development?
Government chose to lift the moratorium in response to the claim that it discriminated against agriculture. But why continue to single out agriculture? Government should use this opportunity to develop a broader water conservation strategy, that places irrigation for farming in the context of all the needs for water that other industries and interests, citizens and ecosystems have.
It is encouraging to hear support at a recent Standing Committee meeting for developing systems of water governance that include a diverse range of interests and stakeholders. The Coalition for the Protection of PEI Water proposed such models of Community Based Water Governance in two submissions to the Environmental Advisory Committee during the Water Act process, and look forward to contributing to this discussion.
Government asks us to trust their good intentions, to trust their ability to monitor the well being of all waterways, to trust the expertise in their department. They ask Islanders to accept their reassurance without providing supporting data or any practical template of what is required to administer these changes in regulations or monitor their impact. They expect us to accept their continuous message that there is plentiful and abundant groundwater. They ask for all this public trust in the context of the many instances where water and wildlife health have been jeopardized under their watch.
Despite this, Minister Myers continues to reassure us that there will be meaningful public consultation. There is just no indication of what form this will take. Given his contemptuous response to any earlier recommendations from the Standing Committee which he disagreed with, how impactful this consultation will be is certainly in doubt.
The decision to end the moratorium seems to have been the government’s preferred outcome all along.
Don Mazer and Boyd Allen are on the board of the Citizens’ Alliance of PEI, a member organization of the Coalition for the Protection of PEI Water