It’s been a long time since members of the Water Coalition have met – and much has happened lately, with regards to the Water Act and the moratorium on high capacity wells. So it seems like a good time to come together, to spend some time reflecting on all of that.
Several members of the coalition, “a core group”, have been making presentations, speaking in the media and writing letters to the editor on behalf of the entire coalition. We want to check in with the rest of the membership, to make sure we are properly reflecting the original goals and purpose of the coalition. And to talk about our membership, which includes environmental and social justice groups as well as individuals.
In- person, Tuesday, July 27 at 6:00 pm at the PEI Farm Centre
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
Rural Islanders are at a disadvantage when it comes to clean drinking water
Andrew Lush published on Tuesday, July 6th, 2021, in The Guardian
Islanders heartily endorse those governments which ensure the personal health and well-being of all of our residents both rural and urban.
Rural residents are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to clean drinking water. Nitrate levels in private well water can be disturbingly high, with the P.E.I. government’s own Open Data Portal (data.princeedwardisland.ca) identifying that between 2014 and 2019, eight per cent of samples taken from private wells were above the US EPA safe level, and many more samples exceeded the safe guideline for feeding to babies.
Regular chemistry and bacteria tests are recommended for private wells, but the cost of these ($155 for both) has to be preventing many Islanders from getting proper tests done, and that is evident from the low number of published test results. Also, the cost of fixing the problem in a home can be high.
Even more disturbing is that virtually all rural school drinking water supplies have detectable levels of pesticides, and apparently urban schools do not. Pesticide testing is expensive, and the government only does tests to provide a general overview of pesticide levels. School water is only tested for a few pesticides, once per year, and these tests are not intended to guarantee water safety. Both the regular bacteria and chemical testing available for private wells do not test for pesticides. Subsidizing the cost of regular testing of all private wells for chemistry and bacteria; adding tests for common pesticides in private wells; publicizing the testing program; subsidizing the cost of domestic treatment systems; and putting relatively inexpensive carbon-block filters in rural school drinking water supplies, just makes sense.
Islanders heartily endorse those governments which ensure the personal health and well-being of all of our residents both rural and urban. And in particular will applaud and recognize any efforts to protect our future generations attending public educational institutions. All Islanders expect and deserve safeguarded drinking water.
Andrew Lush, Coalition for the Protection of P.E.I. Water
Corporate control of land, decline in soil health, loss of forest cover, pollution of Island waterways and nitrates and other chemicals in groundwater. The issues affecting land and water are serious and needing attention, yet the Prince Edward Island government seems not to be treating them with any sense of urgency.
The fact that the Water Act will finally come into effect this week should be a source of celebration in Prince Edward Island. The Act contains many positive features, and in many ways reflects the values expressed by the Islanders who have over the past seven years, taken time to participate in public consultations and comment on the Act and its accompanying regulations.
But Minister Myer’s announcement on June 10 has dampened enthusiasm for the long-awaited legislation. Once again, the Minister has indicated just how easily this government responds to the powerful voices of industry and how little they hear or care about the voices of concerned Islanders who have consistently said “no” to lifting the moratorium on high-capacity wells for agricultural irrigation. Public support for maintaining the moratorium is based on the need to protect this Island’s groundwater, for our health and the health of future generations. And because Prince Edward Island’s ecosystems, already under threat in so many ways, depend on preservation of groundwater.
As the Coalition wrote in an April opinion piece in the Guardian, “trust in government’s ability to protect our water, to resist corporate influence and to listen to citizens has eroded particularly in the 3 ½ years since the Water Act was passed. Fishkills, anoxic conditions, and high nitrate levels continue in our waters. Last summer, the government violated its own regulations by permitting five farmers to extract water from the Dunk River, when water levels were dangerously low.”
We are particularly disappointed that the moratorium is going to be lifted on the basis that licensing of high-capacity wells will be done according to rules that are as yet, non-existent.
The idea that high-capacity wells will be permitted, provided they are constructed in accordance with an irrigation strategy may sound good, until one realizes that actually, there is no irrigation strategy.
Will all water users be at the table to determine an acceptable strategy? After all, we all have a stake in determining how water is allocated in this province for both consumptive and non-consumptive uses. And even if that strategy is to emerge and is compatible with the new Act and its regulations, the wells will not be subject to metering nor the strict limitations on water usage recommended by the PEI Legislature’s Standing Committee on Natural Resources and Environmental Sustainability, leaving us all to wonder about the pledge by this Government to the protection of Prince Edward Island waters and the gathering of scientific data to assess the effects of high-capacity wells.
The Act will also require farmers seeking well permits to submit a drought contingency plan, or a plan to reduce water use during extreme drought conditions, to the province. But there’s been no discussion of what should be included in such a plan.
This is a classic example of putting the cart before the horse and in this case the cart itself seems to be missing a competent driver.
Ann Wheatley and Marie-Ann Bowden for the Coalition for the Protection of PEI Water
Published in the Charlottetown Guardian, June 17, 2021
Comments on the Revised Draft Regulations for the PEI Water Act
From: The Coalition for the Protection of PEI Water
To: The PEI Standing Committee on Natural Resources and Environmental Sustainability
Date: April 15, 2021
We appreciate your invitation for submissions concerning the revised regulations of the Water Act, and the work of the multiparty Standing Committee and your efforts to bring forth meaningful recommendations about the Act after careful deliberation.
But we must confess that we approach this process with both wariness and weariness, being mindful of the quote often attributed to Einstein: “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” We believe we made a careful and comprehensive presentation to you last fall covering a range of concerns about the regulations and the Water Act, as did other groups and individuals. We felt your committee heard us well, and took our perspective, and those of others into consideration and brought forth a set of meaningful recommendations after careful deliberation.
And so we were disturbed to see your work dismissed by a Minister of Environment so new that the ink had barely dried on his mandate papers. Minister Myers, and so the King government made it very clear that all decision making rested with him alone, and that the role of your committee was only advisory. And so, he ignored the advice in your recommendations, save one: he did agree to proclaim the Water Act. To use and extend his metaphor: Minister Myers would drive the car, and Premier King would set the route. The rest of us could just go along for the ride.
And by casually dismissing the value of consultation with his own multiparty government committee, Minister Myers also made it abundantly clear that he rejected any meaningful consultation with Islanders who have been deeply involved and concerned about water issues for many years and had worked collaboratively with previous ministers in developing this legislation.
Comments on the Revised Draft Regulations for the PEI Water Act
From: The Coalition for the Protection of PEI Water
To: The PEI Standing Committee on Natural Resources and Environmental Sustainability
Thank you for inviting us to, once again, comment on the PEI Water Act’s draft water withdrawal regulations. This has been a long process, made more complicated by changes in government and in Ministers responsible for the Act, as well as differing interpretations of the role of your committee.
Our commitment to the process is based on our belief that water is not simply a resource to be extracted, it is not a commodity to be bought or sold or traded. Water is a common good, a shared responsibility and its preservation is essential for the ecosystems that we and all other living beings depend on.
The Coalition for Protection of PEI Water is comprised of both urban and rural individuals including farmers, as well as environmental and community organizations whose “interests” include social justice, democratic process, climate justice, and environmental protection.
In 2019, we spent a significant amount of time reviewing the first draft of the withdrawal regulations, line by line. We met on several occasions with the then Minister, Deputy Minister, and the Department staff who were responsible (and still are responsible) for writing the regulations. We are resubmitting these (attached) comments for your information. In addition, we would like to make the following points, in response to the revised draft regulations and current public discussions.
The Water Withdrawal Regulations will be established under the Water Act to regulate the withdrawal of water from groundwater and watercourses. Both the original and revised drafts of the regulations are found on this page.
The plain language summary for the revised draft of the regulations addresses only the changes between the two drafts. For a full understanding of the regulations, please read the plain language summaries for both drafts. In addition, the supporting documents include a policy description of how government will determine what agricultural research warrants approval. The revised draft of these regulations are planned to be approved for implementation on June 16, 2021.
The revised draft of the proposed regulations and plain language documents are available (from a LIST on the government’s webpage, LINK HERE)
Guest Opinion, Charlottetown Guardian, March 12, 2021
Members of the Coalition for Protection of P.E.I. Water were certainly glad to learn that the Water Act will be proclaimed in June. This is long overdue. It will have been seven years since the process began and three-and-a-half years since the act was passed in the legislature. Six ministers of the Environment have presided over the slow progress of this act.
And while there are many good features of the Water Act, and there have been times when a truly consultative, collaborative and respectful relationship between government and people deeply concerned about water seemed possible, the content of Minister Myers’ announcement on Feb. 19 makes two things perfectly clear:
Government cannot be trusted to protect P.E.I. water.
The voice of industry is far more important to government than the voice of the people.
Honourable Stephen Myers, Minister of Environment, Energy and Climate Action
Dear Mr. Myers:
We, the member organizations of the PEI Coalition for the Protection of Water, are writing this open letter to you to express our grave concern and huge disappointment regarding your recent announcement that all irrigation holding ponds and any others that may be built before June 16th of this year will be grandfathered, exempt from regulations associated with PEI’s Water Act.
We are also concerned that the PEI Government will now pay for and allow for high-capacity well research, which requires the construction of 5 new high-capacity wells for agricultural irrigation, despite the moratorium contained in the Water Act.
We believe these decisions are not in the public’s interest nor for the common good, and certainly do not protect our groundwater from exploitation and contamination. They represent a violation of the spirit of the Water Act that many Islanders have worked so hard to develop. Here is why:
Cavendish Farms, the PEI Federation of Agriculture and the PEI Potato board have been actively lobbying over the past few years to have the moratorium on high-capacity wells lifted.
Islanders have said “no” to high-capacity wells for agricultural irrigation. They have said “no” because of the need to protect our groundwater, our only source of drinking water and because PEI groundwater is under serious threat from industrial potato production and its contaminants – nitrates and pesticides.
The development of ‘irrigation holding ponds’ during the past four years reflects an attempt to circumvent the moratorium on high-capacity wells that has been allowed by government.
There has never been an environmental assessment of ‘irrigation holding ponds’ or of their social impact on communities.
The high-capacity well research proposed by UPEI is a revision of a proposal for study initiated and funded by Cavendish Farms dating back 4 years with an explicit goal to increase potato productivity. And while the Cavendish Farm name is no longer on the proposal, and the PEI government is funding the work, we are concerned about the undue influence of industry on the research – that is the Federation of Agriculture, PEI Potato Board and Cavendish Farms. We are concerned that the results will be contaminated by industry involvement, and not help to protect PEI water.
Therefore, we ask you as the Minister responsible to:
Respect the intent and spirit of the Water Act.
Ban the construction of ‘irrigation holding ponds’ immediately.
Do not allow the grandfathering of irrigation holding ponds. Require all holding ponds to be compliant with the original draft regulations within 2 year as the Standing Committee on Natural Resources and Environmental Sustainability recommends.
Do not allow the exemption to the moratorium on HC wells that would permit the construction of the 5 new HC wells required by the UPEI research.
Introduce a plan that will begin the transition from an industrial model of farming with its high reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides to a more sustainable one, and one that recognizes the climate crisis facing Islanders and the planet.