Following a meeting with Environment Minister Robert Mitchell, members of the Coalition for the Protection of PEI Water ask, in anticipation of the next phase of development of a Water Act, for interim measures to protect water including a moratorium on bottling water for export:
Dear Minister Mitchell
Thank you for meeting with us last week. We were able to cover some of our concerns and we look forward to further discussions with you as we move towards a comprehensive water act. We wanted to follow up on the meeting with some key concerns and questions that we have.
We must impress upon you that we do believe that it would be a prudent and responsible decision to put a hold on future water extraction permits for anything other than the most essential purposes while we await the Water Act. We realize that this is a difficult challenge. While businesses have a certain expectation of expediency, we believe it is your role to impress upon them that any decisions around water use must primarily be grounded in having a system in place that first of all respects our environment and protects our water for future generations. The very process of developing a Water Act reflects the collective awareness that our current policies and regulations been inadequate in accomplishing these key goals. We believe that it is not acceptable to continue to make decisions about water use based upon problematic policies.
One of the important recognitions for us from that meeting is that it seems like no one (including the Coalition) has thought about how decisions about water use and permits will be made in the interim period while the Water Act is being developed. So it is not surprising that current policies, however inadequate, become the ‘fall back’ position.
While we do support a ‘moratorium’ on new permits and uses, we think that it is essential that there be an interim set of priorities for water use developed while we await the Water Act. If decisions must be made in the interim, they need to be grounded in these principles and provide the opportunity to meet ‘essential’ needs. From the consultations, there seems to be widespread agreement that our priorities must always be given first to maintaining healthy ecosystems, providing for basic human needs, and for fire and emergency services. All other permits and new uses can be seen as lower priority and should await the Water Act, and the opportunity to have the discussions and consultations we need about how we believe our water should be used.
Such guidelines would have supported postponing the decision on the AquaBounty applications for permits as a nonessential use, and for the proposed bottled water plant in Brookvale that plans to use PEI water for export.
There are other reasons why a moratorium would be advisable. While we appreciate that you have advised businesses that permits granted now might not be applicable under a new Act, the unsettled issues about grandfather clauses raises serious concerns about whether the province would be liable or responsible for costs should a permit need to be rescinded. We include some other relevant questions and comments about the permitting process.
Is a PEI permit transferable to another property or business owner? Can it be included in a personal estate as property to be inherited? Is it collateral for a bank loan? Can excess capacity be sold or traded (or combined into a new enterprise?) Can neighbors who lose a well or can property owners in a watershed that is drained stop the permitted owner from impacting them? Can PEI rights be sold or transferred to a private interest in another province or to an international interest?
Not only should we be looking at responsible management of water within the province, but also at considering the sovereignty and future food and water security of the Island. We have mutual reasons to prevent PEI water from being a privately owned global commodity.
John Quimby, who lived in California, mentioned the effect of grandfathered water rights there given in 1914 that affected private property owners, the public and government during an historic drought emergency in 2014.
Closer to home, we have seen the public response to the Nestle model of extraction for profit during a drought emergency in Ontario.
Finally, the discussion of the proposed water bottling plant in Brookvale reflected major gaps in policy that needs to be immediately addressed. It was surprising to learn that your department had no jurisdiction to decide about this proposal if the applicants stayed within the existing water extraction guidelines. As we all agree, the way we use our water is an important moral and ethical issue and one that is hotly contested. It is much more than a business decision that can be made by individuals. It was clear that the existing policies would make it possible for any other entrepreneurs to pursue a similar plan. We would be taking a major step toward the commodification of water, without even discussing it.
We urge you to address this policy gap by declaring a moratorium on going forward on any developments of bottled water for export, and will then hope it will be addressed in the Act.
Catherine O’Brien, Don Mazer, Chris Ortenburger, Leo Broderick, John Quimby, For the Coalition for the Protection of PEI Water