Legislation needs to ensure, protect water quality; improve health of watersheds
It has been a full six months since Environment Minister Janice Sherry announced that the P.E.I. government would commence the process of developing a water act. “P.E.I. needs a single piece of legislation that covers all its water management policies,” said Minister Sherry in June.
“The implementation of a water act will demonstrate government’s commitment to managing water resources in a sustainable manner for present and future generations.”
The announcement followed a recommendation made by the Standing Committee on Agriculture, Environment, Energy and Forestry in April, and then reiterated in November just before MLAs retired for the year. The committee, chaired by MLA Paula Biggar, had listened to presentations by over two dozen groups and individuals who were responding to requests by potato industry representatives to lift a 12-year moratorium on high-capacity wells.
The recommendations contained in their report to the legislature — to develop a water act and to keep the moratorium in place at least until government has a better understanding of the impact of lifting the moratorium — was very much in keeping with the views of a vast majority of presenters. Since Minister Sherry’s initial announcement, there has been no further word on the subject from her office — nothing to indicate what kind of process will be undertaken, who will be involved and when it will start.
Since the June announcement, there have been the usual seasonal anoxic events in Island estuaries, and a major fish kill in the Ellen’s Creek watershed (the final report of the investigation into which has yet to be released). As late as last week we were reminded of the vulnerability of our watersheds, as heavy rainfalls caused flooding, wide-scale destruction of infrastructure across the province, significant run-off from fields and roads and siltation in most of our waterways.
All Islanders have an interest in a policy designed to protect water; it is a resource that we hold in common, and we have a collective responsibility to ensure that clean water is available, in adequate supply, for ourselves and for future generations.
If our goal is a water policy that respects the needs and the wishes of Islanders, then the process as well as the Act itself will need to be designed to reflect some basic values, including: equal opportunities for meaningful participation, respect for the knowledge of the community, inclusion of diverse perspectives, clear communication and transparency, and empowerment of individuals and communities.
And what about that process? How might it be designed to reflect those values?
In the first place, the committee that steers the process would be “arm’s length” from government and representative of as many interested parties as possible. Besides people with technical expertise or knowledge, members of various communities would be included — farmers, fishers, First Nations, municipalities, community members, environmental & watershed groups — to ensure credibility of the process and promote inclusion, full participation, transparency and accountability.
Everyone who participates in the process should have an honest opportunity to influence the decision-making. It would help to have a clear idea, from the beginning, of how the information and views that everyone contributes to the process will be used.
A background document or discussion paper, provided in advance of public consultations, would help people to prepare to participate in the process, especially if it is accompanied by some key questions to frame the discussion. The document would include pertinent information and data, including the total amount of water that is now being pumped from existing high capacity wells, and the amount of water that is used annually by Islanders.
Consultations would take place in a broad range of Island communities and be as accessible as possible in order to facilitate full participation. There would be flexibility in the process, allowing for additional consultations when or where necessary.
When groups or individuals take the time to participate, they must be able to see how their participation has or has not influenced the outcome. It will be important that all submissions are made public.
In fact, it is important that all documents and information regarding the process and consultations are made widely available.
The provincial library system, Access P.E.I. and social media could be used to communicate information, including: a summary of the process; the initial discussion paper and questions; written submissions; technical documents; reports from the community consultations; an overall summary report of the consultations.
At every stage of the development of the Act, consideration should be given to how it will be implemented, enforced and monitored, what kinds of regulations will be necessary, and how it will be communicated to the public. Because, in the end, we really do want a piece of legislation that is effective; an Act that protects and improves water quality, provides adequate supplies of clean water into the future, and protects and improves the health of our watersheds.
By Ann Wheatley (guest opinion)
Ann Wheatley is a member of The Coalition for the Protection of P.E.I. Water