The Ontario government introduced the Clean Water Act in 2006. The Act divides the province into forty Source Protection Areas, mainly based on conservation authority boundaries, and creates an administrative apparatus meant to identify and address threats to drinking water supplies ("source water").
As a charity that seeks to protect clean, natural drinking water supplies throughout our watershed, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper often relies on legal tools and remedies to protect or promote clean water. You'd think that we would care a whole lot about the Clean Water Act. But we don't, really.
Earlier this week we submitted a comment on a proposed Assessment Report for the Central Lake Ontario Source Protection Area. In a nutshell, the report is supposed to be the foundation for a plan that will do three things:
identify all drinking water sources in the area including lakes, rivers and underground aquifers;
outline all threats to the quality and quantity of these sources; and
propose the actions needed to reduce or eliminate the identified threats and protect all available sources.
Unfortunately, the Assessment Report - like the Clean Water Act itself - doesn't live up to its promises. There is not enough detailed information to really understand or comment on local threats. Signiﬁcant pollution sources like petrochemical facilities and nuclear power plants are not even factored into the analysis.
In fact, the Great Lakes are exempted from the water quality threat assessment. The Report uses a prescribed Table of Circumstances to identify drinking water threats, but the table only includes land-based threats like farming and goose droppings. Since all the drinking water in the Central Lake Ontario Area comes from the lake, and the lake is excluded from the threat assessment, no significant threats are identified. By relying on academic considerations - such as the Table of Circumstances - rather than practical considerations - such as what is actually happening on the water - the report released for public comment is too abstract to have a strong practical application.
We aren't singling out the Central Lake Ontario Assessment Report, though. We recently commented on the Draft Assessment Reports for the Trent and Ganaraska Regions, and found that they have major flaws as well. We expect most of the reports that come out will include similar fundamental problems. That is because the whole approach to source water protection adopted in 2006 is a radical shift away from the way strong environmental laws were developed in the 1970s and 1980s.
Four years ago when the Clean Water Act was introduced, we predicted that there would be two problems with its implementation. First, it would be nearly impossible to create a list of every threat to drinking water in the province. It is much easier to just prohibit pollution of or interference with drinking water supplies in the first place. That is how the Canada's strongest environmental laws all worked.
Second, we said that committees that include representatives from major industrial polluters would have a hard time creating independent source water protection plans. Every major polluter in our watershed also has a position of influence in the source water protection process. It is not at all surprising that those companies are consistently absent from the list of potential threats to drinking water supplies.
Waterkeeper will continue to try to comment on Clean Water Act documents whenever we can, because we believe protecting our drinking water supply is incredibly important. But we do not hold high hopes that the bureaucratic, paperwork-heavy approach to environmental protection will actually guarantee clean drinking water for all Ontarians. Of course, we would be ecstatic to be proven wrong. We will keep reading the reports with our fingers crossed!