Thank you for your presentation Commissioner Vaughan.
Today...I want to focus on the Environmental and Sustainable Development Centre's report on the government’s track record in monitoring the country’s fresh water resources. It is is a very important wake up call for all who are concerned about Canada's fresh water. It also is a call to action.... urgently needed if Canadians hope to find their way on these issues and ensure real and sustained progress on freshwater issues in Canada.
I've been practicing law for 20 years and had the opportunity to work on files in almost every province and region in Canada. While my observations might be viewed as more anecdotal than academic, the commissioner's report affirms for me what I am experiencing: we are losing good public benchmarks, monitoring, scorecards and science that enable all Canadians to know whether their water is fit for use, is protected, or is getting better or worse from the year before.
In the past 20 years, some of the most important work I have done was based on public records and monitoring from the federal government:
Kings Mill Park on Humber
Belle Park in Kingston
Moncton landfill in New Brunswick
Hamilton’s Red Hill creek landfill (Rennie Street)
We asked for and received the monitoring and water quality monitoring and compared to federal benchmarks and laws.
In the past, if we discovered health risks, we worked to stop the problem. We always used the most transparent and open tools to bring about compliance.
Public agencies and departments are not doing same amount of monitoring. There are no longer fulsome public environmental assessments, where documents are produced and tested in a public forum. Most water sampling is done by private firms, and the results are held onto like scouting reports in hockey. The only people who see these sample results are the insiders who make decisions based on risk.
Further....our laws are changing.
Canada’s traditional emphasis on quasi-criminal anti-pollution laws based on scientific standards as minimum standards of acceptability are turning into regulations that allow pollution on the condition that uses are curtailed.
There is more discretion at all levels of government, and more decision-making based on risk assessment models instead of real world sample results.
Risk assessment reduce risk, and do not protect water quality. The idea is that if you can reduce the risks by removing uses through signs, fences or warnings to limits the use of the water, then don’t need to take steps to protect the water quality. Accordingly, in the new world of risk modelling there is less need for water quality monitoring and no guarantee that you can still use the water safely. Everyone now needs to check permits in the region. There is no way to know if water is protected unless you know if general prohibition laws are still in place or have they been replaced with pollution permits. There is no way to know if things are getting better or worse, because we don't know if there is “more risk” or really “no more uses”.
Without strong public monitoring, groundwater and source water maps, studies, independent science....we are lost. In a country with more fresh water than any other nation (the Commissioner of the Environment says 7% of the world’s fresh water) and only .1% of the globe's population...that is unacceptable.
In a country that relies on fresh water for its economy, culture, identity and many social goods....this is unacceptable.
What we need to do as a result of the Commissioner's report is ensure that benchmarks, sampling, science and standards are given the highest priority. These facts will help us re-discover our way forward.
We know this too.
Because at Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, we created our own benchmark: swimmable, drinkable, fishable water? We had too....with public monitoring and reports disappearing and costs for sampling and court rising, not to mention roll-backs in laws, we were left with all kinds of gaps in our law strucutre. We could no longer rely on law enforcement to protect communities or the environment.
Our “Swim Drink Fish” benchmarks helped us create a new dialogue to work with communities and government and industry to clean-up environmental problems.
In a spirit of partnership we reminded cities that public beaches needed protection from stormwater and sewage to make it safe to swim. We talked to power plants about reducing fish kills in cooling intakes so our water was safe for fish habitat and fishing. And we talked to industry and government the need to reduce sewage and other industrial components from outfalls and landfills to ensure water is fit for drink.
Using the swimmable, drinkable fishable standard we have found common ground, agreement and solutions.
We also used our benchmarks as minimum standards for risk assessments. We still need benchmarks. You can't close all the beaches, restrict all the fish for eating. People have a right to go to water and expect not to get sick. So the same swim drink fish benchmarks defined minimum standards and ensured that creative engineers and public relations experts didn't trick communities into accepting less than should be expected.
Also, we created our own scorecards to assist people in understanding if things are getting better or worse. Our seasonal Beach Survey includes 100’s of beaches with data that goes back for years so we know if beaches are open more or less often. (Like Bluffers.) These surveys...have not only helped swimmers...but also government agencies who maybe didn't appreciate the importance of daily sampling and publication of results until we called every day to ask for them. It turned out almost all public health agencies in Canada have a duty to ensure public places are not health risks and monitoring and oversight of beaches was not only something they should do..but were required to do...and made a big difference. Our beach reports are the most popular features on our site.
Benchmarks and monitoring and science provide us with an opportunity to re-engage government, industry and community in environmental protection. They gave people knowledge of when water was fit for uses. Gave them assurances that water was protected to an identifiable standard. And provided them with scorecards to measure performance and improvement.
Monitoring, benchmarks, scorecards provided everyone with an opportunity to figure out where the problems are and what we need to do to protect our water.
And I believe if the government takes the Commissioner's report seriously, and restores our knowledge of water quality, quantity and use in this country....we can become leaders again in protecting and celebrating our fresh water heritage.
It all illustrates the importance of good information. The importance for local groups, charities and non-profits to have access to and disseminate this information to the public.
Further, it underscores the need for national groups to keep engaging our government on the issue of monitoring, study, benchmarks ....so it will not shirk this responsibility. We need the information to have the power to protect ourselves and to meet our responsibilities as waterkeepers in the world.
Good information....makes for good decisions. Good government. Good citizens. Good laws and effective enforcement. Good benchmarks.
Bad information....makes for endless arguments and paralysis. Reactionary government. Ineffective and arbitrary enforcement. No benchmarks.
So...thank you to the commissioner for helping bring attention to this important responsibility of Environment Canada.
Thank you to the Munk Center, Tim Morris, Adele Hurley, Mr. Axworthy for helping us figure out how we are going to react to the re[port.
Thank you to my fellow panel members, the audience today, the grant makers, and the video - conference participants.....for helping move forward on this important issue in the coming years.