Water policy carries a price whose bill is being sent to Ontario's farmers

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

Elbert van Donkersgoed is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, Canada. CFFO is supported by 4,500 family farmers across the province of Ontario.

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April 23, 2004: Ontario is proposing new policies to protect drinking water sources. It is another initiative emerging out of the inquiry into Walkerton’s tainted water tragedy almost four years ago. The rationale for the proposed rules is the security of public health, the safeguarding of economic sustainability and the protection of environmental benefits. The proposed method is the development of a watershed-based source water protection program.

Discussions within the Christian Farmers Federation on our government’s White Paper on Watershed-based Source Protection Planning have happened under a cloud of frustration and irritation. This is a second major pollution prevention initiative involving many farmers, while the details of the first -- the Nutrient Management Act -- remain unclear. Farmers own the majority of the lands that will be impacted by the new rules under both of these programs. Another regulatory burden requiring time, paperwork and financial resources is unwelcome, to say the least.

However, the proposed watershed-based source water protection program, at least gets some of the basics right, while the Nutrient Management Act is likely to collapse like a house of cards under its own weight. Here’s what works:

  1. Source water protection planning will be done locally on a watershed basis. There is no notion of one-size-fits-all for this hugely diverse province.
  2. Designing the pollution prevention plan will be the responsibility of a local partnership of all the interests in a watershed – a multi-stakeholder committee.
  3. Conservation authorities, long accustomed to managing watersheds, will play a major role in leading the planning process.
  4. Protection plans will be based on risk assessments and threat analysis. Paper trails, new management practices or infrastructure improvements will not be mandated for landowners and farmers without first documenting the risks that warrant action.

But, the white paper also has serious shortcomings.

  1. Proposing four categories of water sources is OK; however, the program needs to be absolutely clear that category four is not drinking water. There must be no expectation that every drop of water in the province is going to meet drinking water standards.
  2. The approval process for source protection plans must include a formal public hearing.
  3. The program needs clear-cut assurances that municipalities and conservation authorities will be bound by an approved source water protection plan just as landowners and farmers will be.
  4. Many of the concepts in the program: threats analysis, water resource sensitivity analysis, water resource vulnerability analysis and risk analysis compilation, need to be translated into plain English.

The biggest shortcoming is money. To be complete, a watershed-based source water protection plan should stipulate the full details of the cost of implementation. The Ministry of Environment should be prohibited from approving a plan without a commitment to provincial cost sharing for 90% for plan preparation and implementation by conservation authorities, municipalities, landowners and farmers.

CFFO’s response to the White Paper on Watershed-based Source Protection Planning



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