Intervenor: Volume 24 No.1 January - March 1999

Ontario Policy 1999: A Sustainable Water Policy for Ontario

The fall of 1998 saw the lowest lake levels in 30 years. This spring is worse and experts predict lower levels still. Wetlands, water quality, power generation capacity and navigational depths are affected. Biodiversity may also be compromised. Climate change is a wild card which challenges decisions about the future use, needs, and consumption of all freshwater in Ontario.

Internationally, 31 countries are facing severe water shortages that threaten local food security. Banking on these growing crises, businesses are looking to the Great Lakes region for profits. They have received mostly welcoming signals from the Ontario government. In the last few years private ventures have:

  • obtained a permit to export water by ocean going tankers from Lake Superior;
    [After mushrooming into an international incident the permit was withdrawn, the company appealed, and later withdrew the appeal on the condition that no other company be given a similar permit. The company then implied it may go after inland supplies of groundwater for a water bottling business.]
  • proposed to take over the management and control of municipal water and wastewater treatment facilities; [The Ontario Clean Water Agency, which manages over 1/3 of Ontario’s municipal water and wastewater treatment facilities, has been handed to Ontario’s "Privatization Secretariat". If sold, it will be the biggest foothold in North America for multi-national water companies.]
  • proposed and/or built pipelines to move Great Lakes water to communities previously reliant on groundwater;
    [A multi-million dollar pipeline is being built to enable more sprawl in Halton Region; York Region is seeking approval for a similarly huge pipeline.]
  • intensified extraction of groundwater for bottled water sale and export. [Preliminary research shows that in the last two years alone, Ontario has granted water bottling companies permits for almost 3 billion litres of groundwater. No environmental assessment is done to review the ecological consequences or effects on neighbouring landowners. Companies do not pay for the water, nor do they pay for road maintenance or even a fee to process the permit. Nor are there any quality standards for bottled water.]

Ontario’s Existing Tools for Protecting Water

Cuts to governmental Great Lakes programs have meant that few of the eight States and two Provinces that surround the Great Lakes are able to track cumulative withdrawals or even to piece together data on individual watersheds.

In response to the public outcry over the Lake Superior permit, Ontario issued a weak policy on surface water transfers and followed with a regulation prohibiting inter-basin water transfers. In response to concerns raised, the regulation was amended to include groundwater and it was passed in May of 1999.

However, there is questionable legal authority under the Ontario Water Resources Act to pass this regulation. Although the regulation is a step in the right direction, since this new regulation may be vulnerable to legal challenge, Ontario still needs to develop comprehensive water protection legislation. Cited as the third worst polluter in North America for two years running, Ontario has weakened water pollution regulations, landfill standards and the Environmental Assessment Act. Weaker standards and inadequate environmental assessment of landfills will mean increased discharges of toxic leachate from landfills to surface and groundwater for decades into the future.


Ontario urgently needs comprehensive, legally-binding protection for water quality and quantity. Legislation must set targets for water conservation, sustainable withdrawals of groundwater, protection of surface and ground water quality and ecosystem integrity. Such targets must apply conservation and protection provisions to all sectors: agriculture, power, primary industries, manufacturing, water-bottlers, municipalities and individuals. The legislation should include:

  • Provisions to ban inter-basin and intra-basin transfers of surface water.
  • Provisions to sustainably manage groundwater resources including publicly discussed fees and rate structures for water-taking by private companies to pay for Ontario’s groundwater resources and the use of municipal and provincial roads for trucking.
  • Provisions to ensure non-profit, public control of water and wastewater treatment facilities including regulated rate structures that ensure revenues continue to improve the system.
  • Provisions to ensure safe drinking water with enforceable standards to limit contaminants.
  • Provisions to implement comprehensive water conservation measures including setting conservation targets for all water users.
  • Provisions to strengthen water pollution protection regulations.
  • Provisions to strengthen landfill standards and ensure full application of the Environmental Assessment Act to all landfill proposals.


Kathleen Cooper is a researcher at CELA