Media Release

Citizens Speak Out About Clean Water

"Any weakening of the Clean Water Act will weaken drinking water source protection" : Jessica Ginsburg

Sep 01 2006

Toronto, Ontario – Last week, the people of Ontario spoke out in favour or against the proposed Clean Water Act.  A committee of MPPs held five days of public hearings, at which possible amendments to the draft legislation were hotly debated.  The committee travelled across much of southern Ontario, and was followed by a caravan of environmentalists, concerned citizens, farmers, municipal politicians, business owners, and public health workers all hoping to have their say.  The Clean Water Act is an important piece of legislation which creates a process for identifying threats to drinking water sources, and establishes local source protection committees to address those threats.  Justice O’Connor’s first recommendation in his Report of the Walkerton Inquiry was the need to protect sources of drinking water across Ontario.  On this point there was almost universal consensus among the presenters.  Perhaps surprisingly, there was also cross-sectoral agreement on a number of other issues:

  • Funding for the Act’s implementation was a concern voiced by nearly every presenter.
  • The importance of conservation and water efficiency measures was highlighted by environmentalists and numerous agricultural groups. 
  • Guaranteed participation on source protection committees was recommended by citizens groups and farms groups, as was the need to broaden participation through the establishment of working groups. 
  • Expanding the scope of the Act to include residents on private water systems, not just those using municipal water, was proposed by environmental organizations and certain conservation authorities.

On other points there was considerable disagreement.  On Thursday, groups squared off over the recommendation that the precautionary principle should be added to the Act.  Farm groups bristled at the prospect of having to show that their use of the land would not cause harm.  Numerous environmental and citizens groups took the opposite position, and emphasized the critical role which precaution should play in drinking water source protection.  “The precautionary principle holds that where there is a threat of serious or irreversible damage, lack of absolute scientific certainty should not stop us from taking action to prevent that threat.  This is not inconsistent with a science-based approach, it simply offers guidance when science cannot provide absolute answers,” said Jessica Ginsburg, counsel with the Canadian Environmental Law Association.  “This principle is not intended to shut down farming operations; it only targets really serious threats such as those which could impact human health.  The alternative to taking action is doing nothing at all, which in my mind is unacceptable.” Another contentious issue was the possibility of replacing the existing permit scheme with negotiated risk management agreements.  Under the current wording of the Act, voluntary agreements may already be used to implement source protection measures, and permits could be narrowly applied to only the most severe threats as identified by local source protection committees.  Some property rights groups argued the permit provisions should be removed altogether, though as Terry Rees explains, their views do not represent those of all landowners.  “We feel that the source protection committee, as the local vehicle for protecting water, must have access to a legally binding and enforceable means of managing priority threats,” said Rees, Executive Director of the Federation of Ontario Cottagers’ Associations (FOCA).  “If the committees lose these important tools, their ability to adequately address local concerns will be compromised.   FOCA believes that only via an empowered community will water remain clean and safe.”  For further information:Jessica GinsburgSpecial Projects Counsel, Canadian Environmental Law AssociationTel: 416-960-2284 ext. 226 Email: