2000 Special Report

The Protection of Groundwater and Intensive Farming

Submitted by Gord Miller, Environmental Commissioner of Ontario - July 27, 2000

Key Findings

This Special Report contains two articles, still in draft form, from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario’s (ECO) 1999-2000 annual report, to be submitted in October 2000 to the Legislature. However, the Environmental Bill of Rights enables the ECO to submit a Special Report to the Legislature at any time if the Commissioner believes it should not be deferred until the release of the annual report.

These two articles are related to the Walkerton investigations by the Ontario Provincial Police and the Provincial Coroner’s Office and the public inquiry headed by the Honourable Justice Dennis O’Connor. Releasing this Special Report at this time ensures that the ECO’s obligations to report first to the Ontario Legislature are respected. The release of this Special Report at this time may be useful to these inquiries and may also help to facilitate informed public participation and debate.


  • Three million Ontarians depend on groundwater for drinking water, and it is also used for crop irrigation, livestock operations and many commercial operations. Groundwater sustains ecosystems by releasing a constant supply of water into wetlands and provides habitat for fish, wildlife and flora.
  • Today, housing development and the intensification of land use in rural southern Ontario are placing extraordinary demands on groundwater, creating concern that some aquifers are being depleted faster than they can be recharged.
  • Several Ontario ministries share responsibility for groundwater management Environment; Natural Resources; Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs; and Municipal Affairs and Housing. These ministries must work with key stakeholders and the public to develop a comprehensive groundwater management and protection strategy.

A groundwater strategy could contain many interrelated elements:

  • an inventory of groundwater resources and a data management system;
  • a long-term monitoring network of water levels for major aquifer systems;
  • identification and protection of sensitive aquifers and groundwater recharge areas;
  • an inventory of current and past uses of groundwater and sources of groundwater contamination and an evaluation of their potential effect on health and ecosystems, including cumulative impacts;
  • a strong regulatory program aimed at preventing contamination;
  • an economic assessment of groundwater value, including current and replacement value;
  • a means of coordinating decision-making between all ministries and agencies that have jurisdiction over groundwater.
  • In particular, the public needs to be confident that the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) is managing Ontario’s groundwater effectively. MOE staff need clearly defined policies and guidelines and better data so they can make informed decisions about groundwater.
  • There will be several negative consequences if the ministries fail to develop a groundwater strategy. These include a growing number of conflicts over groundwater throughout rural Ontario and in urban areas that rely on groundwater for municipal and industrial purposes. There is a significant risk that many water taking permits will be granted and land-use planning decisions will be made without adequate knowledge of groundwater availability. Furthermore, decisions about groundwater will not be made in a transparent and publicly accountable manner, contrary to the goals of the Environmental Bill of Rights.

Ontario farming has been undergoing a marked and rapid change in recent years. Traditional small family farms are being replaced by large, automated operations, often on a factory scale. Farms with 3,000 or more pigs or 1,200 cattle are increasingly common. They are often sources of conflict with nearby residents, especially regarding manure management. Large scale livestock farms produce vast quantities of liquid manure, but they don’t always have the acreage they need for spreading this waste.

  • Serious environmental problems can result when manure is improperly stored, handled or spread onto land. Problems can include pollution of waterways, fish-kill incidents, and contamination of groundwater. Epidemiological research published in 1999 has also found that Ontarians living in rural areas with high cattle density have elevated risk for toxic E. coli infections.
  • The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food (OMAFRA) has long advocated a voluntary approach to controlling the environmental impacts of farm manure instead of using regulations to ensure safe manure management. There are no legally binding standards for constructing manure storage facilities or for applying manure. Nor is there any monitoring of the environmental effects of Ontario’s manure management practices.
  • Ontario environmental legislation also specifically exempts some aspects of manure management. In 1998 OMAFRA strengthened the legal protection for farmers against complaints from neighbours about their farming practices. The Farming and Food Production Protection Act also stipulates that no municipal by-law can restrict a farm practice if it is deemed to be normal by a tribunal established by OMAFRA.
  • Large-scale intensive farming is a rapidly growing phenomenon across North America and Europe, and other jurisdictions have seen the need to regulate this industry to protect the environment. Regulations can include the requirement for manure management plans, limitations on manure spreading and permit systems for large facilities.
  • OMAFRA has now completed its public consultation on intensive farming, and has committed to introducing legislation to address manure management practices. But OMAFRA’s primary client group is the Ontario farm industry. It is open to question whether the ministry can overcome this conflict of interest and effectively regulate this same industry. Since these problems are environmental in nature, the introduction and implementation of this legislation may more appropriately be within the mandate of the Ministry of the Environment.

In 1998, OMAFRA revised its Statement of Environmental Values under theEnvironmental Bill of Rights. The ministry deleted its previous commitment to ensure an environmentally responsible and sustainable agriculture and food system. Ontarians should be able to expect Ontario’s agriculture industry to be environmentally responsible.

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