Getting to K(No)w
The 2007/2008 ECO annual report was submitted to the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly on October 21, 2008.
- Download the entire report (.pdf)
- Download the Supplement to the Report (.pdf)
- Read the Commissioner’s Introductory Remarks to the Legislature
Ontario’s Undervalued Water
Ontarians have grown up believing the province has a limitless supply of fresh water, and our water management laws and policies have been largely based on that belief. But there are many signs that we need to rethink how we value this essential resource. Over the past ten years, Ontario has experienced some of the driest conditions ever on record for the province. For example:
- In 1998, Ontario’s boreal forest experienced the driest year ever on record
- In the summer of 2001, parts of Southern Ontario suffered the driest eight weeks ever on record
- In August 2002, Sarnia, London, Kitchener and Waterloo, among others, suffered the driest month ever on record
- In 2007, the Greater Toronto Area experienced its driest year ever on record
- Some water basins – such as the Grand River basin in 1999 – have had groundwater levels fall to historically low water marks. Some streams – such as the Hamilton area’s Spencer Creek in 2007 – have completely dried up. In 2001 and again in 2007, Ontario’s fertile farm lands suffered some major crop losses due to drought.
With the consumption of Ontario’s water continuing to rise, climate change threatening to have severe impacts on the province’s existing supplies, and water-hungry U.S. states eyeing the Great Lakes, Ontario’s freshwater is taking on ever-increasing value. This year the ECO examined a few of the government initiatives (or lack thereof) to manage water quantity:
Ontario’s Strategy for Safeguarding Against Water Shortages (p. 49)
In 2001, the Ontario government developed the Ontario Low Water Response (OLWR) Plan as a strategy to safeguard against water shortages in times of drought. The plan, which operates under the Ministry of Natural Resources, establishes three stages of low water conditions that may be declared based on precipitation levels and stream flow data. The most serious stage (Level Three) signifies that water supply is unable to meet local demands and that water conservation, restrictions and regulation are needed.
Unfortunately, the OLWR may not be functioning as expected. For example, although the indicator criteria to trigger a Level Three condition have frequently been observed in Ontario, this stage and its accompanying mitigation measures have never been imposed. It seems we are stuck in our old assumptions of abundant water, and cannot bring ourselves to impose water restrictions, even when restrictions are clearly needed. The ECO is aware of at least two streams – Spencer Creek near Hamilton and Innisfil Creek near Alliston – that dried up in the summer of 2007 without a Level Three condition being declared. The ECO believes that the mechanisms of the OLWR Plan are clearly flawed if the loss of aquatic habitats could not be prevented.
The Need to Prioritize Public Water Uses Over Private Water Bottling (p. 134)
The global bottled water industry is worth about $50 billion worldwide, of which Canada’s share is about $731-million. However, with concerns about water shortages becoming increasingly common, the Ontario government’s policy to allow water-bottlers to liberally take a public resource has become a major issue of concern for many Ontarians. For example, during a summer drought in 2007, thousands of Guelph residents opposed a water-taking application by Nestle Waters Canada for its bottled water facility, expressing concerns that there were insufficient water resources available to support this water taking.
This year an application was brought under the Environmental Bill of Rights by two Ontario residents calling upon the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) to develop a policy that expressly prohibits the ministry from issuing water-taking permits to commercial water-bottling facilities. MOE denied the request on the basis that the ministry has already addressed the question of permitting water bottling in the past. While this is true, the ECO notes in this report that the ministry still has not established a system that clearly prioritizes drinking water and other essential water uses in stressed watersheds or under low water (or drought) conditions where water demand may exceed supply.
Charging a Fee for the Taking of Ontario’s Water (p. 94)
In 2003, the government announced that it would “stop the reckless giveaway of Ontario’s precious water” and start charging water-bottling companies (and some other permit holders) that remove water from Ontario watersheds. Over three years later in August 2007, the government introduced a regulation that requires “highly consumptive” commercial and industrial water takers (e.g., water-bottlers, beverage manufacturers, pesticide/fertilizer manufacturers) to pay a nominal charge; just one penny will buy these industrial water takers almost 3,000 litres of Ontario’s water.
The ECO believes that this low fee will help cover only a small portion of the costs of the province’s needed water management programs, and furthermore, will do nothing to encourage conservation or efficient use of Ontario’s waters. Fortunately, the new water taking charge regulation seems to introduce just the first phase of a multi-phase approach; in future phases, the amount of the charge will likely be increased and the application of the charge to other industrial groups will likely be expanded. In this report, the ECO strongly urges the Ontario government to take this expected more expansive approach in the future. Only by charging water takers an appropriate fee can we hope to protect Ontario’s water.
Financing Ontario’s Municipal Drinking Water Systems (p. 90)
Ontario’s municipalities, by and large, do not charge consumers anywhere near the full cost for the water and sewage services they provide. Instead, most municipalities heavily subsidize these services through property taxes and provincial grants, and more disturbingly, they simply under-invest in their water and sewage systems creating a serious backlog of repairs and upgrades to their infrastructure.
In 2001, following the contaminated water tragedy in Walkerton, Justice Dennis O’Connor recommended that all municipalities be required to ensure that their water and sewage systems are properly financed to avoid another contaminated water crisis. In response to this recommendation, in 2002, the Ontario government passed new legislation requiring municipal drinking-water and sewage systems to develop financial plans to fully cover their costs. However, this legislation has never been implemented. Instead, in August 2007, the Ministry of the Environment developed an entirely new regulation that merely requires municipalities to set out a financial accounting of their drinking-water systems.
The ECO is very disappointed that this new regulation does not require municipalities to recover the full costs of their drinking-water systems, to charge municipal water users appropriate fees, or to develop any financial plan at all for their sewage systems. This regulation does little to address the major infrastructure deficits that threaten the safety of the province’s drinking-water and sewage systems. The ECO is concerned that by not requiring municipalities to charge water users appropriate rates for water services, the regulation fails to encourage water conservation.
The Environmental Bill of Rights gives Ontarians the right to a healthful environment. Unfortunately, several provincial government programs designed to protect environmental and human health are not functioning as intended, giving Ontarians a false sense of security. In this year’s Annual Report, the ECO highlights several cases where Ontarians are being led to believe that the environment and public health are more protected than they actually are.
Environmental Assessment: A Vision Lost (p. 28)
Ontario’s Environmental Assessment (EA) process is supposed to serve as a safety net to protect the public and the environment from harm. By requiring agencies to consider the environmental implications of proposed projects before they are allowed to proceed, the EA process is intended to ensure that new projects are environmentally sound. Unfortunately, flaws in the EA process mean that projects are not being carefully screened as expected by the public. The ECO believes that Ontarians should be worried that the environment and public health are being jeopardized by a broken process.
First, one of the key functions of the original EA process – the initial evaluation of whether a project is actually needed, and, if so, what the best approach to the project is – has been eliminated as a requirement for many projects.
Second, many of Ontario’s most environmentally important decisions are being exempted from EA scrutiny altogether. For example, Ontario’s Integrated Power System Plan (which outlines the province’s plans for meeting future electricity needs) was exempted from the EA process even though it will have major environmental implications.
Third, a number of perverse amendments to the EA process over the years mean that other approvals (e.g., the purchase of land) are being allowed to precede EA approval, making it extremely unlikely that proposed projects will subsequently be rejected through the EA process. Since 1996, 64 individual EA projects have been approved under the EA process, while only two individual EA projects have ever been refused.
Other flaws with the process include: ineffective and non-transparent public consultations; the shielding of technical details from public scrutiny; inadequate EA studies; and little monitoring of compliance with conditions specified in approved EAs.
To fix the ailing EA process, the ECO proposes that several improvements be made, including:
- greater capability for rejecting a proposed project when appropriate;
- an emphasis on transparency and credibility in public consultation; and
- a renewed emphasis on the importance of considering the need for and alternatives to proposed projects.
Air Quality Monitoring and Reporting in Ontario – Fostering a False Sense of Security (p. 57)
In Ontario, air pollution is a public health crisis, with thousands of premature deaths attributed to air pollution each year. To help the public reduce or modify their exposure to poor air quality, the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) monitors and provides regular updates on regional ambient air quality through its on-line Air Quality Index (AQI) (see www.airqualityontario.com). MOE’s 40 monitoring stations measure six key air pollutants known to be harmful to human health, including ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter (PM2.5).
Unfortunately, Ontarians who rely on the government’s AQI may be lulled into a false sense of security about the quality of the air they breathe. MOE’s monitoring stations are intentionally located away from local sources of pollutants in order to provide representative information about regional average exposure to air pollutants; while MOE’s data is useful for predicting air quality on a regional scale, it does not provide information about local “street-level” air quality at any given location. Current reporting of air quality by MOE based on the AQI may lead Ontarians to believe that air quality on the streets is better than it actually is.
To illustrate this concern, in the summer of 2007 the ECO asked air quality experts to monitor the air quality at street-level at a variety of locations across Ontario. The results revealed that levels of particulate matter were consistently higher at street-level sampling locations than at MOE’s equivalent AQI monitoring stations. For example, while street-level samples collected in downtown Toronto recorded concentrations of particulate matter equivalent to the AQI’s “very poor” category, MOE’s Toronto downtown AQI station reported air quality to be “good” at that time.
The ECO sees a pressing need to overhaul Ontario’s outdated and inadequate air quality monitoring and reporting program to ensure that Ontarians have the information about air quality they need to make informed decisions.
Ontario’s Weak Biodiversity Strategy (pg. 76)
Biodiversity (or biological diversity) is a term used to describe the variety of life on Earth. Diversity within species, between species and within and among ecosystems all contribute to biodiversity. A healthy biodiversity provides a number of natural benefits, including ecosystem services (e.g., nutrient cycling, climate buffering, and protection of water resources), biological resources (e.g., food and medicine), and social benefits (e.g., recreation and research).
Unfortunately, biodiversity is declining at the fastest pace in human history, a result of habitat alteration and loss, climate change, invasive alien species, overexploitation, and pollution. In conjunction with climate change, the continuing decline in biodiversity is one of the most pressing issues facing the Ontario government currently, and in the decades to come.
In 2005, the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) released Ontario’s Biodiversity Strategy. Since that time, however, there is scant evidence that the government has taken the strategy’s mandate to heart. The strategy lacks any real or mandatory measures necessary to make biodiversity conservation work.
First, the strategy does not contain any timelines or details as to which ministries are responsible for what actions. Second, many of the small steps that the government has taken involve off-loading responsibilities to third-parties, such as non-governmental organizations and volunteer committees. Third, there is no law in Ontario that obligates the government to monitor or even conserve biodiversity across the province.
The ECO is profoundly concerned about the lack of deliberate, systematic, and coordinated government action to conserve Ontario’s biodiversity. The ECO believes there is much more that the government could do to protect biodiversity, including minimize the ecological impacts of roads and highways (see page 192 of the Annual Report), improve management policies on mammalian predators (see page 198 of the Annual Report), and phase out activities in protected areas that pose a threat to ecological integrity (see page 68 of the Annual Report).
Getting to NO: Why is it important?
When members of the public get involved in local environmental issues and approvals, they need to believe that the key decisions have not already been made. They contribute their time and energy to the debate on the assumption that a full range of options are on the table. For example, they may assume a small, but real possibility that a project or approval may not proceed or may be stopped, if evidence against it is sufficiently compelling. Unfortunately the ECO observes a variety of situations where a “No” decision seems impossible to reach, from the outset. This contributes to frustration and cynicism among stakeholders, and it erodes the integrity of our environmental decision-making processes.
Four examples illustrate this problem:
Ontario’s Low Water Response Plan spells out the roles of various agencies under drought conditions of varying severity. Under the Plan, a “Level Three” drought condition is the most severe category, and if triggered, would empower the province to restrict water takings. However, a Level Three condition has never been declared, although indicator criteria have been frequently met, and stakeholders have urgently called for such a declaration. The ECO has observed that it seems prohibitively difficult to have a Level Three condition declared, even when streams have dried up completely. (p. 49)
Ontario’s Environmental Assessment process seems to lead inexorably towards approval of projects. Individual environmental assessments of major undertakings are very rarely refused outright by the Ministry of Environment. What’s more, a “No” decision is not a possible outcome under the streamlined Class Environmental Assessment process used to approve thousands of activities. (p.41-42)
Construction projects carried out for the Ministry of Transportation are screened for impacts to fish and fish habitat. The process results in 90 per cent of projects being assessed as low-risk, and ok to proceed. But projects go ahead even if they are determined to cause disruption or destruction of fish habitat. In those cases, habitat loss is addressed through a compensation plan developed with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. (p. 106)
An application received by the ECO in 2007 highlights concerns about protection of groundwater resources for the municipalities of Guelph, Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo. The application notes that these communities are all designated as growth areas under the Places to Grow Act, and that growth areas will be encroaching onto groundwater recharge areas. Local groundwater protection studies recommend prohibiting development in areas where it would diminish groundwater recharge, but the pressures for growth in this area are inexorable. (Click to read this article online)
The ECO concludes that “the current land use planning system gives insufficient weight to environmental concerns, and it does not adequately empower planning authorities to restrict specific forms of development where they are ecologically inappropriate.” (p. 138)
Getting to KNOW: why does it matter?
Effective consultation on the environment requires that all parties know the full implication of a project or plan. Consultation begins with engaging interested parties and determining to what degree they understand the undertaking and how it may be important to them. All parties have to get to a position where they all “KNOW” the full implications before a meaningful dialogue can occur. The ECO is concerned when consultations give short shrift to this key stage.
Ontario’s environmental assessment (EA) process was designed in the 1970s to allow for thoughtful, transparent planning in the public sector, and to give the public meaningful opportunities for input and comment. But over the past several decades a succession of streamlining reforms have reduced and weakened the original vision of EA, so that it often resembles a mere approvals exercise. Members of the public now have a much reduced opportunity to be consulted on core questions about the need for a specific project or alternatives to a specific project. (p.43)