Groundwater protection

FRAMEWORKS FOR IMPLEMENTING THE CLEAN WATER ACT BEING DEVELOPED THROUGHOUT THE PROVINCE

since the tragic water-related events in Walkerton in 2000, much has changed. A full inquiry was held to scrutinize exactly what occurred and why. The provincial government passed The Clean Water Act – but full implementation of this legislation is yet to come.

“When the time came to start drafting the policies relating to the Act, municipalities had first choice on taking the lead,” says Dave Schultz, manager of communications for the Grand River Conservation Authority. “Most larger municipalities took that route, and in cases where the municipality was concerned that it didn’t have the capacity, conservation authorities took the lead but worked closely with them.”

In most other regions, the development of policies is being led by a ‘Source Protection Committee. ’ These bodies work with municipalities, the public and many stakeholders to ensure in various fashions that policies align with existing regulations and procedures, that they’re equitable across the watershed, and so on.

representing agriculture
Over the past few years, the Lake Erie Source Protection Region Committee has guided the development of four source protection plans for source area/ watershed/Conservation Authority within the Region: Grand River, Long Point Region, Catfish Creek and Kettle Creek.  There are 19 ‘source protection areas’ in Ontario, and Lake Erie is one of the biggest in terms of area and population, says committee member and president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Mark Wales. It includes about 60 municipalities from St. Thomas to the east, Dunville to the west, and Dufferin County to the north. Committee members represent the general public, several First Nations, business owners, government, industries such as aggregates and agriculture, and more.

Wales, who has farmed in Elgin County since 1976 (first tobacco, and now vegetables, corn and soybeans) is one of three agricultural representatives, along with farmers Ken Hunsberger of Baden and David Parker of Belwood. They all have a great deal of experience working in ag-related groups. Wales, for example, co-founded the Elgin Stewardship Council, has chaired the Peer Review Committee for Environmental Farm Plans in Elgin County since 1994, and is a member on three regional ‘Water Response Teams.’ “The OFA insisted on having agricultural representatives, elected at a public meeting from a large group of qualified people,” Wales notes. “With the legacy of Walkerton, this was very important.”

The four plans will be approved by the Minister of the Environment, and municipal governments will be chief implementers with government agency support, as directed in The Clean Water Act. With regard to agriculture, the draft policies relate to the application and storage of manure, chemicals and fertilizers and the use of land for grazing, pasturing or livestock confinement.  Wales says very few farmers will be directly impacted by the plans.

creating the plan
“One of the first steps in creating the Plans was to summarize the relevant legislation for each type of potential water quality threat,” he explains. “For agriculture, this includes several pieces, such as the Nutrient Management Act.” The Committee then began tackling the job of identifying specific threats – sites with risks associated with them. “We discovered things like municipal wells that are next to rail lines on which tankers of chemicals travel, so it’s been an eye-opening process,” says Wales.

“We need to make the connections between activity on the surface and groundwater. It’s a good thing.” For each potential risk situation – for example, one of these municipal wells, a particular factory or a farm — the committee sends out letters requesting that property owners attend public meetings for discussion. “For example, a farmer gets a letter and comes in and says ‘I haven’t had cattle on my farm for 30 years’ or ‘Here is my Environmental Farm Plan describing my new manure storage facility’ and so on,” explains Wales. But some property owners, for whatever reason, won’t come, and even if they do, there is a need for a ‘risk management’ person to check on potential risks and make sure they’re being mitigated. “We’re a long way from that stage,” Wales notes. “Some municipalities may be able to share a person who may have to be hired, or maybe existing personnel can handle the work. There will also be other actions taken, starting with education and outreach.” The plans are supposed to be completed by August 2012, but Wales says that target will likely not be met. “It’s an immense amount of process, a larger task than anyone has foreseen, but it’s the right thing to do,” he says.

reassuring the public
When asked whether in his experience, Wales thinks some members of the general public still associate the Walkerton water tragedy with farming, he is somewhat unsure. “Clearly the public inquiry found that agriculture was not responsible and that the farmer had gone beyond what was required to safeguard groundwater,” he says. “Clearly, no one should have died and no one should have gotten sick. The two people responsible were falsifying documents well into the emergency and did not follow protocols, but the municipality also bears responsibility in that that particular well should have been looked after more carefully or retired. But I think that when the Nutrient Management Act was created, the public saw that as the problem being solved. I think that going forward, it’s important for everyone to understand that protecting drinking water is all about having more than one safeguard. It’s about having a lot of safeguards in place that prevent problems. The science is evolving all the time.”

The Lake Erie Source Protection Region Committee: www.sourcewater.ca. •