The Region of Waterloo is not using Environmentally Sensitive Landscape (ESL) designations as a front for extracting water from rural lands, argued a pair of regional staffers who addressed Wellesley council June 1.
Chris Gosselin, the region’s manager of environmental planning, and Eric Hodgins, manager of hydrogeology and source water, countered claims from the Environmentally Sensitive Property Owners Association (ESPO) that the ESLs are a façade for the region’s water-taking plans.
Glenn Baechler, spokesperson for ESPO, appeared before council last month asking the township to challenge regional government on the issue.
The region’s long-term water strategy calls for the development of three to five million gallons per day of new groundwater supplies.
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Baechler pointed to a map drafted in 2000 showing 15 areas in the region identified as potential well sites, arguing it’s no coincidence a handful of them overlap with the Laurel Creek Headwaters ESL.
Gosselin told council the protection of groundwater supplies is only one criterion out of a list of 23 for an area to be designated an ESL. Gosselin said he was responsible for drawing the boundaries of the two ESLs within the region, and took issue with the suggestion that he was only looking to protect drinking water.
“The issue of municipal water supply, I can tell you categorically, never once entered my head,” he said. “Even if the water were not an issue, the area would have qualified as an ESL.”
Hodgins told council that the map Baechler referenced came from a preliminary study identifying possible sources of water. That study, he said, was a textbook exercise that examined the geology of the bedrock and gravel deposits and didn’t consider surface features like ESLs.
Staff began narrowing down sites for additional water supplies in 2004. Right now, the region is examining sites on the east side of Cambridge, the northeast end of Cambridge and the northwest end of Waterloo.
In Waterloo, the region is studying three new well sites: at Westmount and Bearinger roads, on Erbsville Road, and at Conservation Drive and Westmount Road. The site on Conservation Drive is close to the boundary of the Laurel Creek ESL.
The ESPO is pressuring the region to ban any municipal extraction of drinking water from an ESL in the new regional official plan. The group’s concerns centre around a section of the proposed new regional official plan (ROP) that deals with construction of infrastructure within an ESL.
Under the second draft of the ROP, section 7.C.12(c) allows development in an ESL to go ahead even if there are adverse impacts to the environmental features provided there is a clearly demonstrated need and other alternatives are substantially less feasible.
“You can’t have the cake and eat it too,” Baechler said. “If you want to establish an environmentally sensitive landscape, the removal of water from under that landscape will eventually detract from the whole process.
“Our issue here is that if indeed you want to create this environmentally sensitive landscape, the one thing you can do is say there will be no regional or commercial water taking from that area.”
Banning water extraction outright in ESLs would have a significant impact on the region’s long-term water strategy, Hodgins said.
There are currently two ESLs within the region and two more outlined in the draft official plan; one covering a large chunk of the Township of North Dumfries and the other covering almost all of the Beverly area east of Cambridge.
“Those areas cover about two-thirds of the areas we’ve identified from geology as areas for potential drinking water supply wells,” he said.
Banning water extraction would push new well sites to the outer edges of the region, adding tens of millions of dollars to the cost of any new wells.
Hodgins said regional staff have deliberately opted for deeper wells, ruling out shallow wells that would be more likely to have an impact on the environment. The well sites in east Cambridge are 120 metres deep; the sites in northwest Waterloo are 70 to 80 metres deep.
“We’re much lower in depth; the environmentally sensitive features are at the surface,” Hodgins said. “The deeper we are, the less likely we are to have an effect on the surface.”
Kevin Eby, the region’s director of community planning, pointed out that the contested section of the ROP is probably redundant anyway, as far as water-taking is concerned; even if the region were to give the green light to wells that impacted the environment, the Ministry of the Environment would never allow it.
Hodgins agreed, noting that environmentally-significant features are protected by the federal Fisheries Act, the GRCA’s wetlands policies and the MOE, among others.
“There are so many other layers that would prevent us having an impact.”
Baechler said those arguments only support his group’s position.
“They said within the ROP there are these safety features and it would be ‘very unlikely’ – why not take the word unlikely out of it and just say … we’re willing to put these safeguards in, let’s put the major safeguard in and say under this 5,300 acres, there will be no water taking.”