When it comes to water testing, most municipalities are sympathetic to the Ford government’s call to reduce red tape – they’ve seen their costs soar for largely unnecessary testing and redundant, overlapping paperwork. They could certainly support rolling back some of the overzealous regulation.
The prospect of bypassing the protection of water sources afforded by the likes of the Great Lakes Protection Act, the Clean Water Act and the Greenbelt Act is another story, however.
In that regard, Bill 66 – the hyperbolic Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act – is a mixed bag.
The overzealous reaction to the Walkerton water crisis in 2000, which saw an E. coli outbreak claim seven lives and render ill about half the town, reverberate through today, as municipalities – the water customers, actually – pay a huge cost to avoid a repeat of circumstances very unlikely to be repeated. While some of the blame for the outbreak could be attributed to cutbacks and deregulation favoured by the government, much of the responsibility belonged to the contrivances of the Koebel brothers.
More oversight is one thing, but constant testing and mountains of paperwork do nothing but add costs, all of which are passed on to those who use municipal water. Some scaling back would be a welcome relief.
More problematic, however, are provisions in the bill that would sidestep environmental protections for the sources of drinking water, controls that have taken years and decades to enact, in the name of promoting development. Those aspects have drawn the most criticism, provoking an outpouring of action from concerned groups and citizens, including presentations this week at Wellesley and Woolwich townships.
Prompted by tight timelines for input – already a staple of this new government – opponents want municipalities to challenge the legislation and to pledge to avoid the proposed exemptions to protections such as the Clean Water Act. They’re likely to find some sympathy for that stance.
This region has an interest in protecting drinking water sources – essentially landlocked, we do rely on groundwater and the Grand River system to fill our cups, our baths and our toilets. There have been attempts to curb both sprawl and development that threaten farmland, natural areas and groundwater, particularly on the west-side moraine, albeit with limited effectiveness given legal action by overzealous developers. The region did approve a series of environmentally sensitive landscapes, nonetheless.
Elmira residents, of course, need no reminder about the danger contaminants pose to groundwater – thirty years on, the remediation of the aquifers under the town continues, with no end in sight. Weakening the rules probably won’t help.
Provisions in Ford’s omnibus bill would allow municipalities to request exemptions from environmental laws. There might be instances where that would be practical, but it opens the door to abuses, and few of us want to see any environmental backsliding. Given the ideology behind Bill 66 – and the government in general – there’s every reason to be skeptical.
The ultimate responsibility for ensuring Ontario has clean drinking water belongs to the province. If it’s ready to abdicate some of that responsibility, municipalities are well advised not to abet that move.