By Catherine Ronahan and Maureen Larkin (guest opinion)
In 2014, the Select Standing Committee for Agriculture, Environment, Energy and Forestry recommended to the P.E.I. Legislature that the moratorium on deep water wells not be lifted. At that time the government promised to develop a Water Act, which would be the framework for any future policies around water on P.E.I.
As well there would be Island-wide public hearings to give everyone a chance for input. This was an important step to take and many watershed and environmental groups were happy with this decision, but our concern is that there be a genuine democratic process with meaningful input from community. We have recent experience of a very different kind of process with Plan B, where the final decision was made before public input was sought.
The process used to consult the public is so important. That’s what was heard loud and clear from both the presenters and participants at a recent workshop called “What’s in a Water Act” co-ordinated by the Latin American Mission Program (LAMP). Over 60 people attended the workshop on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Kensington in April. The workshop focused on the kind of process we need to create an effective Water Act for P.E.I..
Gary Schneider, co-chair of the Environmental Coalition of P.E.I. shared ideas on public participation based on the principles of the ‘Public Participation Guide for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act’ produced by the federal government. “The focus of public participation is usually to share information with, and gather input from, members of the public who may have an interest in a proposed project.” A good process does not have the decision made before listening to the public.
It would include meetings across the Island, a draft report with a period of time for public feedback.
Ann Wheatley from the Coalition for the Protection of P.E.I. Water, and also a panelist, spoke about the values to be included in a Water Act. ”A meaningful Water Act should be based on a set of values such as water as a human right, the right of people to a healthy environment, and water as a common good.
To have any effect, a Water Act needs to be accompanied by well-thought out regulations, and monitoring and enforcement mechanisms. While the creation of a Water Act is essential, it will be for naught unless we articulate firm goals and objectives and develop strategies to achieve them.”
Steven MacKinnon from the National Farmers Union (NFU), shared anecdotal evidence on how rivers and streams have changed in his own farm over the past 200 years that his family has been living on it. He spoke of his concern about the lack of research determining the amount of water we have.
The panelists and participants were in agreement that we have to get this right. Controlling our water supply is one of the most important things we can do. Once we have infusion of salt water or pollution into the water table it is too late. As Steven MacKinnon succinctly stated, “You can't 'un-ring a bell.’
In developing the Water Act we call on government to have a process that is open and transparent and built upon a mutual trust of citizens and government.
Catherine Ronahan and Maureen Larkin are members of the Latin American Mission Program