By Catherine O’Brien and Don Mazer (guest opinion)
The Provincial government recently released its long awaited White Paper on the development of a Water Act. The report provides a broad outline of the key legislative goals, and offers a general description of a two-stage process of public consultation.
Citizens are provided with a number of ways to make their views known with a series of public meetings to be scheduled, along with written, online and phone submissions.
The public consultations will be hosted by the Environmental Advisory Committee, and Jean-Paul Arsenault has been selected to be the moderator for these meetings.
The Water Act is scheduled to be completed by the fall of 2016.
The Coalition for the Protection of P.E.I. Water formed last year during the discussions about lifting the moratorium on high capacity wells.
We applaud the government’s commitment to a consultative process that aims to provide the opportunity for input from all Islanders. While there are few details about this process at this point, and the role of the Environmental Advisory Committee is not clear, Mr. Arsenault is an excellent choice to moderate these proceedings. He has a long history of involvement with these kinds of forums, and is knowledgeable about watershed and water extraction issues as a member of the Winter River Tracadie Bay Watershed Association board.
We do, however, have concerns about the ambitious time frame for developing this act. British Columbia has spent more than 5 years working on their water act, and there are still significant citizen concerns about their draft legislation.
We believe that the process of developing the act is of great importance, and have offered our suggestions to the previous minister of the environment, and in a letter to The Guardian.
The process, like the act itself, needs to reflect basic values including: equal opportunities for meaningful participation, respect for the knowledge of the community, inclusion of diverse perspectives, clear communication and transparency, and empowerment of individuals and communities.
Truly meaningful consultations must provide not only the opportunity for input from citizens, but for citizens to actually influence decision making, and to have a clear idea of how their submissions are being used.
Transparency is essential for a meaningful consultation process. The White Paper recognizes that currently “there is no transparent process for decisions affecting the management of our water resources.”
In the days ahead, we look forward to clarification about the process of how the act will be developed, with the hope that it reflects a model of such openness and transparency.
We encourage as many groups and individual Islanders as possible to get engaged in this important process. Our water is a common heritage and a public trust, and we are all important stakeholders in creating a sustainable water future. A Water Act for all the citizens of PEI needs to reflect our rich diversity of perspectives and experience.
Catherine O’Brien is the chairperson of the Coalition for the Protection of P.E.I. Water. Don Mazer is a member of the Coalition.