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P.E.I.’s outgoing environment minister says blame for a delay in proclaiming the long-awaited Water Act can be placed at the feet of a legislative standing committee.
Following a swearing-in ceremony at Government House on Thursday, Natalie Jameson was asked about why the Water Act had not been proclaimed during her tenure.
"Short answer? The committee," Jameson said, referring to the standing committee on natural resources and environmental sustainability.
"It sat with them for a year and a half. To be quite honest, I was losing my patience and I was getting frustrated because it was taking so long."
On Thursday, Jameson moved out of her role as environment minister to become minister of education and lifelong learning. Steven Myers will move into the role as minister of environment, energy and climate change.
The Water Act was passed by the legislature in the fall of 2017 during the previous Liberal government’s tenure, but the bill was never proclaimed. Specific regulations on water withdrawal were not completed until 2019.
These regulations would provide oversight of irrigation on farming fields, including the use of high-capacity wells. The most recent draft of regulations would maintain a moratorium on high-capacity wells.
The standing committee on natural resources and environmental sustainability is composed of six members of the legislative assembly, two from each of the Liberals, Progressive
Conservatives and the Greens. PC MLA Cory Deagle is the chairman of the committee. The committee provides policy advice to cabinet.
During the 2020 spring sitting of the provincial legislature, Jameson told The Guardian that proclaiming the Water Act was a priority.
On Thursday, Jameson said members of the standing committee were aware that cabinet would wait for their recommendations on the regulations before proclaiming the act.
“There was an understanding between cabinet and committee that we would wait until their recommendations were received. We are almost ready to go with a second draft of regulations which we will present to the committee," Jameson said.
"The second draft is based on the recommendations of the committee. The last thing we wanted to do was give a second draft without those recommendations because then what was the point of the committee?"
The standing committee presented its report, including a recommendation to expand a moratorium on high-capacity wells to non-agricultural uses, in November. The report also recommended cabinet immediately proclaim the Water Act.
The recommendations were criticized by the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture. P.E.I. farmers suffered severe drought conditions during the summer of 2020.
But Jameson said the second draft of the regulations, which must be in place before the Water Act is proclaimed, needs to be presented to committee 90 days before they are proclaimed.
Standing committees have assumed increased importance during the government of Dennis King. The all-party committees are perhaps the most tangible parliamentary reforms made in the name of increased “collaboration”, a regular mantra of the King government.
In an emailed statement, Lynne Lund, Opposition Green critic for environment, water and climate change, said the committee received a briefing on the Water Act regulations in February of 2020. But the outbreak of COVID-19 resulted in cancellation of standing committee meetings between February and September.
“The outgoing minister continues to blame others for her inaction right until the last moment,” Lund said in an emailed statement.
“She can blame the committee, which is chaired by a government member, but it's been back with her for months now. It's my sincere hope that under a new minister, we'll finally see leadership on this file.”
Stu Neatby is The Guardian's political reporter.