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OPINION: Water Act debate falls well short

New Water Act legislation fails to ban deep-water wells; insufficient on fracking.
(File Graphic)
New Water Act legislation fails to ban deep-water wells; insufficient on fracking. (File Graphic) - The Guardian

Legislation fails to ban deep-water wells; insufficient on fracking

BY ANN WHEATLEY

GUEST OPINION

The hopes of the community were high when the Water Act was finally brought to the floor of the legislature last month. The consultation process leading up to the act had been a good one. We, the public had opportunities to provide input in a number of ways – public meetings, written and online, and even by telephone.

All of that information was shared by staff of the Department of Lands, Communities and Environment on their website, which meant we could all see what others were saying, and in the end, we could see how our ideas were or were not included in the final version of the Act.

It is therefore disappointing, that the first-ever Water Act for Prince Edward Island has been the subject of so little meaningful debate in the legislature. It is a shame that such a good process seems to be losing steam in its final stages. A fulsome debate in the legislature would be fitting, and result in an even better law.

We should remember that the reason we now (almost) have a piece of legislation to protect P.E.I. water is that the community demanded it. When it appeared that the moratorium on high capacity wells might be lifted, there was such a huge public response that government decided to hold a series of hearings.

Over the course of which they heard time and again, that not only did people want the moratorium to stay in place, they also wanted legislation to protect water, now and for future generations. And yet, the Water Act as presented in its final form does not address the moratorium.

When asked why, Minister Mitchell has responded by referring vaguely to ongoing research on stream flow, reducing the question to one of quantity. Which is important, but equally important are factors such as climate change and securing the permission of the community.

There is a direct connection between the fact that a moratorium is not addressed and two other weaknesses in the act. During both sets of public hearings, many groups and individuals spoke strongly in favour of including the precautionary principle - preventing harm from being done, even when all of the evidence is not in - in the Act.

Language is important - the precautionary principle is a term used in other environmental legislation. While alluded to, it is not named in the Water Act, and it should be.

The second weakness is the omission of the right to water as a basic principle. Many people, during the public consultation phase, requested that it be included. Quite simply, the people of P.E.I. have the right to adequate amounts of clean water to support human wellbeing and a healthy ecosystem. This should be recognized and clearly stated, as should the inherent water rights of the Indigenous people of Prince Edward Island.

And then there’s the puzzling ban on fracking. This was also one of the most commonly asked-for inclusions in the Water Act. So it’s no surprise that it appears. What is surprising, however, is the secondary clause that essentially negates the “ban” and allows the Minister to allow fracking, if it’s in the (open to interpretation) public interest. It’s really hard to imagine how such a destructive process could ever be in the public interest. This “get-out” clause is inappropriate and should be removed.

Islanders responded quickly and loudly to demands to lift the moratorium on high capacity wells, and later participated fully in consultations leading up to the Water Act because of our deep attachment to this place, this land and our water. We see clearly the effects of climate change in our province, and around the world, in places where water shortages and drought conditions are displacing people and having catastrophic effects on food production.

To ignore our insistence that the moratorium be addressed in the Water Act is shortsighted and dismissive of the people who care about the future of this island. We participated in good faith in the process of developing the Act and we feel strongly that our concerns and ideas should be reflected in this important piece of legislation.

- Ann Wheatley is a member of Cooper Institute

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