Protecting Ontario’s Groundwater
Groundwater is important to the health of many people in Ontario, and to their economic and social well-being. Nearly 3.7 million Ontarians depend on groundwater as their main source of domestic water, and it is used extensively for irrigating crops and for supplying drinking and bathing water for livestock operations. A wide variety of commercial operations also use ground- water, including industrial facilities, water bottling plants, golf courses and aggregate pits.
Groundwater sustains ecosystems by releasing a constant supply of water into wetlands and contributing up to 20 per cent of the flow of headwater streams. In some regions of the province, during dry periods when surface water flows diminish, groundwater provides most of the stream flow. Groundwater is also important for water quality. The constant flow and quality of groundwater aquifers and headwater streams provide habitat for fish, wildlife and flora, as well as ecological and aesthetic values that benefit all Ontario residents.
Adequate quantities of clean groundwater are needed to support these human and ecological needs. Underground aquifers are recharged mainly by rainfall and snow. As long as the water contained in these aquifers is not extracted faster than it is replenished, groundwater is a renewable resource. However, housing development and the intensification of land use in rural southern Ontario are placing extraordinary demands on groundwater, creating concerns that some aquifers are being depleted faster than they can be recharged.
For example, certain commercial operations, especially water bottling plants, consume 100 per cent of the groundwater they extract. Over 70 per cent of the water extracted for irrigation evaporates or is lost to runoff. Industrial and municipal uses consume approximately 10 per cent of the extracted water. At the same time, agricultural land and green space are being transformed into built-up areas. Land that has been paved over or otherwise built up has a reduced capacity to absorb rain water and return it to aquifers, resulting in precipitation running off directly to streams.
The quantity of groundwater has important implications for water quality because reduced flows can aggravate the effects of contamination. Groundwater may become contaminated by leaking underground storage tanks, farming activities, leachate from landfills, discharges and spills from industrial facilities, and pesticides and fertilizers from golf courses. Many rural residents rely upon septic tanks which, if not well-maintained, can threaten groundwater quality.
Given the environmental and economic importance of groundwater, the Ontario government, together with other stakeholders such as municipalities, industry, farmers and environmental groups, must ensure that these resources are protected and managed for the benefit of present and future generations. However, Ontario does not currently have a comprehensive strategy in place to protect groundwater. In our previous four annual reports, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario has urged the Ontario government to develop a groundwater management and protection strategy in consultation with key stakeholders and the public.
What would a groundwater management and protection strategy look like?
In April 1997, the ECO suggested that a groundwater management and protection strategy could contain many interrelated elements. These include:
- a publicly accessible inventory of groundwater resources and a data management system.
- a long-term monitoring network of water levels for major aquifer systems.
- a system to identify and protect sensitive aquifers and groundwater recharge areas.
- an inventory of current and past uses of groundwater and sources of groundwater contamination and an evaluation of their potential effect on health and ecosystems, including cumulative impacts.
- a strong regulatory program aimed at preventing contamination.
- an economic assessment of groundwater value, including current and replacement value.
- a means of coordinating decision-making between all ministries and agencies that have jurisdiction over groundwater.
In reports to the ECO, dated March 1999, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing and the Ministry of Natural Resources told the ECO that they are “active partners” with the Ministry of the Environment, which is “developing” a groundwater strategy. OMAFRA has also confirmed it is working with these ministries. Yet, despite years of assurances from the ministries that they have been developing such a strategy, one has not been introduced. The contaminated-water tragedy in Walker ton in late May 2000, thought to be connected to contamination of local groundwater supplies by runoff from local farms, suggests that the need to protect groundwater aquifers is as great as ever.
Competition for Groundwater
In many parts of the province, businesses and rural residents who once had extensive access to groundwater are now finding that they must share existing resources with growing numbers of commercial and suburban users and with more intensive farm operations. In some cases, disputes have erupted. Over the past two years, lower than average levels of precipitation and higher than average temperatures in southern Ontario have exacerbated the conflicts that result from competition for groundwater.
In early 2000, some farmers in Southwestern Ontario expressed concern that water-taking limits imposed by MOE would impede their ability to irrigate crops during the peak summer growing season. MOE later relaxed the limits during those months. In return, the farmers and local farm groups committed to developing a water management strategy for the area. In other examples, after a food rendering plant and an aggregate operation submitted requests to MOE for permission to extract large quantities of groundwater, local residents expressed concern about the potential for groundwater depletion and contamination.
Some residents have used EBR Registry comment opportunities to try to resolve their groundwater disputes. For example, eight different people wrote to MOE asking that an application for a permit to extract groundwater submitted by a golf course be denied, fearing that their domestic and farm needs would be compromised. The golf course later withdrew the application, partly in response to this public outcry. In two other cases, residents challenged MOE decisions to issue permits to extract groundwater by submitting applications for leave to appeal under the EBR (see page 113).
Several provincial ministries share responsibility for aspects of groundwater management with municipalities, conservation authorities and other provincial and federal agencies. The key provincial ministries with interests in water management include: Environment; Natural Resources; Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs; and Municipal Affairs and Housing. Adding to this complexity is the fact that various ministries and agencies of the federal, provincial and municipal governments administer dozens of policies, bylaws, Acts and regulations related to groundwater.
The role of the Ministry of the Environment
MOE plays a key role in managing groundwater because it administers the Ontario Water Resources Act (OWRA). OWRA requires that anyone drawing more than 50,000 litres of ground or surface water a day obtain a permit to take water (PTTW). Historically, PTTWs were issued on a first-come, first-serve basis. When a conflict arose, MOE could use PTTWs to allocate available groundwater among competing users. In the past, the ecosystem functions of water were “also important considerations,” but were not overriding factors.
In April 1999, MOE introduced a new Water Taking and Transfers Regulation, setting out criteria for MOE staff to consider before issuing a PTTW. Staff must now give precedence to the impact the PTTW will have on the natural functions of the ecosystem. They also have the discretion to consider the impact on uses for livestock, municipal sewage and water supply, agriculture, and domestic wells – and to assess whether it is in the public interest to grant the permit.
This new regulation is a positive step, but MOE has yet to implement some important changes that would support its effective implementation. For example, the ministry has not updated its 1994 water management policies and guidelines document. Thus, MOE staff, PTTW applicants, and residents must interpret the new regulation on a case-by-case basis, and as noted by the Environmental Appeal Board in a December 1999 decision, there is a danger that it will not be interpreted in a consistent or appropriate manner.
MOE has not effectively used the EBR to manage conflicts over groundwater. In the past few years, many residents have contacted the ECO because they are concerned with the lack of information contained in Registry notices for PTTWs. They are also concerned that notices on the Registry are the only forms of notice provided, and that there is no adequate explanation of the effect their comments may have had on the decision-making process. In some cases, the ECO encouraged these residents to write to MOE and request that the ministry provide enhanced public participation opportunities on these water-taking proposals, such as public meetings, open houses or even mediation. To date, MOE has provided no evidence that these requests were seriously considered or that this kind of public consultation, provided for by the EBR, has ever been carried out.
Conflicting information in the media about MOE policies on groundwater has added to the public’s uneasiness about the availability of groundwater. In the spring of 1999, the media widely reported that MOE had placed a moratorium on the issuance of new PTTWs in certain parts of the province. In response to ECO inquiries, MOE indicated that a “moratorium” was never imposed, but that the ministry was applying increased scrutiny to PTTW applications. Yet many media sources and some government officials continued to report that a moratorium on the issuance of new PTTWs was in place. Furthermore, information about the changes to the PTTW review process was not posted on the Registry for public notice and comment.
Another concern was the fact that, until recently, Registry notices for PTTWs often failed to reference the expiry date for the permit, or to include an electronic link to the full text of the permit.
In September 1999, the Minister of the Environment indicated that the ministry had updated its procedures “to include strictly-defined time limits or expiry dates on permits.” The ECO reviewed 60 PTTW decision notices posted between May 1999 and March 2000. Nearly half of these Registry notices failed to state the expiry date for the permit. Of the remaining notices that did list an expiry date, 13 were for 10 years and the remainder were for varying time lengths ranging from “indefinite” to one year.
The public needs to be confident that MOE is managing Ontario’s groundwater effectively. Our review suggests that MOE must provide guidance to staff on how to apply the criteria set out under the new regulation. In addition to updated water management policies, MOE staff require much better data on groundwater resources in order to evaluate PTTW applications effectively, including the cumulative impacts of numerous permits for drawing water from the same aquifer or watershed.
The role of other ministries
Other ministries also have important responsibilities for groundwater, but the wide range of provincial laws, regulations, and programs are often directed toward conflicting goals. For example, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs provides guidance to rural landowners on wells and encourages farming practices that minimize the impacts on both groundwater quality and quantity through its assistance with the voluntary nutrient management planning and Environmental Farm Plan programs.
The ministry also administers the Drainage Act, which provides a legal mechanism for rural landowners to drain their lands and share the costs of doing so. Moreover, the Drainage Act encourages farmers to increase the productivity of agricultural lands by creating outlet drains that take the flow from individual landowners’ drainage systems. These total systems remove excess water from individual fields faster than would otherwise occur. Draining low-lying areas can potentially divert needed water away from aquifers.
The Ministry of Natural Resources manages aquatic habitat and provides support to conservation authorities under the Conservation Authorities Act to enable them to control flooding and erosion and to conduct watershed planning. However, the Aggregate Resources Act, also administered by MNR, promotes resource extraction activities that may alter groundwater flows.
In the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) under the Planning Act, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing has set out policies that municipalities must “have regard to” in making land use planning decisions that may affect groundwater, and although the PPS expresses the need for municipalities to protect water quality and quantity, the policy is not legally binding.
The Technical Standards and Safety Authority administers and enforces the Gasoline Handling Act (GHA) on behalf of the Ministry of Consumer and Commercial Relations. The GHA and a range of regulations and policies under that Act contain a number of provisions related to prevention of gasoline spills by service station operators.
In summary, the current legal and policy framework for groundwater management is best characterized as fragmented and uncoordinated. Provincial ministries do not have a publicly recognizable strategy that spells out how priorities are to be set and how ministries can coordinate their efforts and work with all stakeholders to address the conflicting goals contained in different laws and policies.
Over the past several years, the ministries’ efforts on groundwater have focused on process-based initiatives. Most of these initiatives create new tools and methods that are intended to assist municipalities and conservation authorities cope with ministries’ downloading of responsibilities to them. These include funding for municipal groundwater management studies, a guide for developing watershed management plans, and a video to increase awareness of the importance of groundwater. The province has set up the Ontario Water Directors Committee (OWDC) to coordinate provincial water management programs and the government’s response to water issues. Also announced is a low-water response plan to address water takings at the local level during extreme conditions. To begin to understand the quality, location and quantity of Ontario’s available groundwater, the province has initiated an aquifer mapping and groundwater monitoring project.
The problem is that these initiatives are being developed and implemented in a piecemeal way without adequate public notice or a meaningful opportunity for public comment. The OWDC, and the establishment of both a low water response plan and groundwater database are all good first steps. However, the lack of transparency in the development of recent initiatives means that it is difficult for Ontario’s citizens to understand the government’s approach to managing groundwater and the implications for various groundwater users or the environment. Recent ministry projects and the current system of laws, regulations and policies amount to a confused patchwork.
Growing Risks if Ministries Fail to Act
Ontario urgently needs a groundwater protection and management strategy, as evidenced by the demands being placed on Ontario’s groundwater resources and the fragmented management of groundwater. A key element of this strategy is the need to protect groundwater supplies. There will be several negative consequences if the ministries fail to develop a such a strategy, including a growing number of conflicts over groundwater throughout rural Ontario and in urban areas that rely on groundwater for municipal and industrial purposes. There is a significant risk that water taking permits will be granted and land use planning decisions made without adequate knowledge of groundwater availability. Furthermore, decisions about groundwater will not be made in a transparent and publicly accountable manner, contrary to the goals of the EBR.
The contours of a clearly defined, comprehensive groundwater strategy have yet to emerge, in spite of years of promises from provincial ministries. The ECO urges ministries to develop and implement a groundwater strategy in a timely manner in consultation with key stakeholders and the public. Moreover, the ECO encourages MOE to use the EBR’s enhanced public participation measures to keep the public informed and attempt to resolve conflicts before they become disputes.
The ECO recommends that ministries develop and implement a groundwater management strategy in a timely manner in consultation with key stakeholders and the public.
|This is an article from the 1999/2000 Annual Report to the Legislature from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.|
Citing This Article
Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 2000. "Protecting Ontario's Groundwater." Changing Perspectives, ECO Annual Report, 1999-2000. Toronto, ON : Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 35-42.