December 8, 2014 By

Without a Paddle

Documenting the failure—and the potential—of New Brunswick’s Water Classification Program. Posted on December 8, 2014 in Water Canada’s November/December 2014 issue.

During the height offishing season in New Brunswick, as anglers lured Atlantic salmon on the famous Miramichi River and kids navigated through thickets to seek out their favourite summer swimming holes, a report came forth casting a stark and sobering reality for the rivers so enjoyed in the province. On August 15, 2014, Charles Murray, the New Brunswick ombudsman, an independent authority of the provincial legislature, released the details of his investigation into the Department of Environment’s handling of its Water Classification Program. The program was the first in Canada to take a proactive, watershed-based approach to river protection when it was introduced in 2002. But the ombudsman determined the program was, in effect, nothing more than an illusion, giving New Brunswickers a woefully false impression about the safety of their rivers for more than a decade.

In the 12 years since it was established, not a single waterway has been protected under the classification system. The program was instead plagued by bureaucratic confusion, lacklustre political will, and misuse of power from the elected officials charged with overseeing it.

New Brunswick’s Department of Environment had all the required documentation to classify the Nashwaak River by no later than 2003—but classification never came. Credit: Paul McLaughlin, Nashwaak Watershed Association.
New Brunswick’s Department of Environment
had all the required documentation to classify
the Nashwaak River by no later than 2003—but
classification never came. Credit: Paul McLaughlin,
Nashwaak Watershed Association.

“Like a smoke detector without batteries,” Murray wrote in his report, “[the regulation] appears to address and remedy a problem when in reality it does nothing of the sort.” The classification program, he concluded, “exists primarily as a mirage, misleading observers to their detriment.”

That’s certainly a far cry from what was expected by conservationists and departmental officials alike when the program was first unveiled. The Water Classification Program was brought forth under Regulation 2002-13 as a progressive attempt to set water quality standards for New Brunswick rivers. The regulation allows community-based organizations to collect water samples, analyze water quality, and set goals to maintain or improve the water quality of rivers. It was the final piece of a progressive regulatory regime put in place by the provincial government, complementing the Wellfield Protected Areas Designation passed in 2000 and the Watershed Protected Areas Designation enacted in 2001.

Over time, the department received 19 separate proposals for classification from groups across the province. Among them was an application from the Nashwaak Watershed Association, which had been exceptionally proactive on the file, having secured funding from the government to conduct water quality tests before the regulation had even been passed.

In his report, the ombudsman noted the department had all the necessary documentation required to classify the Nashwaak by no later than 2003. What followed were years of correspondence between the department and the Nashwaak association, during which officials described the river and other provincial watercourses as being “provisionally” classified, giving the impression that full classification was just around the corner.

Frustrated by the lack of movement on the program, the Nashwaak Watershed Association and its supporters, including the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, filed a complaint to the office of the ombudsman in February 2013, spearheading Murray’s investigation.

“I think New Brunswickers were blindsided and even surprised to learn our rivers were not being protected,” said Stephanie Merrill, freshwater protection program coordinator for the Conservation Council of New Brunswick. “And we should be. It’s a shame that in a province like New Brunswick, where so much of our culture, heritage, and recreation is based around our rivers, that we do not have fundamental protections for our waters. It’s so basic. New Brunswickers have assumed that’s covered.”

In an interview with the Conservation Council for this article, the ombudsman said the most troubling finding from his investigation was simply that government gave citizens a false impression for so many years that watercourses were being protected.

“That speaks to a really fundamental failure,” Murray said. “It can’t really be a larger failure than that.”

His report offered some explanations—citing confusion within the Department of Environment over the legal authority of the regulation and the troubling misuse of ministerial discretion by successive ministers to avoid approving the applications—but above all else, Murray said a lack of focused political will is primarily 
to blame.

But therein lies the hope for New Brunswick’s waterways moving forward.

A new provincial government, under the leadership of Liberal Premier Brian Gallant, was sworn into power on October 7. During the fall election campaign, the Liberal Party of New Brunswick pledged to “take steps to help ensure the health of our rivers and drinking water.” What better opportunity, Murray said, then moving swiftly to approve the 19 rivers submitted under the Water Classification Program?

“Why not be proactive and make yourself the champion of that change?” Murray said of the new government. “To me, this is an opportunity for the Minister of Environment to demonstrate competence, good faith, and to rebuild some bridges of trust between the department and the communities.”

With some focused attention and priority, by the time New Brunswickers set out with their fishing rods or swimming suits to indulge in our waterways next summer, they’ll hopefully do so with the full confidence that regulations are in effect to ensure rivers will remain safe and healthy for them to enjoy.  WC

Jon MacNeill is the communications officer for the Conservation Council of New Brunswick. This article appears in Water Canada’s November/December 2014 issue.

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Action Alerts

ACTION ALERT: Reinstate funding to the Canadian Environmental Network

Friday, 03 February 2017
by Raissa Marks
The Canadian Environmental Network and its provincial affiliate networks need your help!

Historically, the Canadian Environmental Network and its provincial affiliate networks including the NBEN received annual core funding from the Government of Canada. This was used to facilitate networking on environmental issues across the country, coordinate national and provincial issue-based caucuses, coordinate ENGO participation in federal public consultation processes, and maintain open lines of communication between ENGOs and the federal government.

In 2011, as part of the across-the-board cuts to civil society organizations by the previous federal government, all federal funding to the RCEN and its provincial affiliate networks was cut. This left the national network and most of the affiliates with functioning primarily on a voluntary basis with limited capacity to do their work.

There is hope that the current government will provide for renewed funding in its upcoming budget. This funding is crucial for the survival of the national network and many of the provincial affiliate networks. A proposal has been submitted. It now needs strong and immediate support from environmental groups and individuals across the country.

This is where you come in!

Please take a few minutes to write to Prime Minister Trudeau and your MP telling them why you value the RCEN, your provincial affiliate network, or environmental networking at the national level in general. Feel free to use the template letter provided below. You can personalize it based on your experience or simply copy and paste.

Trudeau’s email is justin.trudeau@parl.gc.ca and you can find your MP’s email here: http://www.parl.gc.ca/Parliamentarians/en/members

Let’s show our federal politicians that a strong, well-connected grassroots environmental community is essential to a strong Canada!

Draft Template Letter:

Dear Prime Minister Trudeau,

I am writing to ask that annual core funding to the Canadian Environmental Network (RCEN) be reinstated.

Historically, the RCEN provided a crucial link between environmental groups across the country, both large and small. This link was vital in helping communities address environmental issues right across the country and ensuring a robust approach to the development of environmental policy in Canada.

Since funding was cut in 2011, the RCEN and most of its provincial affiliate networks have been functioning primarily on a voluntary basis with limited capacity to do their work. This is not acceptable. A strong, well-connected grassroots environmental community is essential to a strong Canada. I urge you to reinstate core funding for this crucial work immediately.

Sincerely,

Still Time to Submit Comments - Snowmobile Trail Development up Mount Carleton

Monday, 21 November 2016
by Roberta Clowater, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society - New Brunswick Chapter
You can still send in your comments until end of day Nov 21 (Monday) on the environmental assessment report about the proposed snowmobile trail at Mount Carleton Provincial Park. If you're not sure what to say, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society - NB Chapter has summarized some of our key messages here: http://cpawsnb.org/images/upload/key_messages_EIA.pdf

Please send comments or questions to: lynn.white@gnb.ca or mail to: Lynn White, Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture, P.O. Box 6000, Fredericton, NB E3B 5H1.