At the Peace and Friendship Alliance (PAFA) meeting of March 19th, Lawrence Wuest introduced us to the Gallant government’s proposed new water strategy which is meant to replace our current Water Classification Regulation, NB Regulation 2002-13.
The following is an attempt to explain the differences between the two.
The proposed new water strategy may be found on all of two pages, that is, on pages 17 and 18 of a discussion paper called Working Together to Build a Water Strategy for New Brunswick. It consists of four main goals.
Goal no. 2 of this new water strategy, as quoted from page 17, is: “to manage and use water responsibly by protecting drinking water and eco-system [sic] health while allowing economic opportunities (my emphasis).”
Of concern is that, compared to our current water policy, water will be used for economic development, “now and in the future.” An example of this would be to use water for fracking. In short, the use of water for economic development is now entrenched in the draft water strategy and so on equal footing with the traditional use of water which is to maintain the health of our environments. These two objectives are diametrically opposed. Plus, there is no indication on how water allocations would be made and who would be making those decisions other than that it would be a shared responsibility amongst the consumers, be it corporations or people, large or small.
On page 6 of the new water strategy, the Government stated that it is committed to engage First Nations communities in the discussion and that information will be sent to those communities. According to discussions held at the PAFA meeting, on March 19th, First Nations were not involved in drafting this new water strategy before it was released to the public. And since the provisions of the Government’s own policy on the Duty to Consult Indigenous Peoples requires that First Nations be consulted at the outset, as opposed to after such a policy has been drafted, the government is already in contravention of its own rules and regulations, not to mention Supreme Court of Canada rulings from which their consultation policy is a derivation of.
Our current water classification system as specified in A Guide to New Brunswick’s Water Classification Regulation, and albeit never implemented, has been in existence since 2002. It is designed to protect aquatic life. This is accomplished by way of engaging with community members to collect data on the quality of water in the streams, rivers, and lakes of their respective communities. This data is then used to classify these bodies of water according to three different classes of water: A, B, or C, where class A consists of the highest quality water. Each body of water would then be managed according to its classification. Nobody is permitted to do anything to change a body of water’s classification without receiving permission from members of the local community, thereby making local communities responsible and accountable for the care and use of their water. This is by far one of the most progressive policies in North America yet risks being dismantled by the Gallant government in exchange for their watered-down policy which is the subject of this notification.
There has been a great deal of interest demonstrated from New Brunswick’s communities in classifying bodies of water. Since 2000, more than a million dollars has been dispensed by the Environmental Trust Fund to non-governmental organizations, such as the Nashwaak Watershed Association and the Groupe du bassin versant de la region du Cap Pele, to collect data needed for the classification of some 19 rivers in New Brunswick.
Whereas our current water classification system is focused on a single bottom line of ensuring that the conditions necessary to maintain aquatic life are being met, as illustrated in Table 1 above, the triple bottom line of the new water strategy, that is, of managing water for people, nature, and industry is problematic for at least three reasons. First, the incorporation of water as a means for economic growth ultimately leads to the commodification of water.
The commodification of water means that water could be traded on the free market like oil, gas, and other commodities. Should our water become entangled in free trade agreements, this would undoubtedly lead to conflicts on who should have priority over its use: people, nature, or industry. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, corporations trump all else. Second, the transferring of the responsibility for the care of our water from communities into the hands of consumers, be it people or corporations, means that not only have local communities lost control over their water but that whoever has the most power and influence, in terms of corporations and or other consumers, gets to decide who uses our water. Third, this way of managing our water is not in keeping with the government’s obligations of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples who view water as sacred and who would never accept water being used for economic development.
My second point is about the lack of transparency over this issue. Despite the importance and gravity of this major policy change in water use, public consultations on this new water strategy have been occurring with little to no advertisement, thus making it nearly impossible for interested citizens to become engaged. Appearing in the Gallant Government’s last throne speech, and in a press release which was not picked up by the media, public notifications have not been widely distributed. To date, four open houses have occurred, with only two left to happen this week: Monday in Saint John and Wednesday in Fredericton. The meetings are also happening during supper time, that is, between 4:30 pm and 6:30, making it difficult for many people to attend, particularly those who finish work at 5:00 pm and those with young children in daycare. By way of comparison, the 2012 Citizen Engagement tour for the new oil and natural gas standards were well advertised and took place between 6:30 and 8:30 pm.
And finally, I wish to refer to a comment on page 13 of the new water strategy made in reference to the deficiencies of the current water classification system.
[Department of Environment and Local Government] was advised that deficiencies within this regulation prevented its use to classify surface waters and the program was put on hold. Furthermore DELG received legal advice that suggested attempting to fix this regulation would equate to an entire rewrite of that part of the legislation.
Charles Murray, our Ombudsman did not agree with the concerns expressed above by the Department of Environment and Local Government as stated on pages 5-6 of his report:
At this point, it should be noted that no court has ruled upon the Regulation. Accordingly, the suggestions that the Regulation is void or unenforceable are thus far opinion— perhaps correct, but not having the force of law...The suggestion that there continues to be unaddressed issues about the legality of Regulation 2002-13 12 years after its coming into force strains credulity.
To conclude, the Government is now developing policy that would transform water into a vehicle for economic development. Consultations with Indigenous peoples have not yet occurred and public open houses will have been completed by the time most New Brunswickers will have heard anything about this, leaving the majority of us with few options to make our voices heard on what is undoubtedly our most important and precious resource—water. The closing date for comments on the new water strategy is April 29th and so the time to act is now.