Site 41 underscores why we need a national water policy

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A decisive victory has been won for water in Simcoe County, in a struggle that had been brewing for over twenty years. Dump Site 41, the landfill that was nearly built atop the Alliston aquifer this fall, points to major shortcomings in water governance at all levels of government in Canada.

Preliminary work on the dump site was approved in a very close vote in 2007 at Simcoe County Council despite much public opposition. Since then, the artesian spring just under the proposed landfill -- declared by a University of Heidelberg study to contain among the purest water in the world -- was dewatered to allow for construction.

The struggle to protect the watershed that serves several communities and wildlife in Ontario had grown to epic dimensions as national organizations and political figures joined First Nations communities, local farmers and residents to voice their opposition.

On Tuesday, August 25, the elected councillors of Simcoe County listened to the people who elected them, and voted for a one-year moratorium on Site 41 construction, which may well spell the end of the dump entirely. They have begun to see themselves as stewards of the water, and are to be congratulated for this important shift in thinking.

This is a moment to reflect on water governance in Canada. As we deal with increasing shortages of clean water, it is vital that water resources be managed according to five key principles.

1. Water is a human right

Water is fundamental to all life and access to safe drinking water and sanitation must be enshrined at all levels of government. This implies that ecological needs must be met in order to protect access to clean drinking water for future generations and this principle must trump all other considerations. In Simcoe County, signs that dewatering and construction activities were affecting water levels and quality in local wells were dismissed by the authorities. Unfortunately, the failure to recognize water as a human right in Canada leaves communities with little recourse when their access to clean drinking water is threatened.

2. Indigenous rights must be honoured

The Crown has a fiduciary duty to consult Indigenous communities. This requires government-to-government consultation -- not only on lands where there is Aboriginal title, but on all activities that prevent First Nations, Inuit or Metis communities from maintaining a healthy environment on their own land. The Beausoleil Nation of Christian Island has strongly opposed the site and argues that they have not been consulted on the matter. 

3. Water is a public trust

Under common law, a tradition followed in all provinces and territories except Quebec, water is recognized as a public trust. It belongs collectively to all and governments must manage water in the public interest. Governments do not have the authority to make decisions affecting collective resources that violate the public interest. The public in Simcoe County believe their water has not been managed in their best interest. In addition to potential groundwater contamination, the construction of the site required the County to obtain a provincial permit in March 2009 to withdraw 810,000 litres of water per day for 30 days and 410,000 litres per day thereafter for 365 days from the artesian aquifer before beginning construction.

4. Public participation

Managing water as a public resource requires governments to facilitate public participation and provide access to information with regards to community water resources and services. It also requires that governments honour local knowledge developed through the intimate connection members of the community have with their land and water.

The Community Monitoring Committee (CMC), established for the purpose of allowing the community to monitor developments, had been marginalized by the authorities at Simcoe County. New evidence gathered at Site 41 points to serious flaws in the information provided by the firm Jagger Hims indicating that the landfill would not affect groundwater. The CMC's observations were dismissed by authorities at Simcoe County, who went as far as to try and prevent the committee from meeting. In addition, members of the community were outraged by the lack of transparency surrounding the decisions about the landfill project.

5. The precautionary principle

The precautionary principle states that the burden of proof falls on those proposing an activity that could potentially harm the environment or the public. In light of mounting evidence that the landfill project could cause irreversible damage to the aquifer, the Council of Canadians and many others argued that decision-makers had a moral imperative to stop all construction until it can be proven beyond reasonable doubt that the landfill will not harm ground water.

Thankfully, Simcoe County decided there is no water to waste. Indeed, there is growing consensus that Canada does not have the abundant supplies of water it was once thought to possess. Unless these five principles are respected at all levels of government and embraced in a national water policy, we are likely to see intense battles like the one against Site 41 in Simcoe County unfold across the country. 

Maude Barlow is the National Chairperson and Meera Karunananthan is the National Water Campaigner of the Council of Canadians.

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