The Toronto Star
Dec. 22, 2003

Stop soaking Ontario

The spectre of Chris Stockwell hangs over recent moves by Queen's Park to clamp down on businesses siphoning water from Ontario's lakes and rivers.

Earlier this year, Stockwell, then-Conservative environment minister, flabbergasted critics when he gave a Swiss company the right to extract 4.5 million litres per day from the little Tay River near Perth, which has almost run dry in the past.

The decision was outrageous on a number of fronts.

The multinational OMYA was being given the water for free.

Almost as bad, Stockwell ignored the province's own environmental review tribunal, which ruled OMYA could only have a third of the water the minister allowed.

Stockwell was clearly out of order.

But he may inadvertently have done us all a favour by highlighting a broader issue: Ontario has no handle on big-scale giveaways of water. The environment ministry has lost track of the thousands of commercial water permits issued since the early 1960s.

Ontario, and much of Canada for that matter, still has a kind of Wild West, anything-goes mentality when it comes to water, because, heck, it's only water.

But the Walkerton tragedy should have been a wake-up call.

The inquiry that followed called on Queen's Park to protect sources of drinking water - including rivers and lakes. Anyone wanting to build a factory, or siphon off huge amounts of water would first have to do a study showing the environmental impact.

The previous Tory government was all talk but no action on following through. Last week, Premier Dalton McGuinty's Liberals acted, imposing a year-long moratorium on any new commercial water-taking permits.

"We simply cannot continue to permit more and more water to be taken without fully understanding the consequences," Environment Minister Leona Dombrowsky argued, and rightly.

During the year-long ban, Ontario will sort out how much groundwater exists, whether there is enough for the level of water extraction going on now, and will identify areas of the province where there is a problem.

Dombrowsky deserves credit for moving so quickly on the issue.

But on another of her proposals, to start charging water bottlers and other commercial users of large amounts of water, we urge her to proceed cautiously.

On the face of it, Dombrowsky makes a good case. Companies that log forests or drill for oil have to pay fees and follow provincial regulations. Why should companies that use massive amounts of water get a free ride?

But water is not like any other commodity, and selling it is not as straightforward as it may appear.

How will the province decide, for example, who gets to buy the water, and how much?

Should it be based on who can pay the most? If that were the case, wouldn't business always trump the needs of residents and the ecosystem? What mechanisms will there be to protect the public interest?

Dombrowsky has set up a committee of experts to advise her over the next year.

Its recommendations should make refreshing reading.