Ecojustice Blog – Healthy communities Posted on October 2, 2012 (updated: February 17, 2015)

Ontario must improve its management of Oak Ridges Moraine to protect drinking water

Dr. Anastasia Lintner

Sunday was World Rivers Day, a day to promote the stewardship and health of our rivers. In Ontario, the government is responsible for protecting the Oak Ridges Moraine, a 160-kilometre ridge of sand and gravel hills running along the northern part of the Greater Toronto Area, for its value to Ontarians: providing headwaters to 65 river systems, homes for more than 70 threatened and endangered species and drinking water for more than 250,000 people.

Every day, however, the Ontario government allows millions of litres of water to be pumped from the Moraine to water golf courses, sort sand and gravel, keep water bottling companies in business and, during the winter, to make snow. These industrial and commercial activities threaten a sensitive ecosystem that naturally filters the water many Ontarians get from their taps.

This week, Ecojustice and Earthroots launched three infographics that set out the challenges, symptoms and solutions to this problem. We wanted to show Ontarians how the government is managing its Permit to Take Water program on the Oak Ridges Moraine.

A Permit to Take Water is required for most activities that pump more than 50,000 litres per day.
On Monday, we released our first infographic, Moraine Drain, which looked at the trouble we encountered during our investigation and outlined the ongoing threat.

Moraine Management
Today’s infographic highlights our concerns about implementation of the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act and the fragmented responsibilities regarding environmental and land use planning. We’re concerned that no one is responsible for determining the cumulative impact of water takings on the Moraine, which may interfere with Ontarians’ right to clean and safe drinking water.

These infographics build on two previous reports, 2008’s Ontario’s Water Hazard and 2012’s Protecting Greenbelt Wetlands: How effective is policy? In both reports, we found a lack of connection between the nature and water protection goals in specific land use laws and the operation of the water management program. Based on our findings in 2008, we sought to expand our analysis to include all commercial, industrial and municipal water users across the entire Moraine.

How much water is actually being pumped on or near the Moraine? 
We’re not sure. The Ministry of the Environment, which is responsible for managing and monitoring surface and ground water under the Ontario Water Resources Act, does not have this information readily available. We could only get information about the allowed maximum pumping for the 72 permits issued on the Moraine in 2011. Although permit holders are required to report actual water pumping, this information is not reported with the permit information that we were able to obtain.

Who is ultimately responsible for protecting water systems on the Moraine?
It’s unclear. Conservation authorities, municipalities and provincial ministries — including the Ministries of the Environment, Natural Resources, and Municipal Affairs and Housing — all have roles and responsibilities in regulating water use. But there is no formal mechanism to ensure that their activities are coordinated, cumulative impacts are being assessed and the permitted uses prioritize the needs of Ontario communities over golf courses and water bottling companies. A cumulative impact assessment could determine whether there is a positive or negative impact of pumping so much water from the Moraine.

Gord Miller, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario has emphasized the need for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing to amend the Moraine protection policies and for the Ministry of the Environment to amend the water management program to ensure that ground water is protected from development on and near the Moraine, to enforce mandatory water restrictions on water pumping and to have an open, public debate about prioritizing water uses.

Yesterday, Miller released Part II of his annual report, Losing Our Touch, and reiterated concerns about adequate protection for the Oak Ridges Moraine and water permitting in sections titled “Waiting for a Change: The Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan” (3.3) and “Water-Taking: Leave Something for the Fish” (4.2).

Are areas where permits are clustered being assessed for the total impact?
Again, it’s unclear. Although there’s a legal requirement to assess cumulative impact of water takings, we are unaware of any assessment of the total impact of all the permits issued on the Moraine. Ontario permits golf courses, water bottling companies and sand/gravel processing to take large amounts of water without a complete understanding of how this may affect the function of Oak Ridges Moraine and those that rely on it.

Uncertainty in the management of the Moraine’s waters run counter to the goals of the Oak Ridges Moraine protection legislation.

Our vision
We believe that more can be and should be done to protect the Oak Ridges Moraine. The lack of easily accessible information and the lack of attention being given to the total impact of all the water pumping on the Moraine threatens Ontarians’ access to safe and clean drinking water.

We believe that Ontarians have a right to clean water and that it is the role of government to protect that resource.

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