OPINION: The water law process: from an exemplary public consultation to a policy led by industry
Don Mazer and Boyd Allen serve on the Board of Directors of the Citizens’ Alliance of PEI, a member organization of the Water Protection PEI Coalition. -E. This is the first in a two-part series on water law. Part 2 will be released on August 3.
It took seven years, but Prince Edward Island finally proclaimed a water law. There are certainly reasons to celebrate that. The law contains guiding values that recognize water as a common good and a public good. The precautionary principle and the need to preserve water for future generations are recognized. Yet, it remains to be seen to what extent the legislation will help address the poor record of the government and its departments in protecting Prince Edward Island’s waters.
The impetus for the development of the Water Act began during meetings of the Standing Legislative Committee in 2014. The potato processing industry was lobbying the government to lift the moratorium on large-capacity wells for agriculture, and many citizens and groups opposed them.
It is important to understand that the development of the Water Act reflects an exemplary process of public consultation, as it contrasts sharply with the current approach of Environment Minister Steven Myers and government Dennis King. This period of consultation on the Water Act has been a time when there has been meaningful collaboration between government and citizens, when all Islanders have had the opportunity to express their ideas and when there have been many opportunities for public participation. The government has been responsive to requests for transparent processes and has been flexible in responding to public needs. Citizens and groups responded with enthusiasm and interest and a strong commitment to this process. The result has been a series of excellent, thoughtful and well-researched presentations by groups and individuals at public meetings across the government of PEI. The Environmental Advisory Council’s report was a faithful reflection of these presentations and included the strong opposition of a large majority of presenters to the end of the moratorium on large-capacity wells for agriculture.
After being reviewed and debated clause by clause, the Water Act was passed by the provincial legislature in December 2017. It was the revolutionary product of participatory democracy and a step towards consensus-based governance.
But since that time, we’ve had a change of government and four environment ministers, each reflecting current biases in their caucus and in the Prime Minister’s Office. The Water Act process has been transformed by each of these changes and has fallen on and off the priority list.
The robust process of public consultation on the law has been replaced by a “point democracy” method led by consultants for regulations, with limited opportunities for people to voice their ideas directly. The current minister does not respond to meeting requests.
Trust has eroded in the government’s ability to protect our water, to listen and collaborate with citizens, and to resist corporate influence. Anoxic conditions, high nitrate levels and fish kills continue to seriously affect PEI’s waterways. Miles of Winter River stream beds continue to dry up every summer. The government even broke its own regulations to allow a group of potato growers to extract water from the Dunk River in 2020 when flow levels were below legal limits. Instead of transparency, the government made this possible through closed meetings and subsequent ministerial orders.
We have moved from a classic model of public engagement and consensus-based governance to industry-led government, doing whatever it sees fit to achieve its short-term goals. Virtually all lines of communication were ignored. Public engagement portals were effectively blocked. The all-party standing committee that Prime Minister Dennis King celebrated as a model of collaboration and transparency is now being held up by his minister as a target of derision, with their recommendations easily ignored. Minister Myers’ unfettered promotion of the potato processing industry appears to be government policy and has not been discouraged by either his leader or his party.
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