Old Approach in New Water Act

Commentary, Water, Robert Sopuck

Bill 22, Manitoba’s proposed new Water Protection Act, Bill 22, received a deservedly rough ride at legislative hearings in September. How we manage, develop, protect and utilize our water resources should be of grave interest to us all. But instead of rationalizing use of this important resource with incentives, the Act imposes another layer of regulation on an already bewilderingly complex body of law. This is not the way to go.

An “explanatory note” on the Manitoba government’s website says that “this Bill sets out a legislative scheme to provide improved protection for Manitoba’s water resources and aquatic ecosystems.” It contains provisions to set water quality standards, to establish water management zones, to regulate “invasive species,” to create water conservation programs, to prepare watershed plans and finally to allow for the declaration of serious water shortages. The Bill also establishes a new advisory body, the Manitoba Water Council, and a new Water Stewardship Fund.

Since legislative hearings are usually the legal equivalent of watching paint dry, they rarely receive media coverage or attention from the public. This one did. Rural interveners included the Manitoba Pork Council, Keystone Agricultural Producers, the Association of Manitoba Municipalities, the Manitoba Cattle Producers Association, and the Rural Municipality of Springfield. The conservation community was represented by Ducks Unlimited Canada and the Delta Waterfowl Foundation. Environmental activists also attended. One councillor represented the City of Winnipeg, a strange number given the large role Winnipeg plays in this province’s use of water.

Everyone applauds the intent of the bill, but its means for implementing those worthy goals were the subject of much criticism. Jonathan Scarth, Executive Vice-President of the Delta Waterfowl Foundation, noted that “Bill 22 joins a growing list of policy initiatives that have recently come forward from various governments and levels of government to address different aspects of the same issue, that being the production of environmental goods and services ranging from ducks to clean water from the privately owned rural landscape.”

These policy initiatives include the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, the Fisheries Act and the new Species at Risk Act. As Manitoba Pork pointed out, “At last count there are at least 26 federal and provincial statutes and regulations as well as a myriad of municipal by-laws that already govern livestock farming in some way. Every effort must be made to co-ordinate and streamline the planning, development review and approval process for livestock development — indeed for all development proposals.”

One just has to wonder where it will all end and how anyone could possibly make sense of all of this, least of all hard-pressed farmers just trying to stay alive. Many of the rural presenters expressed concern that the Act’s provisions are so far reaching that private land use could also be subject to strict regulations. Try as I might, I could not find any acknowledgement that much of the land that the Bill purports to affect is privately owned. Nor any hint about the issues facing farmers and agriculture.

Furthermore, many rural presenters were quick to point out that the Act had no provisions to provide incentives to achieve the water conservation and protection goals desired by all. The bottom line is that, if society wants producers to deliver the environmental goods, then society should provide incentives. The regulatory approach advocated by Bill 22 will only serve to alienate an already demoralized agricultural sector.

You have to wonder when rural people will finally run out of patience.