New Land Use Restrictions to Protect Water Security

UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 1 | Jan. 4, 2007

By Assoc. Prof. Karen Bakker
Dept. of Geography, Faculty of Arts Director, Program on Water Governance, Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability

Municipalities and developers in Ontario are in for some big surprises over the next few years as that province’s new water legislation is phased in. The legislation — brought in after the Walkerton tragedy — prioritises source water protection, and requires land use planning to be integrated with source water protection plans now being developed in the province. In simple terms, this means that the need to protect water sources will be a legal constraint on land use and new development in the province.

The developments in Ontario are an example of an emerging paradigm of water security: sustainable access to adequate quantities of water, of acceptable quality, for human and environmental uses, on a watershed basis. This deceptively simple definition is a subversive concept when compared to traditional water management approaches, which tended to focus on end-of-pipe solutions, and managed water in isolation from other resources.

The new paradigm protects environmental as well as human health, and manages threats to water at the scale of the watershed. Proponents argue that this is the only way to ensure safe drinking water in light of increasing threats to our water supplies.

The most progressive legislation on water security is in Europe, where the new Water Framework Directive will create watershed management organisations for all of Europe’s rivers, 50 per cent of which are transboundary. The Directive defines rigorous water quality standards that strictly limit emissions of harmful substances, which are in turn linked to environmental quality standards (maximum pollutant levels in the environment). These standards are integrated within an overarching water quality management strategy that integrates multiple uses (such as water supply and industrial use) and multiple types of water supply (both ground and surface waters).  The Directive also mandates the incorporation of environmental externalities into water pricing in order to encourage demand management, and requires substantive public participation in policy-making and watershed management in order to increase transparency and compliance.

Canadian provinces are also experimenting with new approaches to water security. Many have revamped water legislation in recent years, coming up with radical changes. Alberta’s Water for Life strategy, for example, delegates watershed management to watershed committees made up of citizens, representatives of government, business, and First Nations.

There are considerable differences between provinces when it comes to water security. The Vancouver-based Sierra Legal Defence Fund regularly ranks provincial performance; in its latest review, British Columbia ranked nearly at the bottom, with a C+. One of the important reasons for B.C.’s poor rating is the high number of small community systems under boil water advisories — one of the highest rates of such advisories in Canada. Like Vancouver, many communities in B.C. rely only on chlorination to produce safe drinking water — with predictable results. Water security requires a “multiple barrier” approach to produce safe drinking water, including protecting watersheds (source protection) and filtration where appropriate. But many communities don’t have the necessary funds.

Finally, the degree of water security in Canada is relatively poor compared with other OECD countries. The Auditor General has criticized the federal government’s handling of water issues, and a recent Senate report termed our failures “shocking” and “unacceptable.” Canada is one of the only OECD countries not to have legally enforceable standards on water quality; federal guidelines are not mandatory, and not adopted in all provinces and territories. Researchers at Simon Fraser University rank Canada a disappointing 26 out of 28 of the world’s wealthiest countries in terms of water stewardship. Water security is indeed the “next big thing” in water management, but Canadians have a lot of work to do if it is to be realised.

For more information about Dr. Bakker’s book Eau Canada — The Future of Canada’s Water, visit: