On Monday I began my mini-placement at Ontario’s ‘environmental watchdog’, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. The official mandate of the office largely consists of monitoring the government’s compliance with the Environmental Bill of Rights, and allowing the public to understand and use the rights conferred upon them under the legislation. The EBR, enacted in February 1994, allows the public to participate in ministry decisions on the environment, most powerfully through Ontario’s Environmental Registry, and hold the government accountable for those decisions. It brings the public into environmental policy-making in a meaningful way, and the Environmental Commissioner is its steward. In short, the ECO is an exciting and rewarding place to be.
Environmental policy (and the scope of environmental issues for that matter) is pretty wide-reaching. My work for the first week focused on a particular area: Permits to Take Water (PTTWs). When someone plans to remove over 50,000 litres of groundwater or surface water per day for any period of time, they need to apply for a permit with the Ministry of the Environment. These permits are issued for projects like golf course irrigation, mining, construction, and even conservation initiatives – if you’re taking water (with some exemptions), you need a permit. The Ministry of the Environment ascribes to a Statement of Environmental Values, which dictates, among other things, that permits will take an ecosystem approach, taking into account cumulative effects of multiple water takings, the strain a given watershed is already under, and adaptability of water takings in the face of changing environmental conditions (particularly low water conditions). The MOE pledges a commitment to these values, and the ECO verifies that they are following through. My project for the week required me to select PTTWs posted on the Environmental Registry at random for evidence that the MOE was respecting its Statement of Environmental Values; that it was taking a farsighted, holistic approach to granting permits. If an Ontario Ministry makes a decision that impacts the environment (including Permit to Take Water proposals), a notice is placed on the Registry, which is open to public comment for thirty days. Afterwards, the Ministry will report on how they are taking the comments into account. The Registry can be found at www.ebr.gov.on.ca – it’s a powerful tool not only for environmental sustainability, but for transparency and democracy more generally. Check it out! You might be surprised by who is using your water, and how much they are taking.