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Council of Canadians lukewarm on water funding in federal budget

The Trudeau government released its first budget yesterday on World Water Day. Coming out of a decade of gutted environmental legislation, crippling budget cuts to freshwater protections and muzzling of scientists, environmental organizations, water activists, Indigenous leaders, scientists and others were eager to see what changes the Trudeau government would make that would signal a genuine shift away from the Harper government’s harmful legacy on water. 

In Budget 2016, there was an increase in funding for First Nations water and wastewater infrastructure compared to the last nine budgets of the Harper government. The Trudeau government allocated funds to increase ocean and freshwater science and research including to provide support for the Experimental Lakes Area. Funding was allocated for fighting phosophorus and algae in the Great Lakes, creating the new Clean Water and Wastewater and investing in water and wastewater infrastructure. How does the Budget 2016 measures up to the Alternative Federal Budget on key water issues? Will these funding commitments result in the Real Change that Trudeau has so avidly promised? Will Canada be able to implement the human rights to water and sanitation with these funding commitments? Read on to find out. 


(Photo by Julie Picken-Cooper, students at Museum London)


First Nations water and wastewater


With the heartwrenching photos of the Kashechewan children with lesions circulating social media, many were keen to see whether Budget 2016 would be sufficient for Trudeau to fulfill his campaign promise to end boil water advisories. Budget 2016 allocates $1.8 billion over the next five years for improving on reserve water and wastewater infrastructure and waste management. $141.7 million will go to improving the monitoring and testing of on reserve community drinking water over the next five yeras. Averaged out, that’s $448 million which is close to the $470 million that the Alternative Federal Budget and Assembly of First Nations have called for. But like some of the funding in the budget, it is back-end loaded.  In year one, the government will spend $296 million and in year two, $322 million. Compared to Harper’s annual $165 million this is a definite improvement. But it still falls short of what was called for in the Alternative Federal Budget. The National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems commissioned by the Harper government called for $1.2 billion to have then-Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada meet its own protocols. 


Health Canada reports that as of January 31, 2016, there were 135 Drinking Water Advisories in effect in 86 First Nations across Canada. Add to that the 27 Drinking Water Advisories in effect in 24 First Nations in B.C. at the end of December, the total reaches 159 Drinking Water Advisories in 110 First Nations. 


(Photo by Tyler Wilson, modified) 


About one quarter of these advisories have been in place for less than one year. Under 10% of the advisories have been in place for 1 to 5 years. A third have been in place for 5 – 10 years and another one third in place for 10-15 years. Just under 10% have been in place for over 15 years. That means two-thirds of the drinking water advisories have been in place for 5-21 years. These communities cannot wait any longer. This is one area that needs adequate funding immediately, not two or three years later. Drinking water advisories in First Nations remain one of the gravest violations of the human right to water.


David MacDonald, Senior Economist for Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, also points out that “this money is carved out of infrastructure funds that might otherwise have gone to cities–an either/or funding situation where there should be money for both.” 


Municipal water and wastewater infrastructure


Budget 2016 invests $2 billion for the new Clean Water and Wastewater Fund over five years. If spread out evenly over five years, that’s $400 million. But the Trudeau government is investing $500 million in year one and $959 million in year two. 


There is nothing in the budget about Public-Private Partnerships, which is a welcome omission from the Harper government’s P3 Fund which required municipalities to enter into risky P3 agreements if they wanted federal funding for projects over $100 million. 


The water chapter of the Alternative Federal Budget calls for close to an annual $6 billion to create a national public water and wastewater fund, including infrastructure aid for small municipalities and training, certification and conservation programs. This is based on the 2016 Canadian Infrastructure Report Card which estimates the cost of replacing systems graded “poor” or “very poor” at $61 billion. There is a huge gap between the Trudeau government’s $500 million and the $6 billion called for in the Alternative Federal Budget. To truly invest in green infrastructure and build stronger communities, this gap must be closed. 


Ocean and freshwater science and research


The Trudeau government committed to investing $197.1 million over five years – $39.4 million on average each year – to Fisheries and Oceans Canada to increase ocean and freshwater science, monitoring and research activities and to provide support for the Experimental Lakes Area in Northwestern Ontario. Fisheries and Oceans will see $30 million in the first year and $38 million in the second year. This is a welcome investment. 


According to departmental reports on plans and priorities and performance reports, $73.4 million in funding was cut from Environment Canada’s Water Resources program and from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Sustainable Aquatic Ecosystems from 2011/12 to 2015/2016. 


A number of programs were affected including the Ocean Contaminants and Marine Toxicology Program, Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences,  Polar Environment Atmospheric Research, Laboratory,  Canada Centre for Inland Waters, UN Global Environmental Monitoring System/Water Programme (a global water quality database), National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy and Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission. Still funding is low compared to the over $90 million called for in the Alternative Federal Budget. Trudeau’s water funding is also targeted at Fisheries and Oceans and not Environment Canada, despite cuts to Environment Canada’s Water Resources program. The funding is a start but which programs they will restore and to what extent remains to be seen.


Restoring freshwater protections


Budget 2016 will “provide $14.2 million over four years, starting in 2016–17, to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency to support the Agency in fulfilling its responsibilities under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012.”


Funding for environmental assessments and this is a step forward. However, it is the implementation of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) 2012 that resulted in the cancellation of 3000 environmental assessments and a reduced scope in environmental assessments. The Trudeau government had committed to reviewing the changes to the CEAA, 2012 and restoring lost protections. 


On January 27, 2016, the federal announced the interim principles to guide environmental assessments for major projects. It’s unclear whether there will be funding for a new, more robust environmental assessment process beyond CEAA 2012. 


There is also no mention of restoring protections on the 99% of lakes and rivers that were delisted from review of the Navigable Waters Protection Act (now the Navigation Protection Act). 


Great Lakes protection 


Budget 2016 allocates $3.1 million in Great Lakes funding to Environment and Climate Change Canada to continue to improve nearshore water and ecosystem health by reducing phosphorus and the resulting algae in Lake Erie. In the Liberal Party of Canada’s election platform, the party renewed its commitment to protect the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River Basin.


(Photo: MODIS satellite image, Lake Erie algal bloom. October 11, 2013. By NOAA CoastWatch.)


This funding is not much better than what Harper allocated over the years. In some years, the Harper government didn’t allocate any new funding the Great Lakes but in some years it allocated an annual $8 million. 


Council of Canadians National Chairperson Maude Barlow has talked about the multitude of threats facing the Great Lakes including extreme energy projects like fracking, tar sands pipelines and oil shipments. 


The waters of the Great Lakes must be recognized as a human right, commons and public trust to be shared, protected, carefully managed and enjoyed by all who live around them. In order to do so $500 million is required to protect the Great Lakes, as called for by the Alternative Federal Budget. 


The funding in Budget 2016 is a clear step forward from the Harper government’s record on water protection. Yet there are still some considerable gaps. In the Harper government’s decade in power, it set the bar really low water protections and environmental safeguards. We must be sure that our bar remains high and we continue to strive for strict safeguards that protect watersheds. We must not settle for what is “better than what we had with Harper” but we must aim to have what is adequate, needed and just.