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How Federal Budget 2014 measures up on water

With the Harper government’s sustained cuts to water protection, the hope that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty would announce the necessary funds to fulfill its federal water responsibilities seemed bleak on Tuesday afternoon.

While water protection has consistently been low on the Harper government’s priority list, Canadians and indigenous communities witnessed an all out assault on water protections with the 2012 omnibudget bills. The bills gutted the Fisheries Act, removed protections from 99% of lakes and rivers under the former Navigable Water Protections Act and amended the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act in such a way that cancelled 3,000 environmental assessments.

That year the government also eliminated the National Round table on the Environment and Economy and refused to continue to fund the Experimental Lakes Area, a world renowned research facility.

In December 2013, journalist Mike De Souza reported that, “More than $100 million in cuts are underway at the federal department in charge of protecting Canada’s water and oceans, despite recommendations from top bureaucrats that it needs to increase spending for both environmental and economic reasons.”

At the end of January 2014, seven libraries in federal departments have ‘culled’ materials including Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s library.

In the face of all the gutting and cutting, what would a budget that prioritized water protection look like? Last week the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released Striking a Better Balance: Alternative Federal Budget 2014 (AFB) which outlines what the federal government could do if it decided to seriously address Canadians’ largest social, economic, and environmental concerns. The AFB outlines a long term plan to lift 855,000 people out of poverty, reduce income inequality and boost the economy while still balancing the budget one year later than the federal government plan. The water chapter of AFB outlines a bold, long-term plan on water protection that would ensure that Canada fulfills its international obligations on the human right to water and sanitation.

Canada does not have a national strategy to address urgent water issues and no federal leadership to conserve and protect our water. The federal water policy is more than 25 years-old and badly outdated. The AFB outlines a comprehensive national water policy which recognizes water as part of the commons – a vital resource that is available to all – a public trust and a human right.

The following blog compares how the Economic Action Plan 2014, The Road to Balance: Creating Jobs and Opportunities  (EAP 2014) measures up to the comprehensive national water policy outlined in the AFB.

Water and Wastewater Infrastructure

The AFB calls for a bold 20-year plan that will require a federal investment of $39 billion in a National Public Water and Wastewater Fund. The federal portion would start at $2.6 billion a year for the first six years and replace the systems rated ‘poor’ or worse. For the next 14 years, the federal government would commit $1.67 billion annually. It also calls for $1 billion annually for 20 years to fund the wastewater systems effluent regulations.

On page 163, the EAP 2014 will allocate “$1.25 billion over five years for a renewed P3 Canada Fund to continue supporting innovative ways to build infrastructure projects through public-private partnerships (P3s)” under the $53-billion Building Canada plan beginning in 2014-2015. On page 164, Budget 2014 highlights the $58.5 million allocated for a new wastewater plant in Regina, Saskatchewan, the $22.9 million for a biosolids treatment facility in Hamilton, Ontario, and the $57.3 million for a new water treatment plant in Saint John, New Brunswick.

PPP Canada became operational in February 2009 and started with a total of $1.2 billion to allocate under the P3 Canada Fund. PPP Canada explicitly promotes privatization of public services by only providing funding to P3s in water and wastewater, transportation and communications.

PPP Canada states that the P3 fund was created “to improve the delivery of public infrastructure and provide better value, timeliness and accountability by increasing the effective use of P3.” However, P3s in Canada have been found to be more costly. A study of 28 Ontario P3 projects worth more than $7-billion found that public-private partnerships cost an average of 16 per cent more than conventional tendered contracts.  The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives  has also noted “a string of failures, delays, little transparency, and secretive deals proved these claims wrong.”

Allocating funding for water services under P3s entrenches water governance within a market framework that favours profit over human rights, environmental protection, social justice and public health. The allocation of water must be based on principles of water as a commons, human right and public trust.

The AFB calls for water and wastewater funding to be devoted exclusively to publicly-owned and operated water infrastructure instead of promoting privatization through the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) Canada Fund. Municipalities have the experience and expertise in water and wastewater management and are far more accountable to the public than private corporations. Water and wastewater projects will be excluded from PPP Canada funding criteria.

Water and wastewater in First Nation Communities

The AFB calls for a 10-year plan investing $4.7 billion for water and wastewater facilities on First Nation reserves.

On page 173, the EAP 2014 allocates “$323.4 million over two years to continue the First Nations Water and Wastewater Action Plan.” This is actually $7.4 million less than what the Conservative government has allocated in past budgets. The EAP 2012 allocated $330.8 million to water and wastewater systems in First Nation communities over two years. The EAP 2014 falls short of the $470, 000 annually called for under the National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater (NAFNWW) ($4.7 billion over ten years). The NAFNWW found that 73% of water systems in First Nation reserves are at high or medium risk and pointed out that $1.2 billion was required to meet the federal government’s own protocols for safe water and wastewater.

The lack of clean and safe drinking water and adequate sanitation in First Nation communities is one of the gravest violations of the human right to water and sanitation. It is tremendously alarming that the Harper government continues to ignore the water and wastewater systems that are at risk.

Great Lakes protection

The AFB allocates $500 million to implement a Great Lakes Action Plan by establishing a Great Lakes commons framework based on local decision-making and cleaning up areas of concern and priority zones, controlling invasive species, and creating an inventory of pollutants that are not covered by the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement or the National Pollutant Release Inventory.

It was deeply disappointly to see that the EAP 2014 did not mention the Great Lakes once and thus failed to allocate any new funding to the Great Lakes. This is in stark contrast to President Barack Obama’s continued funding of $300 million per year for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

The Great Lakes continue to be threatened by multipoint pollution, tar sands oil pipelines and shipments, fracking climate change, over-extraction, invasive species, and wetland loss are all taking their toll on the watershed. They need strong government action including a significant increase in funds from the Canadian goverment.

Water research and science

The AFB calls for nearly $330 million over three years in order to establish water quality and quantity monitoring frameworks by increasing the number of monitoring stations, training staff in water monitoring, reinstating the Experimental Lakes Area, contributing to the UN Global Environment Monitoring System and creating a new water minister position.

Budget 2014 is creating the Canada First Research Excellence Fund “with $50 million in 2015–16, growing to $100 million in 2016–17, $150 million in 2017–18, and reaching a steady-state level of $200 million annually in 2018–19 and beyond.” Page 115-116 of Budget 2014 states that the Canada First Research Excellence Fund the Canada First Research Excellence Fund “will provide an additional $1.5 billion to advance the global research leadership of Canadian institutions” and aims to create “long-term economic advantages for Canada.

While postsecondary leaders applauded the announcement, it is not clear where that money will be funneled. The fact that the muzzling of scientist and attack on scientific research has made international headlines raises questions and contradictions in Harper’s actions.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada released the report Vanishing Science  last week which warned, “Between 2013 and 2016, $ 2.6 billion and 5,064 jobs will be cut from 10 science-based departments alone.” The report noted that, “In fact, even after accounting for the extraordinary impact of stimulus spending, between 2008 and 2013, a total of $596 million2 (in constant 2007 dollars) has been cut from science and technology (S&T) budgets at federal SBDAs, and 2,141 FTEs have been eliminated. Measured in sheer dollar amounts, the cuts have fallen more heavily on some departments than on others: Environment Canada, for example, has seen its science budget cut by $125 million (17.5%); the National Research Council of Canada, $129 million (17.2%); Fisheries and Oceans, $28 million (10.2%). Similarly, some but not all departmental cuts have included the elimination of FTE science positions: e.g., National Research Council of Canada (798 FTEs), EnvironmentCanada (159 FTEs), Fisheries and Oceans (73 FTEs).”

The assault on the scientific community has been so blatant that thousands of scientists took to the streets in the 2012 Death of Evidence rally. The protests continued in Stand Up For Science demonstrations in 17 cities last fall.

So as Science Insider pointed out, “Exactly where the new fund fits won’t be known until the government provides more details. In particular, it’s unclear the extent to which Flaherty’s emphasis on economic advantages means that the program will ultimately focus on industrial collaborations aimed at economic development.”

Resource and fossil fuel extraction

The AFB raises serious concerns about the impacts that tar sands development, hydraulic fracturing (commonly know as fracking) and mining have on watersheds. The AFB calls for $50 million for environmental assessments for energy and mining projects, $32 million for an in-depth study of the water effects of tar sands and incorporating public input in the federal reviews on fracking and $5 million to support research on the effects of climate change on watersheds.

The EAP 2014 failed to commit this funding to fully understand the long term impacts of resource and fossil fuel extraction projects. The budget committed “$28 million over two years to the National Energy Board to review project applications, such as TransCanada Pipelines Limited’s Energy East Pipeline Project, within legislated timelines to provide timeline certainty and to enhance the Participant Funding Program. This funding will be fully cost-recovered from industry.”

However, the APTN pointed to a gap in consultation with First Nations: “The budget, however, is silent on any new funding to improve the consultation process with First Nations whose territory lie in the path of pipelines like Energy East and Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline, which is awaiting cabinet approval.”

Election 2015: What will Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau do for water protection?

Again the Conservative government delivered a budget that fails to prioritize water protection and set out concrete actions in fulfilling its international obligation under the human right to water and sanitation. With a federal election not that far away, many are eager to see how opposition parties, particularly NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, will break the mold of the last seven years of gutting and cutting by the Conservative government. Communities are eager to hear opposition parties commit to funding for public water and wastewater services that are not tied to P3s, funding that will address the abhorrent lack of water and sanitation in First Nation communities once and for all and a concrete plan to curb climate change including a ban on fracking and transitioning away from tar sands and fossil fuel development.