Watershed group worries about 'loophole' in P.E.I.'s new Water Act

The new draft Water Act wouldn't stop Charlottetown from drawing so much water that branches of the Winter River watershed go dry, P.E.I.'s Department of Communities, Land and Environment has confirmed.

'There's a rather big loophole where they could continue to exceed the limits for however long they feel like'

Springs in the Winter River watershed already run dry every year as the city draws large amounts of water. (Submitted by Sarah Wheatley)

The new draft Water Act wouldn't stop Charlottetown from drawing so much water that branches of the Winter River watershed go dry, P.E.I.'s Department of Communities, Land and Environment has confirmed. 

The Winter River watershed supplies Charlottetown's water. The city is also developing a new well field in Miltonvale, which is expected to begin pumping this year and is designed to supply one-quarter of Charlottetown's water.

The draft act, released last Thursday, allows Municipal Water Supply Areas to sidestep what are called environmental flow rates — in other words, ensuring water flow is sufficient to maintain the environment.  

Close a loophole that would allow some municipalities unlimited water from P.E.I. watersheds, says the Winter River watershed group. (Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images)

"The way that it's written right now, there's a rather big loophole where they could continue to exceed the limits for however long they feel like," said Winter River-Tracadie Bay Watershed Association coordinator Sarah Wheatley. 

Municipalities are being given time to comply with water flow rules, a spokesperson for the department said.

Wheatley said she is "disappointed" and would like the wording changed before the act is finalized. 

'Recommending some changes'

"For the consultation on the draft, we would be recommending some changes so that it's clear in the act that any large-scale extraction by a municipality that's exceeding the limits would only be temporary," said Wheatley. 

There were efforts last August to save fish from low water levels in the Winter River. (CBC)

Timelines on compliance for municipalities will likely be included in regulations that will be drafted after the law is passed — a process that usually takes about a year, the provincial spokesperson said. 

But Wheatley wants more solid wording contained in the act itself, saying regulations are too easy to change. 

Other areas in P.E.I. do face large-scale water extraction, she noted, but Winter River is the most highly-affected area, in which large sections of streams now dry up annually. 

The growing city of Charlottetown with increasing water needs means the city will need to start looking at new water sources soon, she believes. 

With files from Laura Chapin