Water Act contentious at environment debate
The 4 provincial party leaders faced off for the first time at a forum focused on environmental issues
The Water Act, passed in the P.E.I. Legislature but not yet proclaimed, was one of the more divisive issues of the first leaders debate of the provincial election campaign.
More than 250 people packed into an auditorium at UPEI to listen to the leaders discuss environmental issues, at a forum organized by Island environmental groups.
Topics ranged from protecting soil quality, to watershed group funding, to increasing the number of protected areas on P.E.I., to promoting the Island's natural history.
The leaders were asked if they would put an immediate moratorium on the construction of new holding ponds for irrigation, and examine how existing ponds are being used.
Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker said the way to regulate holding ponds is to implement the Water Act right away. The act was passed in 2017, but has not yet come into effect.
"This government has had ample opportunity to do that," said Bevan-Baker.
"They are way behind on the implementation of the Water Act. It's a beautiful piece of legislation — I'm not suggesting otherwise — but until it gets proclaimed, those holding ponds are still in compliance
In response, Liberal Leader Wade MacLauchlan said holding ponds are "not always a bad thing," but that he agrees it's important for the act to be implemented.
"A Liberal government will proclaim the Water Act. And the Water Act will, precisely as he said, have a regime for permitting and controlling low capacity wells, which is exactly what the holding ponds are doing," MacLauchlan said.
"It will happen, and these will be controlled and monitored and regulated."
MacLauchlan also said government chose to start by only releasing some of the regulations based on the advise of public servants.
NDP Leader Joe Byrne spoke about the importance of legislation and proper enforcement when it comes to holding ponds. He also said he would like to see information made public.
"When people are building holding ponds and using them, let their neighbours know. Let people be able to go online, find out where those are happening," said Byrne.
"Sunlight is the best disinfectant."
That's an idea Progressive Conservative leader Dennis King said he was also in favour of. He said his government would release the regulations, and also extend the moratorium on high-capacity wells.
King said water has been one of the biggest issues he's heard about as he's gone door-to-door in recent months.
"Islanders are genuinely concerned about the future and the health of water," said King.
"They want action from any government."
The forum came one week after a report commissioned by Environment and Climate Change said that Canada is, on average, warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world.
The leaders were asked what measures they would take to transition to 100 per cent clean energy by 2030.
Byrne said facing the challenge of climate change requires a combination of both individual and collective action.
"Those individual actions that help us retrofit our homes, that can lower our own carbon footprint is one thing. But we also need a huge public investment to generate the new technologies, and we don't have a lot of time," Byrne said.
Byrne suggested using carbon tax revenue to invest in new technologies.
King said he believes there are people on P.E.I. who will have creative solutions, and he would like to work with them. He mentioned in particular sustainable design engineering students at UPEI.
"Islanders are great innovators. And the great motivator of innovation is necessity," King said.
"We have that need right now. As an Island province, we have to be more wary than most about the changing climate and the impacts that it will have in the future going forward. For all of us, for our kids, for our grandkids."
MacLauchlan said government needs to get Islanders on board to do what is necessary.
"The key action is to engage the entire public, to mobilize people, and indeed to build confidence around the work that we've been able to do," he said.
He noted the province has reduced its fuel oil consumption, and more Islanders are using solar energy and heat pumps.
He also said P.E.I. has the second lowest per capita carbon footprint among the provinces.
However, Peter Bevan-Baker took issue with that claim, pointing out that P.E.I. households have the highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita.
"Let's not pretend that we are a world leader here. We are not. We could do so much more," he said.
Bevan-Baker cited carbon pricing, use of solar panels, supports for electric vehicles, and updating the provincial transit strategy as some of the ways in which the Green Party would work to reduce carbon emissions.