Yesterday was World Rivers Day, a day to promote the stewardship and health of our rivers. In Ontario, the government is responsible for protecting the Oak Ridges Moraine, a 160-kilometre ridge of sand and gravel hills running along the northern part of the Greater Toronto Area, for its value to Ontarians: providing headwaters to 65 river systems, homes for more than 70 threatened and endangered species and drinking water for more than 250,000 people.

Every day, however, the Ontario government allows millions of litres of water to be pumped from the Moraine to water golf courses, sort sand and gravel, keep water bottling companies in business and, during the winter, to make snow. These industrial and commercial activities threaten a sensitive ecosystem that naturally filters the water many Ontarians get from their taps.

This week, Ecojustice and Earthroots are launching three infographics that set out the challenges, symptoms and solutions to this problem. We wanted to show Ontarians how the government is managing its Permit to Take Water program on the Oak Ridges Moraine.

A Permit to Take Water is required for most activities that pump more than 50,000 litres per day.

Moraine Drain
Today’s infographic (scroll down to end of post to view it) looks at the trouble we encountered during our investigation and outlines the ongoing threat.

These infographics build on two previous reports, 2008’s Ontario’s Water Hazard and 2012’s Protecting Greenbelt Wetlands: How effective is policy? In both reports, we found a lack of connection between the nature and water protection goals in specific land use laws and the operation of the water management program. Based on our findings in 2008, we sought to expand our analysis to include all commercial, industrial and municipal water users across the entire Moraine.

Who’s draining the Moraine?
We found that it’s near impossible for the public to obtain the information needed to determine the cumulative impact of water pumping on their sources of clean and safe drinking water. In August 2009, we asked the Ministry of the Environment for information about all the existing commercial, industrial and municipal ground water takers across the Moraine. It took 17 months for the ministry to fulfill our request. And the information the ministry provided was in a format that made analysis difficult. We were at the first step in our investigation and already we’d reached a roadblock.

We wanted to know if there were clusters of permits and, if there were, we intended to ask for more information about how those clusters might affect the Moraine and those who rely on the Moraine for their drinking water. Given the difficulties in obtaining other data, we didn’t ask the government for any more information. Instead, we learned that some information is available through Land Information Ontario, an online data warehouse. I could tell you more about the information gathering exercise, but that’s another story.

Analyzing the Permit to Take Water program
We were limited in what we could do to determine the impact of water pumping across the Moraine. We analyzed all the permit information and had our cartographer create several maps (see additional resources below). We divided the information to determine the large (sources greater than 500,000 litres-per-day) and highly consumptive (as defined by governments in the United States and Canada) users of water. The combined total of all the large municipal and communal water supplies are outweighed by industrial, commercial and other large and highly consumptive uses by a factor of 2.8.

For every litre of your Moraine community’s water supply, 2.8 litres goes to other uses such as golf courses, aggregate washing, bottled water and snow making.

There is no legal mechanism to determine whether drinking water supplies should be considered of higher importance than other large and highly consumptive uses.

Our vision
We believe that more can be and should be done to protect the Oak Ridges Moraine. The lack of easily accessible information and the lack of attention being given to the total impact of all the water pumping on the Moraine threatens Ontarians’ access to safe and clean drinking water.

We believe that Ontarians have a right to clean water and that it is the role of government to protect that resource.