Evidence of meeting #55 for Environment and Sustainable Development in the 41st Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was data.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Darren Goetze  Executive Director, Water Quality Monitoring and Surveillance, Department of the Environment
John Moffet  Director General, Legislative and Regulatory Affairs, Department of the Environment
Julie Gelfand  Commissioner, Office of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development
Geneviève Béchard  Director General, Monitoring and Data Services Directorate, Department of the Environment
Andrew Ferguson  Principal, Office of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

May 12th, 2015 / 8:50 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Harold Albrecht

I'd like to call to order the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development. This is meeting number 55. Today, pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), we're studying the Canada Water Act annual report.

We have a number of witnesses with us today. From the Office of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, we have Julie Gelfand, commissioner; and Andrew Ferguson and James McKenzie, principals. From the Department of the Environment, we have John Moffet, director general; Geneviève Béchard, director general; Carolyne Blain, executive director; and executive director Darren Goetze. Did I pronounce that correctly?

8:50 a.m.

Darren Goetze Executive Director, Water Quality Monitoring and Surveillance, Department of the Environment

It's pretty close.

8:50 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Harold Albrecht

My understanding is that we'll have two opening statements, one from John Moffet, director general, legislative and regulatory affairs at Environment Canada; and then one from Julie Gelfand, commissioner. We'll begin with Mr. Moffet.

Mr. Moffet, please give your 10-minute opening statement. Then we'll have Ms. Gelfand's opening statement and proceed to questions from the members.

Welcome.

8:50 a.m.

John Moffet Director General, Legislative and Regulatory Affairs, Department of the Environment

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Good morning to all the committee members. We are pleased to be here.

We're very happy to be here.

I will take you briefly through a summary of the department's water-related activities, and then of course we'd be happy to answer questions on any of the topics. Before I start I'll just explain why I'm here with a number of colleagues.

Geneviève is from the meteorological services. Among many other things, including 100% accurate weather reports, they supervise most of our water monitoring activities, because of course they are closely related to the weather cycle. Any questions on water monitoring, Geneviève would be happy to answer.

Darren is from our science and technology branch. He has been heavily involved in reforming the department's water quality monitoring activities and oversees our water science activities. Therefore, he can answer questions on water quality monitoring and science.

Carolyne manages the pollution prevention provisions in the Fisheries Act, including three of the most significant regulations we have that address water quality related to metal mining, pulp and paper, and wastewater effluent.

In moving through the deck, I'll start with a point that I'm sure you've all been told over and over again, that environmental governance in Canada is shared. That is nowhere more true than with respect to water, where the responsibilities for water quality protection, water quantity monitoring, water allocation, and watershed protection are shared among all levels of government in Canada. Provinces, including the Yukon since 2003 and the Northwest Territories since last year, are the primary managers of most aspects of water, but the federal government has some direct responsibilities and implements a number of activities jointly with the provinces and territories.

The next slide lists a number of examples that I won't go into but that I'd be happy to answer questions about. They're examples of joint initiatives that we operate with one or more provinces and, in some cases of course, with our friends to the south.

The next slide, then—

8:50 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Harold Albrecht

Just for clarification, is that page 4 or page 3?

8:50 a.m.

Director General, Legislative and Regulatory Affairs, Department of the Environment

John Moffet

I'm sorry; it was page 4.

With slide 5, you'll have to excuse me. I'm trained as a lawyer, so there has to be a legal slide in every deck I present—and a complicated legal slide, of course.

This is to illustrate the simple point that even within the federal government, responsibility for water management is shared widely among departments. Of course, the Department of Transport looks after many of the impacts on water from marine transportation. Aboriginal Affairs has direct responsibility over issues in the north and issues on reserves, for example. Agriculture Canada has a number of responsibilities. The Department of Natural Resources has extensive scientific and technological activities related to various aspects of the environment, including water. Then, even within the Department of the Environment we have numerous statutes in addition to the Canada Water Act that directly or indirectly address water, and I'll touch on some of them in the presentation

Slide 6 then gives you an overview of the types of activities we undertake, either alone or in partnership. We work on water quality in terms of both monitoring, basic science, and direct protection. We do a lot of monitoring of water quantity and science. We're also involved jointly with provinces and in some cases with the U.S. in directly managing water flow for rivers that flow either from one province to another or across the border. Through the Canadian environmental sustainability indicators we provide information to Canadians about water quantity and water quality.

The remaining slides provide a little more detail on each of those activities. If you look at slide 7, we provide an example of a couple of the freshwater quality indicators that the CESI—the Canadian environmental sustainability indicators program—generates.

The main observation about water quality in Canada is that water quality is generally fair to good, but of course there are risks that which we need to pay attention to and that need to be managed on an ongoing basis. Over the last decade we've seen a clear increase in the percentage of sites we monitor that are rated good or excellent, and we've seen a decline in sites that are rated poor or marginal. This is important both for ecosystem health and, of course, human health.

In terms of impacts on water quality, there is of course a variety of natural factors and many anthropogenic factors, in terms of urban impacts, industrial impacts, and agricultural impacts, that affect the quality of water in rivers and lakes, for example by increasing concentrations of nutrients, sediments, pesticides, toxic substances, pharmaceuticals, and just basic disruption of water flow.

Of course, there are specific indicators, but the main areas of concern would be the St. Lawrence, the Lake Winnipeg basin, and the Great Lakes as a whole, which have relatively high risks of water quality impairment due to human activities.

Slide 8 illustrates that we conduct water quality monitoring at more than 500 sites in Canada. Some of these sites we operate exclusively, but many we operate jointly with the provinces, based on memoranda of understanding that we have, currently with six provinces. Of course, the data is all available, and the goal is to provide data and analysis to inform decision makers not just at the federal government but at all levels of government, and also individual Canadians.

The next slide is a very brief overview of some of the department's activities to manage water pollution. Again I'd emphasize that the responsibility for managing water pollution is shared with the provinces, including the municipalities. To give a few examples, the Fisheries Act, which is primarily administered by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, includes a provision that prohibits the deposit of what are called deleterious substances in waters frequented by fish. That is a long-standing and of course very powerful pollution prevention provision.

It works the opposite of the way most environmental statutes work. There's a prohibition in place, and then the prohibition is lifted by means of regulations. Whereas in most cases, of course, when we want to restrict something we impose a regulation, in this case the regulation lifts the prohibition and establishes standards. We have, as I mentioned earlier, a number of regulations, including regulations for effluent from metal mining, pulp and paper, and wastewater facilities.

The Migratory Birds Convention Act includes a very similar and similarly old prohibition on the deposit of deleterious substances in areas frequented by migratory birds. A few years ago you would have heard about a conviction of one of the oil sands companies related to one of its tailings ponds. That was a prosecution for a violation of this prohibition, in which the water was in such a condition that the migratory birds that landed on it were damaged. That's a little-known provision that we rely on fairly regularly.

Then, under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act we have a number of provisions and activities that directly affect and manage water quality. The oceans disposal provisions prohibit the dumping of waste at sea in almost every circumstance, other than a very small list of relatively inert substances, and even then only when the proponent can demonstrate that there's no better way to dispose of the substance.

We have numerous regulations that limit the toxic content of products or of emissions from industrial and commercial activities, many of which limit water pollution.

The authority to regulate nutrient content was originally in the Canada Water Act, but when the Canadian Environmental Protection Act was created in 1988, that authority was moved to CEPA.

Then, of course, we have authority to require emergency planning—

I apologize; I've taken a little longer than expected.

9 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Harold Albrecht

We'll give you one minute to wrap up.

9 a.m.

Director General, Legislative and Regulatory Affairs, Department of the Environment

John Moffet

We also conduct a number of extensive water quantity monitoring activities. As shown in slides 10 and 12, we have about 2,800 sites that measure water levels and stream flow. About half of those provide data in real time. The indicator on slide 10 refers to water quantity in terms of normal, which is a reflection—and I'll let Geneviève provide more detail, if you're interested—essentially, as I understand it, of average flows between 1981 and 2010. In other words, if there's a significant variation, then we would describe it as low, or if it's higher, then it's high. So there's no standard that you look for; it's more looking to see whether there is a big change.

I've referred to the boards that we operate in conjunction with the provinces and the United States—the provinces through MOUs, and the United States through the Boundary Waters Treaty, which is the foundation statute for the International Joint Commission. The IJC boards are illustrated on slide 15, and we can provide more detail on those, if you're interested.

The final point I'll make is the one on slide 17, that all of this work is underpinned by an extensive research program that is undertaken at Environment Canada but also undertaken collaboratively with the academic community and with provinces and territories and with colleagues in the United States.

9 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Harold Albrecht

Thank you very much, Mr. Moffet.

We'll move now to Ms. Julie Gelfand, Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development.

Welcome, Julie.

9 a.m.

Julie Gelfand Commissioner, Office of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

Mr. Chair, thank you for this opportunity to contribute to your committee's review of the Canada Water Act annual report for April 2013 to March 2014. Joining me today are Jim McKenzie and Andrew Ferguson, principals with our office.

Fresh water is essential to the health of ecosystems, and in turn, to the well-being of Canadians, who count on fresh water for just about every aspect of their lives. Fresh water also plays an important role in economic and industrial activities in Canada, from the production of goods and services, to recreation and tourism.

But Canada faces water management challenges. The quality and quantity of its water resources are under pressure from a range of sources, including urban runoff and sewage, agriculture, and industrial activities. Other long-term threats include population growth, economic development, climate change and scarce supplies of fresh water in certain parts of the country.

In 2010, we examined Environment Canada's management of national programs to monitor water quality and quantity—some of the programs underlying the report being considered by this committee. At that time, we found that Environment Canada was not adequately monitoring Canada's surface water resources. We have not assessed the progress the department has made since 2010 and so cannot comment on any development or improvements in Environment Canada's fresh water monitoring program that may have occurred since our audit.

In 2010, we found that Environment Canada had not defined the extent of its water monitoring responsibilities, particularly on federal lands such as First Nations reserves, Canadian Forces bases, national parks and national wildlife areas.

We also found that the department had not located its monitoring stations based on an assessment of risks to water quality and quantity. In its 2012-13 Canada Water Act annual report, Environment Canada did indicate that it had implemented a risk-based approach in response to our recommendations. However, we are not able to provide assurance to the committee, as we have not done a follow-up audit on this topic.

We also found that from 2004 to 2009, Environment Canada had not submitted annual reports to Parliament as required under the Canada Water Act. We note that in the past few years, this reporting has improved.

I would now like to discuss the recent findings from our fall 2014 audit of the joint Canada-Alberta implementation plan for oil sands monitoring, another topic that's covered in the 2013-14 Canada Water Act annual report.

ln 2010 and 2011, the governments of Canada and Alberta commissioned independent reviews of the adequacy of oil sands monitoring, prompted by growing concerns about the environmental impacts of the oil sands. The reviews identified significant shortcomings in oil sands monitoring, including the monitoring of water quality. ln early 2012, the governments of Canada and Alberta committed to establishing a joint monitoring program for the oil sands and released the joint Canada-Alberta implementation plan for oil sands monitoring what many people call the JOSM.

ln the audit we reported on in the fall of 2014, we examined whether Environment Canada had implemented its responsibilities under the joint plan according to established timelines and budgets and the objectives and approaches set out in the plan. At that time we found that 60% of Environment Canada's expenditures were allocated for water monitoring projects under the joint plan. The work plans related to monitoring of air, water, and biodiversity identified Environment Canada's responsibilities and included budgets and timelines for deliverables. This is important.

ln light of the complexity and costs associated with establishing a comprehensive monitoring program for the oil sands, concrete work plans make it more likely that the program will achieve its objectives. At that time, we examined nine monitoring projects in detail, including three water monitoring projects led by Environment Canada, and found that most were being implemented according to schedule.

Integrating the information resulting from the separate monitoring of activities across air, water, and biodiversity is also important for ensuring the most complete picture of environmental effects possible. We found that Environment Canada was taking initial steps to integrate the results of monitoring information for two substances: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and mercury. We also found, however, that further efforts were needed to meet commitments to engage stakeholders, including first nations and Métis, and to incorporate traditional ecological knowledge into Environment Canada's monitoring activities. We also found that the department's role in oil sands monitoring post-March 2015 was unclear.

ln my view, these findings from our work on oil sands monitoring highlight the importance of well-designed water monitoring systems. ln a 2011 study report, we examined some of the key characteristics of good environmental monitoring systems and noted some questions that the members of this committee may wish to consider and pose to the other witnesses. The questions include the following.

What monitoring is required to determine whether environmental legislation is working as intended? Is that monitoring in place? What environmental components or geographic regions are not being monitored now? What are the consequences of these gaps? What steps have been taken to ensure accountability, independence, and the continuity of funding for monitoring systems? Finally, how does Environment Canada know if the monitoring data is meeting user needs?

Mr. Chair, this concludes my opening remarks. We would be pleased to answer any questions the committee may have.

Thank you. Merci.

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Harold Albrecht

Thank you very much, Ms. Gelfand.

We'll move now to our opening round of questions, and I would ask our committee members to please identify who you are asking your question of, and I will facilitate timely responses.

We'll begin with Mr. Carrie for seven minutes.

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

Colin Carrie Conservative Oshawa, ON

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

I think I'll start off with Mr. Moffet and take up on what the environment commissioner mentioned about current legislation.

How has the implementation of the Canada Water Act assisted the Department of the Environment in responding to pressing ecological concerns and in being more proactive in targeting potential future issues?

My secondary question is, are there any gaps in the current legislation that may need to be addressed in the future to further allow the department to deal effectively with those challenges that are not addressed by the Canada Water Act?

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Harold Albrecht

Mr. Moffet, feel free to direct the question to one of your officials if that's helpful.

9:10 a.m.

Director General, Legislative and Regulatory Affairs, Department of the Environment

John Moffet

Well, I'll provide a preliminary answer, and if my colleagues want to jump in or kick me, I'm sure we'll find out.

Let me just step back a bit and explain that the Canada Water Act provides us with broad authority to undertake research and monitoring, either on our own or—and importantly, jointly—with the provinces, both on water quality and on water monitoring.

So I think I would answer the question by going to the final slide that I presented. That is to say that all of our work on water is underpinned by research and monitoring. Perhaps more importantly, the research and monitoring that we do is intended not just to inform interventions by the Government of Canada but to inform decision making by all levels of government. The Canada Water Act provides us with legislative authority that we need in order to generate real-time data and trend data with respect to water quality and water monitoring.

It, together with the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and the Department of the Environment Act, provides us with broad authority to undertake a wide range of research; to improve our ability to undertake monitoring; to improve our ability to understand what's happening in the water; and to share that information with our regulatory colleagues within the department, but also with decision-makers at other levels of government who intervene in protecting and making decisions about water flow and water quality.

That's a broad answer, hopefully on point with respect to the authorities under the Canada Water Act.

Your question about legislative authority is a much broader question. I would assert that we have extensive authority to undertake scientific activities and monitoring on a range of water-related activities. The more difficult question has to do with the allocation of responsibilities for directly intervening in managing water quality. For water quantity, clearly the federal government's authority is restricted to transboundary waters, and so we have a number of statutes that address transboundary waters and give us transboundary authorities.

Water quality is a matter that is of course not written in the Constitution, but for which we have very broad authority under the Fisheries Act and under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act to intervene at a national level with respect to significant water pollution-related activities. Then similarly, provinces have extensive authority to address water pollution as well.

Notwithstanding that I'm a lawyer and love to talk about law reform, I think the real issue has to do with the way in which the relevant jurisdictions interact and the way the composite of various authorities at all levels interacts to protect water quantity and water quality.

9:15 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Harold Albrecht

All right.

Does anybody else want to add to that?

9:15 a.m.

Geneviève Béchard Director General, Monitoring and Data Services Directorate, Department of the Environment

Let me add, maybe simply to illustrate, that the act was passed in 1970, and in 1975 we signed agreements with the provinces to create the national hydrometric program, which we're working together in to blend the 2,800 monitoring sites. It's a concrete result of the Canada Water Act's being passed.

9:15 a.m.

Conservative

Colin Carrie Conservative Oshawa, ON

All right.

Maybe I can ask a couple of questions on the ground as well.

Mr. Moffet, you're a lawyer and you like to talk about legislation. I'm a politician and I like to talk about things that people bring up to me.

About the water quantity, the Great Lakes in the last few years have frozen over quite significantly, and there have been reports that water levels are higher than they've been in a while. Is this something that you're observing? Are the water levels coming back to historic levels? If you're starting to see this, are there any challenges with that change?

9:15 a.m.

Director General, Monitoring and Data Services Directorate, Department of the Environment

Geneviève Béchard

The short answer is that we are looking at the trends. We started monitoring in 1908. The trends have varied. It is a bit different, as you walk through the Great Lakes, but we actually hit a record low in 2013, if you remember January 2013 in Michigan-Huron, and that has rebounded. When looking at the Great Lakes, we work closely, through the IJC, with the U.S. in monitoring; we do it together. The models are being used to look at trends.

The biggest significant factor for water levels is precipitation. The amount of rain and snow that we get is what most affects the actual water levels. What the trends are I think depends on where you are in the Great Lakes. Right now, in the last two years, there has been a lot of snow and rain, so the water levels have gone up in Michigan-Huron, but they are lower in the southern part. So it varies over time.

9:15 a.m.

Conservative

Colin Carrie Conservative Oshawa, ON

Another question I get from my constituents, coming from Oshawa—we're right on the lake—

9:15 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Harold Albrecht

I'm sorry, Mr. Carrie, you may have to wait for your next round for that question.

9:15 a.m.

Conservative

Colin Carrie Conservative Oshawa, ON

All right.

9:15 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Harold Albrecht

I'm sorry about that.

We'll move now to Ms. Leslie for seven minutes.

9:15 a.m.

NDP

Megan Leslie NDP Halifax, NS

Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thanks to all the witnesses. It's nice to see you here. We're pleased to be able to take on this two-day study.

My first question is for the representatives of Environment Canada. As you probably know, we recently passed a motion in the House of Commons concerning microbeads. As the member of Parliament for Halifax, I'm often asked what the situation is in the Halifax Harbour. I've looked for reports. I've seen reports about the west coast, the Great Lakes, and the St. Lawrence Seaway, but I haven't found anything about the east coast or about Halifax Harbour.

Is Environment Canada monitoring pollution by microbeads? If you are, where exactly are you monitoring, and what are you seeing?

9:15 a.m.

Director General, Legislative and Regulatory Affairs, Department of the Environment

John Moffet

I can provide you with a preliminary answer. If you want more detail, we'd be happy to follow up. We can give you a written submission, if you want, describing the precise parameters of the study.

The brief answer is that under the chemicals management plan, Environment Canada jointly with Health Canada has initiated a scientific review to assess the effects on the environment of microbeads in consumer products. We will also be discussing the issue of microbeads with the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment this summer to initiate broader joint work on microbeads. We've also done some literature review so that we understand the various sources of microbeads, which include land-based sources and marine sources. Then, of course, we've had to look at the various jurisdictional authorities that could be used, if needed, to control microbeads in the future.

Again, in terms of more precise parameters we'd have to get back to you, and we'd be happy to do that.

9:20 a.m.

NDP

Megan Leslie NDP Halifax, NS

That would be wonderful. Thanks very much.

Madame Gelfand, thank you so much for the helpful list of questions to think about. It's very useful, because we're not experts here. In theory, this is the House of Commons, the house of the common people, so I appreciate your spelling this out.

Before I get to these questions, though, in paragraph 14 of your written comments you talk about the importance of well-designed water monitoring systems.

Can you help us understand whether in your work you've seen best practices? When you're talking about well-designed water monitoring systems, what should we be looking for? What kinds of systems have worked or what specific designs help with this?