Five Ideas for Engaging Watershed Stewards in Source Water Protection Planning

"The first barrier to the contamination of drinking water involves protecting the sources of drinking water."

- Justice Dennis O'Connor, Walkerton Inquiry 2002

By Don Richardson, Managing Partner, Shared Value Solutions Ltd.

Fourteen years ago, an outbreak of E.coli in the municipal water supply of Walkerton, Ontario made thousands sick and killed seven people. The Walkerton tragedy changed municipal thinking and approaches to protecting surface and groundwater supplies to ensure safe drinking water. The concept of “Source Water Protection” was born and new approaches to effective water governance emerged in Ontario and across Canada.

Municipal planners, elected officials, conservation authority staff and water treatment officials now take responsibility for Source Water Protection Plans under Ontario’s Clean Water Act, 2006. As a result of the Clean Water Act, communities in Ontario are required to develop source water protection plans in order to protect their municipal sources of drinking water. These plans identify risks to local drinking water sources and develop strategies to reduce or eliminate these risks. Each drinking water source protection plan will develop understanding of water quantity, quality, processes, threats and possible solutions for the watersheds in the region using an interdisciplinary approach involving multiple watershed actors, interested parties and watershed stewards.

Municipalities must now consider relationships and activities across watersheds, not just within municipal boundaries. This means finding new ways to work together with partners and watershed stewards that may never have come together to collaborate on land use planning matters. Much of the work of developing source water protection plans falls to municipal planners to convene, engage and consult with other watershed stewards of all shapes and sizes: residents, other municipalities, conservation authorities, property owners, farmers, industry, health officials, community groups, First Nation communities, and many others.

Here are five ideas for municipal planners to consider when engaging watershed stewards in source water protection planning:

  1. See the world through a watershed lens. Because threats to drinking water are being addressed on an ecologically significant scale of the watershed, this represents an entirely new process for some municipalities, who may own the water system, or may be responsible for planning, or both, or neither, and have never had to systematically consider the implications of their decisions on the drinking water of others, or vice versa. From a day-to-day operational point of view, however, this may represent a big departure from day-to-day local-constituent lens for some municipalities. From a hydrological perspective and a watershed lens, it is a natural fit to involve conservation authorities and First Nations, whose land-use perspectives are based on watersheds. It’s also important to work collaboratively with a wider variety of parties with watershed interests, ranging from land owners to environmental stewardship organizations and agricultural organizations.
  2. Find common interests across watersheds. While municipalities have a long history of working together with conservation authorities and other parties at the watershed level, the process established under the Clean Water Act represents a new way for municipalities to work with conservation authorities, watershed residents and users, and First Nations. Common interests now include watersheds as a core geographic consideration in planning processes and the protection of drinking water sources across watersheds and groundwater recharge areas. Common interests may now also include biodiversity enhancement efforts, wetland protection, tree planting programs, aquifer research projects and overall watershed research programs.
  3. Identify diverse watershed mapping systems and data sources, including local and traditional knowledge. Municipal authorities are required to protect, improve or restore the quality and quantity of drinking water and must bring municipal Official Plans into compliance with new provincial policies that require detailed planning to protect drinking water sources. Source Water Protection Plans must identify water recharge and discharge areas, intake and well-head protection areas and take steps to ensure source drinking water protection. Much of this information comes from conservation authorities and their watershed mapping systems and data sources, but it's a good idea to look and engage beyond sources close at hand. Various environmental stewardship organizations are also important sources of watershed information and local knowledge. First Nations are emerging as important participants with additional sources of information and watershed knowledge, including traditional knowledge.
  4. Think beyond municipal boundaries. Recognize that watershed stewards are very likely beyond municipal boundaries. The best way to protect sources of water is on a watershed basis because water flows across traditional boundaries, such as towns and cities. Watershed stewards can include farm organizations, environmental groups, trail associations, river and wetland system advisory groups and Aboriginal communities. Conservation authorities, and increasingly, First Nations, are key players in the coordination of the multi-year drinking water source protection planning processes and their networks and connections can bring important players to the planning table. Conservation authorities are watershed management agencies in Ontario that are organized on a watershed basis and are recognized for their watershed management knowledge, and connections to local communities. First Nations have thousands of years of history as watershed stewards and can have significant traditional knowledge and land use experience to apply to source water protection planning.
  5. Consider how best to consult with Aboriginal communities. A drinking water system serving, or planned to serve, a First Nation reserve can be included in the source protection planning process. This can take place if the Minister of Environment receives a copy of a resolution of the Band Council requesting that the system be included in the source protection planning process. At the time of this writing, there are three First Nations drinking water systems within the province that are included in the source water protection planning process (Rama First Nation, Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, Six Nations of the Grand River), but with the introduction of the First Nations Source Water Protection Toolkit, additional First Nations are likely to participate. More and more, municipal planners will be working alongside staff from First Nations in developing and implementing source water protection plans. The Provincial Policy Statement that came into force on April 30, 2014 explicitly states that it is important to consult with Aboriginal communities on planning matters which may affect their rights and interests, and planning authorities are encouraged to coordinate planning, such as source protection planning, with Aboriginal communities.

Municipalities are a key partner in the source protection process and now have responsibilities to work closely with other partners across watersheds. When key planning decisions are to be made, municipalities have a primary role of implementing the source protection plan once it’s in place, and ensuring that the interests of other parties are respected together with the imperatives of source water protection plans.

Ontario is complex and diverse in terms of geology, population, land uses and development pressures, with many, often conflicting water uses including drinking water supply, recreation, irrigation, agriculture, commercial and industrial uses, Aboriginal land uses, as well as ecosystem functions and needs. Source water protection plans and policies help ensure that we have enough clean drinking water to sustain all these activities now, and for future generations. Source water protection planning now provides key watershed players - Municipalities, Conservation Authorities and First Nations, and other watershed stewards – with new ways to work together around common interests and objectives.

Find out more: On June 16th, 17th and 18th, 2014, a variety of watershed stewards and people with source water protection technical and governance interests will gather at the University of Guelph for GroundSwell: Conference on Groundwater Innovation. Global water advocateAlexandra Cousteau will deliver the conference’s keynote address the evening of June 16th on the topic of knowing your watershed, accompanied by Lake Ontario Waterkeeper Founder and President, Mark Mattson.

Register for the conference, or buy a ticket for Cousteau’s keynote address here:

Alexandra Cousteau - National Geographic Explorer, RBC Blue Water Ambassador, founder of Blue Legacy and granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau: Keynote Speaker, Evening of June 16, 2014, University of Guelph


Click here for more information on GroundSwell: Conference on Groundwater Innovation:

Aim: to create shared value for groundwater communities, researchers and technical innovators.

Goal: to encourage learning, collaboration, and identification of new opportunities for groundwater innovation across sectors.

Participants: groundwater experts, accomplished scientists, researchers, practitioners, private sector suppliers, students, policy-makers from all levels of government and representatives from indigenous and rural communities.

Conference themes:

1. Social and Governance Innovations – including ways that people have been innovative in cross-community collaboration for water management, policies, and regulations, and lessons from First Nations and rural communities
2. Technological Innovations – showcasing innovative technology and processes both large and small
3. Ecosystem Resilience Innovations – understanding surface water, ground water interactions, sources and movement of contaminants and adapting to the uncertainty of climate change with limited resources require innovative approaches and are critical to long term resilience of communities


About Shared Value Solutions Ltd.

At Shared Value Solutions Ltd. we bring the best environmental peer review, strategic advice, community engagement and traditional knowledge, land use, and socio-economic research expertise to address your challenges and opportunities.

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