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Addressing over extraction of groundwater

February 21st,2024 | Valley Voices

By Bruce Stockfish

In last week’s Valley Voice (“A coming crisis?”, Feb. 14 edition), we explored some of the challenges La Pêche, Chelsea, and many other municipalities in Quebec currently face as a result of over-extraction of groundwater. Groundwater is essential for agriculture, industry and daily life, and decreasing levels of groundwater pose a significant threat to water security.

Good water governance is the key to dealing with these challenges, and current Quebec law governing groundwater is, in fact, extensive. It builds on the premise that groundwater is not private property but rather a public good for everyone to use. Both the province and municipalities regulate groundwater extraction accordingly. 

At the provincial level, ministerial authorizations are required for larger capacity projects where considerations can include impact of a project on other users. Regulations provide for the designation of groundwater protection zones to address groundwater extraction and quality, taking into account hydrogeological considerations such as aquifer vulnerability. 

Municipally, individual property owners need only obtain a permit under the Groundwater Catchment Regulation to install, modify, replace or seal a well, based primarily on water quality concerns. No consideration is given to impact on the water table, aquifers or adjoining properties. Much more needs to be done to protect groundwater availability and ensure sustainable water-management practices. 

Here are some additional measures to be considered:

  • Raise public awareness about the importance of groundwater, responsible water use and the potential consequences of over-extraction;
  • Encourage and enforce sustainable water conservation measures in residential, industrial and agricultural sectors;
  • Establish a robust groundwater monitoring network to continually assess groundwater levels and quality. Undertake regular hydrogeological assessments to help identify aquifer locations and levels, potential risks and appropriate management strategies; 
  • Implement source water protection plans and other measures to enhance aquifer recharge and restore wetlands;
  • Develop and better enforce land-use zoning regulations to consider groundwater protection, for example to address the vulnerability of aquifers before approving an urban development (The municipality of Sutton recently declined to approve a ski resort development – “We can’t close our eyes and keep developing when the water table is under pressure”, the mayor said, citing increasing concerns about suddenly dry residential wells);
  • Expand and enforce groundwater protection zones with specific regulations tailored to the hydrogeological characteristics of the area; 
  • Enforce stricter municipal permitting processes for individual well-drilling activities, and ensure that each drilling project is also evaluated for its potential impact on groundwater availability and aquifer integrity;
  • Require comprehensive environmental impact assessments for major projects that could impact groundwater resources. These assessments should evaluate potential risks and propose mitigation measures to safeguard groundwater quality and quantity;
  • Develop strategies to adapt to changing precipitation patterns, increased temperatures and other climate change-related factors that may affect groundwater availability.

By adopting a multifaceted and collaborative approach that integrates these measures, we can better ensure the sustainable availability of groundwater for Quebec residents, industry and ecosystems.

Bruce Stockfish is a guest author for H20 Wakefield. He lives in Wakefield.

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