Québec’s National Assembly is considering a comprehensive new water law, National Assembly Bill 92, that affirms surface water and groundwater are part of the common heritage of the Québec nation and safe water is a human right. The new law would also regulate water use and withdrawals, protect and restore freshwater resources in light if climate change impacts, and implement the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement.
A bit of background to put this into context for Americans that only know Québec as the cheap alternative to a French vacation. Québec has jurisdiction of over 2,000 miles of the St. Lawrence River, part of the Great Lakes system and the outlet to the Atlantic Ocean. Québec and Ontario are parties to the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement, the non-binding international companion agreement to the Great Lakes compact. (There are political and legal obstacles to including the Canadian provinces in the Great Lakes compact, so the governors and provincial premiers developed a companion non-binding agreement to achieve the compact’s goals in Canada. See pages 445-448 of my law review article on the Great Lakes compact for more details).
Any concerns that Québec could be the legal weak link in Great Lakes water management should be addressed by this bill. It is basically a dream law for environmentalists and progressive water advocates. Here are the highlights:
- The bill begins by declaring that “both surface water and groundwater, in their natural state, are resources that are part of the common heritage of the Québec nation and may not be appropriated except under the conditions defined by law.”
- The bill then declares that “it is the right of every natural person to have access to water that is safe for drinking, cooking and personal hygiene.”
- The bill establishes three basic principles for water use and management: (1) the “user pay principle” that water users must bear the costs related to water use; (2) the “prevention principle” that every person has a duty to prevent or at least limit their damage to water resources; and (3) the “reparation principle” that every person must repair any damage they do to water resources. The Attorney General can enforce these principles through civil actions.
- The bill would create a new authorization scheme for regulating water withdrawals and use that balances existing water needs with environmental protection and restoration. Under the bill, authorizations for water use are limited to 10 years to allow adaptive management for changed conditions due to climate change, increased demand, and ecological restoration.
- The bill implements the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement, which is substantively identical to the Great Lakes compact. Thus, the bill would prohibit most interbasin diversions of Great Lakes – St. Lawrence River basin water and subject in-basin uses to the compact/agreement standards. And since Canada does not have an equivalent of a dormant commerce clause, the bill bans most transfers of water out of Québec.
I would pack the family and move to Montreal, except (1) I don’t speak French (and my wife does, which would put me at a tremendous marital disadvantage in Québec) and (2) it doesn’t seem like they need a water advocate like me there now anyway.