Wells will need to be protected from flooding as province looks to update half-century-old well water regulations
The provincial government is overhauling Manitoba’s groundwater regulations to better protect aquifers and groundwater.
Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Gord Mackintosh made the announcement last week, the first major review of the legislation in 50 years.
“I think Manitobans sometimes don’t recognize that there are well over a quarter-million people in the province who rely on well water and many of these are on our farms,” he said. “I think the greatest benefit of this legislation and the eight-point strategy will be for those who live on the farms of Manitoba.”
The proposed legislation includes new responsibilities for drillers, such as having liability insurance, and would govern the sealing of old wells.
Drillers would also need to be certified under the proposal, and standards for well construction will be updated. Wells will also require protection from flooding for the first time, to prevent the contamination of groundwater.
“Our main concern that is being addressed by the legislation, is to ensure that when wells are drilled they are properly set back from sources of contamination, such as septic fields,” said Mackintosh.
Jeff Bell, president of the Manitoba Well Water Association said the new legislation makes sense, adding his organization will continue to work with water stewardship as regulations are developed.
“We’ve needed changes for a long time,” said Bell, adding more certification is required to drive a forklift than drill for water in Manitoba.
But all that will change with new regulations.
The province also plans to update and modernize its groundwater and well data bases, while improving maps of groundwater resources.
Geothermal installers and drillers will also be affected by the proposed changes.
Landowners who drill their own wells using their own equipment won’t be subject to certification or licensing. However, those wells will have to meet new construction standards.
Existing wells will not be subject to new standards, but Mackintosh said an educational component of the strategy will address preventing contamination in older wells.
For those in the drilling industry, it’s a move in the right direction, but there may still be drawbacks to the changes.
“I think we’re pretty much in agreement with the intent of the act,” said Les Connor, general manager at Paddock Drilling Ltd. in Brandon. “But there is some concern that some of the provisions will have unintended consequences.”
One of those consequences could be higher costs, Connor said, pointing to changes around flowing wells that can be difficult and costly to bring under control.
“Previously there was more or less co-operation between drilling contractors and the province, and they would do whatever was necessary to bring those wells under control,” he said.
But under the proposed provisions, contractors assume sole responsibility for bringing flowing wells under control. Connor is unsure if insurance would cover such a cost.
He would also like to see the sealing of wells continue to be done under the expertise of well drillers. The proposed changes allow anyone to be trained to seal unused wells.
“Due to the consolidation of farming enterprises… there are historically a lot of yard sites that have been abandoned, and wells left to deteriorate,” he said, adding this can lead to groundwater contaminations. “So it is good that this is being addressed.”
Overall, Connor is optimistic these issues will be resolved as the legislation moves into the regulatory phase.
“The province has really shown interest in working with us on this,” said the general manager.
Tory Water Stewardship critic, Ian Wishart said he will be keeping an eye on how the legislative changes are implemented, but also thinks it’s time to update regulations around groundwater protection.
“There has been quite an evolution in well drilling, so yes, there is a need to look at the legislation,” he said. “And we’re prepared to work with the government to make sure we get something that works for all Manitobans.”
There are currently 35,000 active wells in Manitoba, and about 1,500 new wells are dug every year.