Federal rules governing irrigation channels, drainage ditches and field drains are expected to be loosened as the government moves to draw a new legal line between fish habitat and other bodies of water.
Federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield on Tuesday announced the government's plans to amend the Fisheries Act and related policy that currently governs "all bodies of water where fish live -- or could live."
Under the current regulatory regime, the government said, water bodies such as drainage ditches, man-made reservoirs and irrigation channels are indiscriminately subject to the same rules and guidelines as rivers, lakes, and oceans that support fish and local fisheries.
"That does not make sense to us, and frankly we don't think it makes sense to the majority of Canadians," Ashfield said.
The government, he said, has heard of "farmers being prevented from cleaning out their irrigation channels, municipalities being delayed in repairing bridge supports and routine maintenance of drainage ditches, businesses not being allowed to clear flooded fields and campsites, and cottage owners prohibited from keeping up their properties -- all because of the existing rules."
From the perspective of landowners and municipalities, the proposed new measures are expected to provide "regulatory certainty as to whether and how the fisheries protection provisions apply to them," the government said.
The new regulatory regime is expected to move Fisheries and Oceans Canada "away from reviewing every activity that landowners may undertake."
Rather, the government said, its proposed changes are expected to focus the department's protection efforts on recreational, commercial and Aboriginal fisheries and will draw a legal distinction between "vital waterways that support Canada's fisheries, and unproductive bodies of water."
The amendments and policy changes, the government said, will focus on identifying and managing "real threats to the fisheries, including direct impacts to fish, habitat destruction, and aquatic invasive species."
The rules are also expected to give a federal fisheries minister the tools to establish "new, clear and accessible guidelines for Canadians to follow for projects in or near water."
For example, the government said, "regulatory standards for routine, low-risk projects such as building a boat launch or a dock at the cottage do not exist at this time."
The new rules are also expected to allow the fisheries ministry to "identify ecologically sensitive areas that require enhanced protection," as opposed to the current regulatory regime, in which "all areas are treated indiscriminately under the law."
The government emphasized that waterways "will continue to be protected from pollution as they have in the past" and that its planned changes "would provide additional clarity around the management of deleterious substances."
Ashfield, over the "coming weeks and months," is expected to consult with the provinces, Aboriginal groups and stakeholders such as conservation groups, anglers, landowners and municipalities to develop the new regulatory and policy framework.
The federal New Democrats on Tuesday ripped the government's proposals, warning the changes could "seriously weaken environmental oversights in the context of major development projects, such as those involving oil and gas."
"Weakening provisions to protect fish habitat will also weaken environmental reviews," Fin Donnelly, the NDP's deputy fisheries critic for the West Coast, said in a release.
Such proposals, he said, would make it "easier for the Conservatives to fast-track projects like pipelines without strong environmental oversight."
"The Conservatives are demonstrating that the long-term survival of the ecosystems that support the fisheries is not important to them," Phil Toone, deputy NDP fisheries critic for the East Coast, said in the same release.