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Georgian Bay on Lake Huron in Ontario is seen in this May 23 photo. Acting environmental commissioner Ellen Schwartzel says the government has made no progress on recovering its management costs for water supplied to many industries.

James MacDonald/Bloomberg

Ontario's environment watchdog wants to end the "free ride" for farmers, municipalities and industries that are given large water-taking permits.

Acting environmental commissioner Ellen Schwartzel said she was frustrated that the government has made no progress on recovering its management costs for water, despite years of reports, recommendations and political promises.

"We're really eager to see this move forward," Schwartzel said as she released her annual report. "Other provinces are likely ahead of us on this, so we really need to move on it."

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The province recovers only 1.2 per cent of the $16.2 million it spends each year on water quantity management programs.

"Not only do most industries get a total free ride, the few that do pay are charged only $3.71 for every million litres of water they take," said Schwartzel. "That works out to less than $10 for enough water to fill an Olympic-size pool."

Industries that face the small charge include bottled water producers, beverage manufacturers, fruit and vegetable canning or pickling facilities, ready-mix concrete producers, pesticide, fertilizer and other agriculture chemical manufacturers or inorganic chemical manufacturers.

However, Schwartzel said there were "outdated blanked exemptions" for agricultural, municipal and short-term water takings that should be eliminated.

The Ministry of the Environment needs to be more open when it issues water-taking permits because only one-quarter of them get posted on its website for public comment, added Schwartzel.

"Permits for municipal or agricultural uses, or ones that last for less than a year, are never shared with the public, and many of these are for high-risk uses," she said.

Environment Minister Glen Murray said he was preparing a plan to recover more of the water management costs, but warned the issue is not black-and-white.

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Large industrial users of water are often heavy polluters, and will face additional costs when the government introduces a cap-and-trade system next spring.

"You don't want to go forward precipitously and hit a company with the polluter-pay principle on carbon dioxide and carbon pollution at the same time you're dealing with fees for water," said Murray.

The environment minister suggested bottled water companies could face a jump in fees because the government will look at whether or not water taken is returned or permanently removed from the water table.

"Some of our larger industrial users that produce things treat that water and they return it back to the aquifer," said Murray. "If you're taking water and putting it in plastic bottles and selling it back at almost the price of gasoline, that water is not coming back."

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture said farmers use the latest technology to make sure they do not waste water, and pointed out that most of the rainwater they do use on crops is filtered and purified by the soil and returned to rivers, lakes and aquifers.

"In most of the cases, Ontario agriculture is irrigated by God, so I'm not too interested in paying that bill," said OFA president Don McCabe.

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The Association of Municipalities of Ontario warned any new provincial charge to towns and cities for water would be passed on to local taxpayers.

"Whatever happens gets put back on the property tax bill or back into the user fee charge for water," said AMO executive director Pat Vanini. "Municipal governments aren't in this for profit."

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said the government allows companies to "rip off our water," and called on the province to protect municipal and agricultural water users as it establishes the new fees.

"Let's start with charging the sand and gravel industry, let's start with charging the water bottling companies, let's start with charging golf courses a fair rate," said Schreiner.

The environmental commissioner's annual report also takes the Liberals to task for slashing the budget to buy environmentally sensitive lands from $5.1 million to just $1,000.

"One thousand dollars will not go very far in purchasing land in southern Ontario...which has among the highest number of species at risk anywhere in Canada," warned Schwartzel.

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