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Water Watchers call proposed cuts to conservation authorities 'reprehensible'

They have also put forth eight recommendations to the government
flood stock sandbags

This spring, we experienced flooding that impacted thousands of Ontarians, forcing them out of their homes and onto the streets with their neighbours sandbagging desperately to protect themselves and their homes.

The proposal to limit conservation authorities’ ability to deliver their programs and services is reprehensible.

We know that in the coming years, floods will become more frequent and more severe, costing our province billions and risking human life. The above changes are a step in the wrong direction. If the province is serious about protecting people and property from the hazards of flooding, they will respect conservation authorities in their delivery of programs and services in an IWM approach.

Conservation authorities are the only agencies in Ontario that can protect us from the severe impacts of flooding and advance watershed health to the benefit of our society, economy and environment. For this reason, the recent announcement to cut provincial transfer payments for flood hazard mitigation to conservation authorities is alarming.

Conservation authorities need stable and adequate funding to deliver on their mandate regardless of the changes proposed in this registry notice or in Bill 108, Schedule 2. The reduction in Ontario’s transfer payments to conservation authorities for flood mitigation is wholly inconsistent with the proposed changes, or their claims to want to prioritize the protection of people and property.

Wellington Water Watchers supports the recommendations put forward by the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) and Environmental Defence in their submissions for Environmental Registry of Ontario postings #013-5018 (including Schedule 2, Bill 108) and #013-4992, that was endorsed by 11 individuals and 18 organizations:”

  • Recommendation One: Delay enacting Bill 108, Schedule 2 until fulsome and meaningful public consultations, aimed at ensuring that the proposed budgetary, legislative, and any  
  • Recommendation Two: Ensure that legislative amendments to the Conservation Authorities Act do not hamper or limit the ability of conservation authorities to develop and deliver watershed-wide programs and services aimed at Ontario’s climate resilience.
  • Recommendation Three: Provide additional details related to the timing of bringing various new provisions into force, as well as the content and development of future regulation(s).
  • Recommendation Four: Provide adequate resources for conservation authorities to achieve the goal of climate resilience across Ontario’s watersheds.
  • Recommendation Five: Conservation authorities’ five tests for development proposals must remain to include the consideration of wetlands and watercourses.
  • Recommendation Six: Conservation authorities’ mandate must reflect their ability to implement effective integrated watershed management in a holistic way through their existing programs and services.
  • Recommendation Seven: There should be no, so called “low-risk”, developments exempted from development regulations and the permitting process.
  • Recommendation Eight: Adopt a stable funding model to allow conservation authorities to fully exercise their development oversight function independently.

Conservation authorities are the only agency in Ontario that hold deep expertise in watershed features and health. This expertise has been acquired through decades of extensive stewardship, monitoring, research, mapping and on-the-ground contact with the watershed resources and stakeholders in the regions in which they operate.

There is no other agency, Ministry, or entity in Ontario with the same comprehensive understanding of integrated watershed management (IWM).

The proposed changes will severely limit conservation authorities’ ability to achieve effective IWM in order to prevent hazards from flooding, and achieve sustainable outcomes for watershed health in the province.

The consequences of these changes include severed watershed management, increased risk of flooding, loss of coordination among stakeholders and agencies, along with severe degradation of ecological health and water quality in our headwaters, lakes, rivers, and wetlands of the Great Lakes basin.

IWM is based on the perception of water as an integral part of the ecosystem, a natural resource and social and economic good. IWM provides direction to human activities in order to protect and rehabilitate water, the aquatic and terrestrial health and the social and economic resources and assets in the watershed.

Through an IWM model, conservation authorities are able to achieve coordinated development and management of water and land resources that protects people and property, as well as the health of ecosystems upon which our societies and economies rely.

Conservation authorities provide services and deliver programs in their regions in order to achieve these goals of protecting people and property. Effective IWM includes not only flood mapping, mitigation and hazard protection but must also include programs and services such as wetland protection, climate change mitigation, biodiversity health and land use planning.

Further, in his Part Two Report of the Walkerton Inquiry, the Honourable Dennis O’Connor stressed the need to have a comprehensive approach to watershed management:

Because drinking water source protection is one aspect of the broader subject of watershed management, it makes the most sense in the context of an overall watershed management plan. In this report, I restrict my recommendations to those aspects of watershed management that I think are necessary to protect drinking water sources. However, I want to emphasize that a comprehensive approach is needed and should be adopted by the Province. Source protection plans should be a subset of broader watershed management (emphasis added).3 

The Ministry’s proposal to “further define” conservation authority jurisdiction, and amend or add definitions for “wetland”, “watercourse”, “pollution”, “interference and conservation of land” will severely limit conservation authorities’ ability to carry out their mandate in protecting people and property through IWM. The existing five tests of pollution and conservation under existing development regulation are necessary in order to holistically evaluate the risk a development poses to the watershed and to

people and property. The proposed changes would severely limit or eliminate conservation authorities’ role in environmental protection and IWM. By association, this will further limit their ability to focus on protected lands and natural hazards, as the framework for evaluation would be left severed and unclear.

Further to this, we also note that the Ministry’s proposal to “better align” the definitions of wetlands, watercourses and pollution “with other provincial policy” is extremely problematic. It is impossible to derive definitions or standards that align with provincial

policy, because Ontario currently lacks any coherent watershed management, flood  protection, pollution or environmental management regulation for wetlands and  watercourses outside of those in the Conservation Authorities Act. The most recent Ontario strategy on wetlands published in 2017 is the only other provincial proposal on wetland management, and it states quite clearly that a landscape-based, ecosystem management and IWM approach must be included in any regulatory regime that is to be effective4.

Limiting the scope of conservation authorities in Ontario, as proposed by this notice and in Bill 108, Schedule 2 is counterproductive to the goal of protecting people and property from flood hazard and mitigation.

Holistic and well implemented IWM requires a multi-disciplinary approach that includes in depth on-the-ground knowledge of watershed features including wetlands and ecosystem services. The only agencies with this knowledge in Ontario are conservation authorities. Therefore, in order to achieve the best outcomes for watershed health and for the protection of people and property, the full mandate of conservation authorities to implement IWM must be respected.

The proposal to exempt “low-risk” developments from requiring a permit subject to the Drainage Act and Conservation Authorities Act is highly concerning. The three proposed changes to allow these exemptions will result in increased risk to the watershed to flooding hazards and other impacts.

The entire purpose of the permitting process is to evaluate the level of risk and determine if the criteria for “low-risk” have been met. Without the permitting process, there is no way to determine with certainty if a proposed development is truly low-risk to the watershed and therefore to people and property.

Risks posed by a development are unique and site-specific; therefore the proper permitting evaluations must be conducted in order to know if the activity poses a risk in that specific circumstance and location. When an activity is found to have no negative impacts, it will be eligible for the permit. Therefore, there is no need for an exemption as the process already allows for a low-risk development to proceed when and only when it is proven not to have negative impacts.

By allowing exemptions without an evaluation of risk, there would be a severe reduction of oversight and allow blanket authorizations to activities that could have unknown risks to environment and to people and property. Using approximations are impossible to justify with scientific evidence when a development is not properly assessed and reviewed.

In fact, these proposed changes run contrary to the government’s own goals of focusing on the protection of people and property. Without a permitting process, a seemingly low-risk development could proceed and contribute to the exact flooding hazards that the Conservation Authorities are tasked to prevent. These changes will also render permitting more ambiguous, less certain and unclear to the public. This also runs contrary to the government’s proposed goal to make development approvals more accessible by the public.