Save Ontario Wetlands aims to provide crucial resources while conservation authorities are under attack by Ford government
February 2 marks World Wetlands Day, 2023. Launched by the Secretariat of the Convention on Wetlands, the focus is to remind people around the world of the signing of the international Convention on Wetlands. According to global data, since the early ‘70s, 35 percent of the world’s wetlands have been destroyed. Wetland restoration is one of the keys to reversing biodiversity loss and other devastating impacts of global temperature increase. While the Doug Ford PC government continues its developer-driven assault on Ontario’s crucial wetlands, a new group is fighting back, with science.
Growing up, Rebecca Rooney recalls being drawn to the water. She loved to swim and just splash around. She quickly became enamoured with the cornucopia of life teeming in aquatic ecosystems. Catching frogs, watching bugs flit through the water and discovering native plants helped nurture her love of science.
In university, Rooney began studying lakes and the damage human proximity has done to these vast blue habitats. The work became somewhat depressing. Quantifying the effects of contamination and constantly focussing on the injuries to the natural environment from human activity, was like dumping a cold bucket of water over the flames of her passion.
“I didn't feel like there was a lot of hope in that avenue of research,” Rooney told The Pointer.
She began to look at ecological restoration as an antidote. A branch of study where scientists look at undoing some of the damage to our natural ecosystems. When it came time to look into PhD opportunities, Rooney chose wetland restoration.
She began working on wetland reclamation projects in the Alberta Oil Sands, recreating some of the ecosystems that had been destroyed by the industrial search for fossil fuels. Continuing this work, she is now a wetland ecologist and an assistant professor in the faculty of science at the University of Waterloo where she runs the Waterloo Wetland Laboratory.
“[A wetland] is just the coolest place to be because it's just this interface where the land and the water meet that becomes this biogeochemical hotspot where there's all this action happening, transforming nutrients, and the plants that grow there,” she said, with her seemingly innate passion pushing out the excitement of her words.
Rooney is not alone in her desire to protect and restore wetland ecosystems. When the PC government under Premier Doug Ford introduced Bill 23 in the fall of 2022, Rooney, along with other wetland scientists and practitioners, created a Slack channel where discussions about the legislation, and its proposed changes to environmental protection mechanisms—in particular, the threat to wetlands—could happen in one place.
From these conversations, Save Ontario Wetlands was born. A grassroots organization—the group has about 70 members on its Slack channel—the group of academics has been facilitating important conversations about Bill 23, the dire threats the legislation poses to our most sensitive ecosystems, and educating the public about what all the development-driven actions mean for our planet at a time when the ominous impacts of climate change appear closer than ever.
The group serves as an education tool to get the general public thinking about these avoidable threats to our natural environment. Scientific knowledge is often esoteric, so the group aims to make the combined years of university education of the 70 group members accessible.
A group of Save Ontario Wetlands volunteers gathered together to perform a garbage clean up of a wetland, pulling out 18 bags of waste.
(Megan Jordan/Save Ontario Wetlands)
Rooney noticed a gap between what the public knew and the real science behind wetland ecology so, for her, it was crucial to begin sharing information from trustworthy sources.
“Scientists don't always do the best job communicating in plain terms,” Rooney said. “So we thought it was really important to help make the science that's really well established available to the public so that they could be informed when facing these proposed policy changes.”
Information that is difficult to consume is often overlooked. But Rooney said she believes that making information about wetlands accessible will lead to more people caring about these precious ecosystems, and when more people care about something, we are more likely to manage it sustainably.
“It's a really important ecosystem to be working in,” she said. “And it's one that I think people historically haven't really appreciated adequately, because we get to take them for granted.”
A lack of public understanding on the significance of wetlands made it easier for the Ford government to push through legislation that would cause harm to these ecosystems.
When Bill 23, also known as the More Homes Built Faster Act, was proposed, it was done so in the name of building homes for a rapidly growing population. But with subsequent legislation targeting the Greenbelt, conservation authorities, and other environmental safeguards, it became evident that the government had no intention of protecting our natural spaces alongside the objective of accommodating future residents.
On November 17, 2022, less than two weeks before Bill 23 was passed, Save Ontario Wetlands presented a written submission to the Standing Committee on Heritage, Infrastructure and Cultural Policy with four recommendations on the content of Bill 23. Primarily, the group was requesting an extension on the commenting period on the legislation until the end of 2022 in order to have more time to properly assess and comment on the effects of the legislation on the natural environment. They also recommended the government engage in meaningful public consultation using scientific expertise. These recommendations were ultimately ignored as the Bill received Royal Assent on November 28.
One of the most significant ways it directly impacts crucial spaces is through the changes to the Wetlands Evaluation System. When determining if an area deserves protection as a provincially significant wetland (PSW), the natural features are evaluated on a scale of 0 to 1,000 with a score over 600 warranting provincial designation. Bill 23 eliminates the presence of endangered species as a criteria for evaluation along with other changes making it more difficult for a wetland’s assessment score to reach 600 points.
The second change attacks the geographic positioning of wetlands. They often exist in groups meaning there is a series of small water features amalgamated in a low lying area. Prior to Bill 23, these wetlands would be evaluated as a group, or complex, with a total score of 600 meaning all of these bodies of water would be protected. The legislation abolishes this concept of a complex, evaluating each of the individual bodies of water, regardless of their size, separately, making it nearly impossible for any to achieve a score qualifying them for protection.
“Rather than save money by cutting red tape, the resulting degradation and destruction of wetlands will increase the cost of living and exacerbate the affordability crisis because Ontario’s wetlands provide extensive and free ecosystem services,” the written submission by the group states. “We are concerned that Bill 23 will reduce critical natural infrastructure and ecological health of wetlands, watercourses and greenspaces that serve to reduce flooding, support important recreational activities, such as fishing, and reduce surface and groundwater quality and quantity.”
Save Ontario Wetlands member Courtney Robichaud counts plant stems in a quadrant of a wetland to determine how dense they are. The health of wetland ecosystems is vital across Ontario.
(Rebecca Rooney/Save Ontario Wetlands)
Wetlands are what Rooney calls “keystone ecosystems”, “an ecosystem that punches well above its weight class”. Wetlands have a very small footprint in Canada, making up only about three percent of the land base. But for geographic features with such a small physical footprint, they do a wealth of work in terms of water purification, habitat creation and flood mitigation.
In November provincial Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk concluded in her annual report that the provincial government was not doing enough to protect communities from flood risks, a problem that will only be exacerbated by Bill 23. An increased risk of flooding is a consequence of climate change and the paving over of wetlands will diminish the natural protections we have to prevent these events from becoming catastrophes. The loss of wetlands creates a snowball effect. They store carbon and when these wetlands are destroyed the carbon is released, speeding up warming. Wetlands in southern Ontario used to store 3.3 million tons of carbon, but as a result of wetland loss, almost two-thirds of this has been released into the atmosphere. Rooney said there is still a significant amount being held in remaining wetlands that we cannot afford to release.
According to her, Ontario has already lost between 70 and 90 percent of its wetlands, making it crucial that the remainder are protected while restoration and reclamation work begins. The written submissions from Save Ontario Wetlands cites a study from the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation which concluded that wetland preservation reduced estimated damages from flooding by 38 percent in urban areas.
The authorization over flooding events is generally the jurisdiction of conservation authorities which were created decades ago and had their powers expanded in the aftermath of Hurricane Hazel which decimated homes across the province in 1954. Bill 23 curtails much of the power of conservation authorities leaving municipalities on their own to make decisions regarding local development and conservation.
“Most municipalities do not have expert staff to review planning materials related to natural assets and hydrology,” the written submission details. “They depend on local conservation authorities to provide expert advice to assist in evidence-based decision-making.”
Rooney added that municipalities are already swamped with many responsibilities in relation to things like the opioid crisis, the climate crisis, and now development proposals all while under tight budget constraints.
“For a long time, in Ontario, we really have this world leading system with the conservation authorities. This is the reason why the extent of payouts for flood damage in Ontario are so much less than everywhere else in the country,” Rooney said. “Under these new rules, [municipalities] are not going to have the ability to rely on those conservation authorities as much as they have. So there's going to be a gap in capacity and resources to be able to effectively manage flood mitigation and wetland conservation and management.”
Despite the grim picture Bill 23 paints for Ontario’s wetlands, Rooney is hopeful that Save Ontario Wetlands can begin to provide expertise to local municipalities to help make informed and sustainable decisions regarding development.
“When you think about how few wetlands remain, every single one is precious, and we can't really afford to lose any of them,” she said. “What we need to do is conserve all the wetlands that remain, we just can't afford to dig up or fill in anymore.”
She would like to see the process of wetland restoration and reclamation begin across the province, applying a blanket conservation approach for all existing wetlands and beginning restoration in areas where decimation rates are the highest, generally close to urban areas.
“And we should not be allowing any additional destruction of wetlands at all in southern Ontario.”
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