Despite Doug Ford’s attack on conservation authorities, they continue to protect our water
On October 15, 1954, the landscape of the Toronto Region changed for good. Body-moving winds at speeds of 110 kilometres per hour tore through the area knocking over everything in their path. Roofs were ripped off houses and windows shattered while simultaneously the roads turned to rivers. In just 48 hours, 285 millimetres of rain fell, the equivalent of 300 million tonnes of water, or 120,000 Olympic swimming pools. Hurricane Hazel was a tragic warning.
Thousands of residents in its path were suddenly left without a home and 81 people died.
The decade prior to the catastrophe, the Ontario government had begun creating conservation authorities with the duty of protecting watersheds in response to severe flooding and the often dire consequences of natural erosion. In the aftermath of the once-in-a-century hurricane, the provincial government amended the Conservation Authorities Act to enable conservation authorities to acquire land under their name for land protection and recreation and to impose regulations on that land for the safety of the surrounding community. Legislators wanted to ensure that if a weather event like Hazel happened again, they would be better prepared.
Almost 70 years later extreme weather events like Hurricane Hazel occur much more frequently. The 1.5 degree threshold for temperature increase to slow the effects of climate change which was agreed upon at the Paris Climate Accord in 2015 will likely be surpassed in the next decade, according to a new study that used artificial intelligence to predict warming timelines conducted by researchers at Stanford University and Colorado State University. They also concluded what environmentalists have been fearing, the Earth is on track to surpass two degrees of warming with a 70 percent chance this point of no return will be reached between 2044 and 2065, even with extreme emissions reductions.
With the grave conclusions of this study it is clear that we are standing on the very edge of ecological collapse. Events like Hazel, and worse, are no longer a one off, but a regular occurrence.
But unlike the Conservative government led by George A. Drew, who strengthened conservation authorities in the aftermath of a calamity, Doug Ford’s government continues to tear them apart.
While most point to the current effects of Bill 23, Ford’s radical housing legislation to get 1.5 million homes built in eight years, he has been dismantling the jurisdiction of conservation authorities for a few years. In 2020, Bill 229 passed with Section 6 which stripped away power from conservation authorities. Under that legislation, the Ontario government could force a conservation authority to issue a development permit despite the responsibility to protect people, the community and the environment, ahead of development concerns.
Just as conservation authorities were finding work-arounds to this new legislation, the powerful majority government brought down Bill 23. The legislation, which received Royal Assent in December, repeals 36 regulations in the Conservation Authorities Act that once allowed these agencies to oversee the development process. “Pollution” and “conservation of land” are no longer viable arguments when weighing new developments. It’s akin to deciding that speeding and reckless driving are no longer the law of the land to protect other motorists and pedestrians.
The contradictory changes weaken conservation authorities’ ability to do what they were intended to, monitor and protect the increasingly damaged watersheds across Ontario.
But in spite of the hits conservation authorities have taken over the past 5 years, and in particular the last few months, the three authorities that have jurisdiction within Peel Region—Conservation Halton (CH), Credit Valley Conservation Authority (CVC) and the Toronto Regional Conservation Authority (TRCA)—have proposed interesting projects for 2023 which show the community that, despite Doug Ford’s best efforts, conservation authorities will continue to stand up for the betterment of the community and our natural environment.
On January 23, leaders across the province met inside Toronto’s Sheraton Hotel for the Rural Ontario Municipal Association (ROMA) Conference, and residents gathered outside to show what they think of Ford’s latest actions impacting the environment.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
“Conservation authorities are the first line of defence against natural hazards, [CAs] are all working hard towards science-based protection,” Mississauga and Regional Councillor Chris Fonseca said in the Peel Region council meeting where the three local bodies presented their budgets last week. “At the end of the day, conservation authorities provide such vital services and supports for safe, resilient communities for all of us.”
During the meeting, councillors expressed increasing concerns about flood protections. With Ford severely curtailing the power of conservation authorities to shape new development proposals, and other changes to the Wetland Evaluation System and Greenbelt Act, allowing for unchecked development in areas prone to flooding, they wanted to know how the conservation authorities plan to protect watersheds and their surrounding communities.
They explained that tasks to update floodplain mapping and flood warning services will increase. The CVC is currently undertaking an update to the watershed plan for the Credit River, the first full update in over 50 years, spanning the entire watershed. While this is a multi-year project, the 2023 focus is on the future conditions of the water system.
“That comes with the recognition that the vast majority of the Credit River watershed is in private ownership, and so while we can influence a lot of the things in the publicly owned lands, it’s also critically important that we work with our residents and the other landowners to continue that good work on the private side as well,” Quentin Hanchard, Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) of the CVC, said in his budget presentation.
Mississauga and Regional Councillor Stephen Dasko questioned whether the conservation authorities believed Peel is prepared for another major flooding event, an inevitability as the warming of our planet accelerates.
“The new norm for us moving forward is not the norm of the past,” Hanchard responded. He reiterated that the Brampton flooding in the Churchville area this past spring which turned much of the community into a lake and forced many homes to be evacuated, provided data that would allow the conservation authority to predict and prepare for future flooding catastrophes.
“Watershed planning provides a framework for establishing goals, objectives, and direction for the protection of water resources, the management of human activities, land, water, aquatic life, and resources within watersheds,” the TRCA told The Pointer in an email. “It also provides an opportunity for the assessment of cumulative, cross-jurisdictional, and cross-watershed impacts.”
The TRCA is also undertaking updates to watershed plans in 2023 with work on the Etobicoke Creek and the Humber River. The watershed plan for the Etobicoke Creek is on track to be completed this year and uses new technology around Lidar mapping, which uses light reflection to understand surface and topography dynamics. The TRCA also noted other radar technologies that may become more prominent in their use to predict flooding events.
The Etobicoke Creek runs through Peel to Etobicoke where it empties into Lake Ontario at Marie Curtis Park.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
“This work has included integrating climate science and adaptation work into watershed plans which is a priority for Peel,” John MacKenzie, Chief Executive Officer of the TRCA, said in the presentation.
He also made clear that data from the watershed plans will be publicly available to ensure watershed protection at the community level.
Conservation authorities also provide extensive outreach and education programs. Since this is not impacted by Bill 23, it provides an opportunity for the agencies to expand knowledge and encourage change among all community stakeholders. Increasingly, conservation authorities are turning to outreach as a way to better educate the general population, kids and adults, in order to provoke environmental stewardship not just within mandated organizations, but within the general population.
In 2022, the TRCA released Minimum Access Standards that recommended to school boards a base level of education students should receive on topics involving nature and the health of our environment, whose well being impacts every single facet of life. The Minimum Access Standards were one of five recommendations from an Outdoor Education Task Force that was composed of school board trustees and TRCA board members.
“One of the principles of TRCA’s learning is that you can't do this in the classroom,” Darryl Gray, Director of Education and Training at the TRCA, told The Pointer last year. “There's a real benefit to teaching about natural science conservation, the environment within the natural environment itself.”
Another program the TRCA provides for students is the EcoSchools Canada program which offers certification for elementary and high schools to focus on climate change education. EcoSchools focus on particular aspects of environmental sustainability including wetlands, microplastics and urban-nature relationships. The TRCA supports Peel EcoSchools by providing education and training to teachers as well as overseeing field trips and outdoor education requirements.
While conservation authorities prioritize the significance of providing sustainability education to students, they also have programs that focus on the broader community. Through the Sustainable Neighbourhood Action Program (SNAP) the TRCA and the CVC help municipalities to “improve efficiencies, draw strong community support, and build implementation partnerships for a broad range of initiatives in the public and private realms”.
For five years ending in 2023, the CVC has hosted the Butterfly Blitz program which encourages residents to become interested in science and their surrounding environment. It also hosts multiple Butterfly ID Walks, along with others for birds and bats, throughout the summers at the Riverwood Conservancy near the heart of Mississauga.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
The SNAP model allows conservation authorities to work in communities to provide green infrastructure and retrofits. Individuals have the opportunity to partake in community projects such as schoolyard transformations, community cleanups and watershed management.
Due to the timing of Bill 23, passing at the end of 2022, it is not significantly incorporated in the 2023 budget for conservation authorities; most were completed before the housing legislation was brought to the table. But it was evident through their three presentations they are aware of the challenges posed by the Ford government’s priority on housing ahead of sustainability. They will continue to fight to carry out their intended mandate.
“Our most important role under Bill 23 is to continue to provide timely service delivery in our review and commenting functions under the Planning Act and Environmental Assessment Act for natural hazard matters and source water protection under the Clean Water Act, as well as our regulatory permitting functions under s. 28 of the Conservation Authorities Act, in accordance with the Mandatory Programs and Services Regulation (Ontario Regulation 686/21) to ensure safe and resilient development and infrastructure within our watersheds,” the TRCA said in an email statement.
“We will continue, as we have done in the past, to try our best to shape regulations, to shape implementation policies and continue to work with the province in a positive, collaborative way,” Hassaan Basit, President and Chief Executive Officer at Conservation Halton, said.
“Our job through this transition is to ensure that the roles we cannot play anymore, that we support and equip our municipal partners in playing those roles, and where CAs can still support through our watershed expertise, through our data, through our analysis, that we continue to see how we can do that even better.”
Email: [email protected]
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