The Conservation Authorities Act and Wetland Protection on the Chopping Block Once Again
In their last three years of office, the government of Kathleen Wynne conducted two dangerous reviews. One was a review of the Conservation Authorities Act. Another was a review of Ontario’s wetland policies. Now the same threats are coming up in a review of the Conservation Authorities Act by the government of Premier Doug Ford.
Developers’ lobbies, most notably the Ontario Home Builders Association (OHBA) were quite active in the last reviews of wetlands and the Conservation Authorities Act under Wynne’s government. The reviews were used by the OHBA, in an effort to reduce protections for provincially significant wetlands. These lands are the most strongly protected by provincial policy. Once designated on the basis of a point score of 600 points, site alteration is prohibited except for regionally important infrastructure like sewer, water, power lines.
During the Ontario Liberal government’s review, OHBA and its allies clearly wanted strong wetland policies weakened. They supported the proposal that that protected wetlands could be subjected to site alteration if offset by creating wetlands elsewhere. This wetland offsetting concept has become popular in the US and one method of deregulating environmental protection.
In the end, developers lost and the public won. No major changes were made in policy, just well reasoned and minute reforms. Wetlands received potentially greater protection through new requirements for native consultation and traditional knowledge. Conservation Authorities were improved by new provisions to ensure greater transparency for board governance.
One of the reasons for the victory of the public interest was the example of the devastating floods in Houston, Texas. These took place in June 2017, just before the reviews wrapped up. Flooding in Houston caused 60 deaths and $10 billion in property damage.
In Houston, extensive areas of wetlands were protected under the US Clean Water Act, but these protections were weakened in 1990 by provisions for wetland offsetting, sometimes in the US termed “wetland banking.” Some 25,000 acres of wetlands around Houston had had their protections stripped away. On the eve of the disaster, the Texas General Accounting Action Program revealed that most of these offsets were fraudulent. Of the 13 wetland areas where protections were removed, only two had actual new wetlands constructed. Most wetlands were never offset. Protections were removed and studies conducted instead of wetlands actually being developed.
Today the OHBA is using the review of the Conservation Authorities Act to again weaken wetland policy. They call for changes in the “which could include increasing/decreasing water or removing degraded wetland and replacing with other ecological net gain may be approved through the planning process.” It also calls for the elimination of the Ontario Wetland Evaluation System, which through the point scores given to endangered species, is the strongest instrument to protect biodiversity in Ontario. They suggest it be replaced by the Canadian Wetland Classification System. They want wetland protection to cease to concern itself with “ecological function.” and confine itself to “hydrological function.” Such a system will in their view facilitate wetland removal by wetland replacement and offsets.
The OHBA is trying to suggest that swamp forests have only an ecological and not a hydrological function. This is nonsense. There is known risk of flooding when water now stored in vernal pools, providing habitat for amphibians, will contribute to spring peak flooding if those storage sinks (a.k.a swamp forests) are paved over.
During the review of the Conservation Authorities Act, a clear message needs to be sent to the Ford government. Defend the Ontario system of Conservation Authorities and protected wetlands which have protected us from the disasters of the US - the Army Corps of Engineers and wetland offsetting. Devastating floods in Ontario are in the history books while in the United States they are very much alive.
Photo of Houston, TX flood from https://drjrn.blogspot.com/