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History of Conservation Authorities

Historically, the Conservation Authorities Act was legislated by the provincial government in 1946 in response to the concern expressed by agricultural, naturalist and sportsmen's groups who pointed out that much of the renewable natural resources of the province were in an ‘unhealthy state’ as a result of poor land, water and forestry practices during the 1930s and 1940s.The combined impacts of drought and deforestation led to extensive soil loss and flooding.

Prior to the establishment of the Conservation Authorities, throughout the Depression years and those of World War II that followed, organizations such as the Ontario Conservation and Reforestation Association, which had its roots in the counties, the Federation of Ontario Naturalists and individuals writing for The Farmer's Advocate, pressed the case for conservation and wise resource management.

Many of these leading conservationists believed that real progress in developing a new approach to natural resource management would not occur until an integrated approach was undertaken using natural watershed boundaries.

Although the responsibility for managing natural resources lay with the Province, the scale of erosion and water problems was such that it required a new approach, and when a number of municipal councils agreed to become involved, this spirit of cooperation led to the passage of the Conservation Authorities Act in 1946.
The Conservation Authorities Act provided the means by which the province and the municipalities of Ontario could join together to form a Conservation Authority within a specified area - the watershed - to undertake programs for natural resource management.

Three Fundamental concepts of this new approach were embodied in the Act:

  1. Local Initiative - A Conservation Authority in any area could only be formed when the desires of the residents reached the point where they were willing to request the government of Ontario to form an Authority. In making the request, the local people had to face up to the responsibility of contributing financially to the works of the Authority and also agree to assume the burden of running the corporate body known as the Conservation Authority. This latter task involved burdens and responsibilities similar to the running of a municipality. The local initiative requirement meant that people living close to the problems were required to recognize and solve them. It also meant that solutions would not be imposed from above and an Authority would only undertake those plans which it could face economically, culturally and democratically.
  2. Cost Sharing - The Conservation Authorities Act stipulated that the costs of projects should be shared by municipalities and by the provincial government. This proved to be one of the soundest ideas in the Authority movement. It has meant that an Authority can flourish only when the local people have enough enthusiasm and conviction to support it financially.
  3. Watershed Jurisdiction - Conservation Authorities were to have jurisdiction over one or more watersheds. This stewardship was to cover all aspects of conservation in the area. This has meant that a Conservation Authority has been able to handle such problems as flood control in a complete and rational basis. By its power to establish regulations, an Authority has been able to protect life and property, river valleys from building encroachment and erosion problems.

Since this rather quiet beginning, Authorities have become involved in a wide range of activities depending on the resource management concerns of local residents, member municipalities and the Province. The following list summarizes the range in program development, but it must be kept in mind that all Authorities do not implement all programs. Each Authority's watershed management program is geared to its own special needs and conditions.

Range of Program Development

  • Community Relations
  • Niagara Escarpment
  • Erosion Control
  • Outdoor Recreation
  • Fish & Wildlife Management
  • Private Land Extension
  • Reforestation
  • Soil Erosion/Sedimentation
  • Windbreaks and Shelterbelts
  • Flood Control
  • Floodplain Management
  • Flood Warning
  • Forest Management
  • Fish & Wildlife Habitat
  • Great Lakes Shoreline Management
  • Provincial Water Quality Monitoring
  • Ground Water Monitoring
  • Rural Drainage
  • Heritage Conservation
  • Streamflow Monitoring
  • Network Hydro Generation
  • Tourism
  • Municipal Plan Review
  • Urban Stormwater Management
  • Natural Area Preservation
  • Waterfront Development Flow
  • Wetlands
  • Water Supply/Low Flow
  • Augmentation
  • Environmentally Sensitive Areas
  • Watershed Strategies


Watershed management is certainly a major focus among Ontario's Conservation Authorities, as more than half of them were initially established to address flooding and erosion concerns. In developing programs to deal with these water-related issues, Authorities have also achieved an enviable record in wetland protection and management, conservation information and education, provision of local and regional recreational opportunities, forest management and heritage conservation.

Ontario's 36 Conservation Authorities