Preserving the Watershed Approach and the Conservation Authority Model is Critical

Conservation authorities (CAs) are under the microscope again.

Since January 31, 2020, the Province has been hosting multi-stakeholder roundtable and online consultations asking people how they feel about the conservation authorities’ programs, the CA model, their planning and permitting roles, how they’re governed and whether or not they’re effective partners.

The consultations have been lively and crowded, with discussions focused on a specific series of questions posed by the Province. (These same questions are available on an online survey for anyone to respond to by March 13. Conservation Ontario’s submission to this survey can be found HERE).

We’ve heard both pros and cons about conservation authorities. Detractors have criticized the CAs saying there is a lack of accountability, transparency and consistency, or as in the case of one presenter, there should be no conservation authorities at all.

However, there’s also been very strong support – particularly from municipalities and other agencies -  for their planning and regulatory roles which protects people and property as well as the broader watershed management responsibilities of conservation authorities.

It seems to us that recent efforts to constrain the budgets, role and mandate of conservation authorities is actually contradictory to the needs of the Province and municipalities. We just have to look at what’s happened in the last 12 months to see impacts to public health and safety as well as the budgets of all levels of government:

  • Extreme flooding in 2019 started in the spring and continued throughout the summer and into the fall in many areas of Ontario creating significant costly damages and business disruptions as well as prolonged stress for property owners.
  • A number of municipalities recently declared climate change emergencies in response to what they’re seeing locally as a result of public health and costly environmental concerns.
  • Residents along the shorelines of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River have been frequently battling high water levels. In fact, homes along a strip of Lake Erie shoreline have just been asked to evacuate the area in the event of a dyke failing (Feb 28, 2020). It is anticipated that the lake levels will be higher in 2020.
  • A 2019 report on the environment from Ontario’s Auditor General says that Ontario’s watersheds are stressed. The report points out that ‘…Ontario’s watersheds have seen some positive trends, but continue to show signs of stress as well, mainly in southern Ontario where there is less green space and more people, industry, and development’.

If the Province wants to make sure they are doing all they can to help those struggling with flooding and other climate change impacts, the first step would be to support the conservation authorities by re-instating the provincial funding for natural hazards transfer payments and making sure changes to the Conservation Authority Act and its regulations still protect the watershed approach and the CA model.

Municipal Support for Conservation Authorities

Many municipalities are putting the Province on notice by sharing resolutions supporting their local conservation authorities. They see the local impacts first hand and want to protect the abilities of CAs to continue their roles around flood management, plan review and input, permitting, stewardship and a number of other activities.  The Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO), which represents 444 municipalities across the province, are recommending improvements, not wholesale change.

Conservation authorities recognize improvements can be made and have been working with the development sector, agricultural representatives, the Province and municipalities to improve their consistency, transparency and accountability around planning and permitting – particularly in high growth areas. We know there are more improvements we can make and are committed to work towards them. Conservation Ontario will continue to support the CAs’ ability to make these consistent improvements by working on guidelines, templates and training with AMO and development sector provincial associations and the Province.

Through its Made-In-Ontario Environment Plan, the Province has committed to build environmental resilience, reduce emissions, tackle pollution and protect our air, lakes and rivers.

Conservation authorities are natural partners for this work. They can attract partners, leverage funding and share their extensive watershed knowledge and expertise.
Conservation Ontario has many recommendations to the Province in our submission to the online survey, however, there are a few very important messages we’re stressing:

Protect the watershed approach and keep the conservation authority model

The Province’s own independent Provincial Flood Advisor, Doug McNeil, supported the watershed-based conservation authority model in his 2019 report to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF). The Mandatory programs being proposed by the Province need to capture the watershed-approach including a mix of watershed-wide programs and services that allow CAs to address multiple issues – both natural and human – which are connected and impact our environment.  A watershed approach is the best way to address the impacts of climate change.

Protect the role of conservation authorities in plan review and permitting
The CAs’ role in planning decisions under the Planning Act, Environmental Assessment Act and Niagara Escarpment Planning and Development Act ensure that developments do not result in changes to the floodplain and natural heritage (e.g. wetlands) that would put communities at risk from flooding. The 2019 Flood Advisor’s report showed strong support for the conservation authority model in protecting Ontario from the impacts of climate change. This model only works if CAs have the power to intervene in planning decisions and development applications.
Equally important is the CA commenting role as a watershed management agency whereby CAs provide advice on the implications of the development application on the broader natural resources (including for example, water and natural heritage) within its watershed.  

Anyone – not just participants at the roundtables – can submit their comments to the online survey. Conservation Ontario’s responses can be found on our website.