Airport plan depends on extending runway, but a woodlot is in the way

·7 min read

CAMBRIDGE — In early spring, the woodlot behind the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory is bright and expectant.

Some of the last remaining deep interior woodland habitat in the area is in this woodlot. This means forest that is more than 200 metres from the edge — the woodlot has a small amount, 0.5 hectares.

In 2018, the Region of Waterloo set aside 300 hectares of land as “employment land” for development where Cambridge and Woolwich meet next to the Grand River, known as the East Side Lands, and this woodlot sits in the middle of it.

A large portion of the woodlot is also in the southern flight path area of the planned extension for runway 14-32 at the Waterloo Region International Airport.

In an assessment of the East Side Lands’ natural heritage, the region wrote a list of services provided by this specific woodlot, listed as Natural Heritage Feature #37:

0.5 hectares of some of the last deep interior woodland habitat

An ecological link to other natural features

A headwater for streams may originate on the western edge, where the swamp regulates stream temperature. Stream temperature directly affects which fish species are able to survive

35 bird species were counted in the woodlot including rare and significant species

Amphibian breeding habitat.

The Provincially Significant Wetland is part of the larger Kossuth Wetland Complex, an Environmentally Sensitive Policy Area covering a larger portion of the area, and known as one of the region’s last potential sites for mature Spruce Bog.

The woodlot is listed with a high constraint ranking for development. The region’s notes say, “Development is generally prohibited within Provincially Significant Wetlands and not permitted within Core Environmental Features. Avoid encroachment into the feature.”

In the project summary for the runway extension, the region says that 12.1 hectares of this woodlot overlaps with the southern flight pathway area of the region’s proposal. Much of this overlap is on property belonging to the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory, including all the trees on the property’s west side.

Kate Hagerman, manager of Environmental Planning and Sustainability at the region, says at this point they do not know how many trees will be impacted.

“In 2021 we will be doing the inventory and survey work to be able to fully understand the ecosystems that may be impacted,” says Hagerman.

“The region is creating a Natural Heritage Management Plan to determine the best options to maintain the canopy height at the necessary height for airport safety.”

To mitigate the impact to this wetland on the conservatory’s property, the region is creating a plan which will include “enhancements to existing wetlands and the (re)establishment of wetlands, within the same wetland complex,” says Hagerman.

“We will be looking at the impacts that the runway extension will have with respect to the overall wetland complex, and plan for wetland enhancements and (re)establishment that will offset impacts and result in no net loss in the valuable functions that the wetlands provide.”

Doug Wilson is the president of the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory. He estimates many of the trees in the conservatory’s woodlot are 100 or 200 years old.

“If they apply no net loss strategy, then it will be years and years before we get those (newly planted) trees to their full maturity,” says Wilson. “The very idea that you can cut down a 100-year-old tree and plant a sapling — my grandkids won’t see the benefit of that.”

He points to the woodlot: “these trees mitigate climate change, sequester carbon, supply biodiversity and species-at-risk habitat. All of that is loss.”

By looking at the region’s tree impact map for the runway extension, the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory estimates approximately 2,000 to 2,500 mature trees will be affected.

The woodlot is currently home to a variety of plants and animals that are becoming rarer in the region. This includes the ovenbird — a little speckled warbler that builds rounded nests on the ground that are said to look like bread ovens and depends on mature deciduous forest to breed.

In the 2017 Airport Master Plan, the region set up thresholds to be met before the various stages of expansion. According to the plan, extending runway 14-32 requires meeting a threshold of 250,000 passengers per year.

Before the pandemic hit, Waterloo Region International Airport was at 80,000 passengers per year in 2018.

While acknowledging the uncertainty of the pandemic, Councillor Tom Galloway, who chairs the region’s Planning and Works Committee, expects the airport to meet the 250,000 passenger threshold by the end of this summer through recent deals signed with Pivot and Flair airlines, which focus on business and discount flights respectively.

The region’s economic assessment of the extension project submitted to the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada estimates $52.3 million in benefits from the project.

It also estimates time and costs savings for airlines and passengers to be between $9.2 million (at 250,000 passengers) to $67.4 million (at 2.5 million passengers) “through mitigation of diversions and cancellations alone.”

Extending the runway will allow larger airplanes to land easier and safer in a cross wind, says airport manager Chris Wood.

The economic assessment assumed extending the runway would mitigate 80 per cent of current diversions. This would mean reducing an average of 17 diversions per year for a 250,000 passenger per year scenario up to 130 average diversions per year for the 2.5 million passengers per year scenario. It does not disclose how it came up with these assumptions.

Wood says the extended runway will increase safety for passengers and reliability of the airport, reducing these diversions and flight cancellations and increase the region’s capacity to meet airlines’ needs.

Regional councillors recently voted to spend $44 million and double staff at the airport over the next two years.

“We believe that yes, the airport is an important economic driver,” says Wood. “We are going to replace those wetlands as we are disturbing them.”

The Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory leaders insist they are not against airport expansion, just against extending this runway.

Bill Thomson was the first commissioner of planning and development at the region, and sat on the Region of Waterloo Airport Commission.

In September he wrote a report reviewing the Waterloo Region International Airport Master Plan. After looking over various studies about potential airline traffic at Waterloo’s airport, he concluded he does not believe it will be able to build up the necessary traffic to justify the runway extension.

“Given the enormous cost of increasing the length and strengthening of the runways at Waterloo Region International Airport, improvements to taxiways, aprons and the terminal and with the highly unlikely scenario of the provincial and/or the federal governments providing funds, I ask regional council to reflect on how better it might be to spend taxpayers’ money on the dire situation of the homeless, the food bank or housing for a large portion of lower-income families throughout the region as well as replacing our aging infrastructure,” he wrote.

The region says the airport expansion is necessary to support the economic development of the community and support business and innovation in the region. Extending the runway is a key component of the whole expansion.

When asked if the runway is worth disrupting wetlands, Wood said he believes the region can mitigate any impact and maybe even improve the wetlands. But, “Yes, it is worth it and regional council believes it is worth it.”

“We’re in a balancing act here to try to get the most out of a significant asset in our region.”

“We’re trying to be as good a neighbour as possible. Sometimes it’s difficult, but our mandate is quite clear,” he says. “So that’s what we’re focusing on — trying to make this airport as efficient as possible.”

And if the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory refuses to have their trees cut down or impacted in some way?

“We always try to maintain being a great neighbour, and this is no exception,” says Wood. “The answer is: I don’t know.”

Leah Gerber’s reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. The funding allows her to report on stories about the Grand River Watershed. Email lgerber@therecord.com

Leah Gerber, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Waterloo Region Record