Maitland Conservation to push back against changes

·6 min read

WROXETER – Proposed changes to the Conservation Authorities Act have the board members of Maitland Conservation (formerly Maitland Valley Conservation Authority) concerned.

At the MC meeting on Nov. 18, the members agreed that they must get loud and push back, making “as much noise as possible” to make sure the government hears their concerns.

Among their concerns is “the glaring omission” of watershed management as a core service of conservation authorities.

“Watershed management is the main reason that conservation authorities were formed,” according to a summary report prepared by the MC. “The province, municipalities and conservation groups realized that the best way to conserve forests and rivers was to undertake conservation stewardship on a watershed basis.”

MC’s chairs and vice-chairs made this point to Jeff Yurek, Ontario’s minister of environment, conservation, and parks, and Huron-Bruce MPP Lisa Thompson when they met at MC’s office last August. Yurek did say that he could add watershed management services as a core service by regulation, according to a report presented to the MC board members.

“Tacked on to the recent Government of Ontario omnibus Budget Bill 229 is Schedule 6, a proposal for significant changes to the Conservation Authorities Act. Schedule 6 has set off alarm bells amongst Conservation Authorities and our partners across the province,” a press release dated Nov. 22 from MC said.

“The proposed changes will severely curtail the role of Conservation Authorities in watershed planning and management. This will negatively impact our efforts to build watershed resiliency and deliver stewardship, monitoring and flood and erosion safety services to our member municipalities and watershed residents.”

Dave Turton, chair of MC, said that the government surveyed the 36 Ontario conservation authorities in 2019. They provided feedback to the province on flood and erosion safety, watershed stewardship, funding, severe weather events other than spring thaws, and water quality.

He said they would like Schedule 6 removed, “as it goes against a lot of our thoughts to the province last year.”

Yurek sent a letter to conservation authorities on Nov. 5 outlining the Conservation Authorities Act and the Planning Act.

These updates, according to the letter, would “improve the consistency and transparency of the programs and services that conservation authorities deliver.”

Yurek added that the updates would provide additional oversight for municipalities and the province. They would also streamline conservation authority permitting and land use planning reviews to increase accountability, consistency, and transparency.

The anticipated changes are exempt from the public consultation requirements set out by the Environmental Bill of Rights because they are part of a budget. Once the province approves that budget, it will support the Conservation Authorities Act’s changes.

During the discussion at the meeting, the board’s opinion was that the Ford government was again trying to change the greenbelt designation in Vaughn.

“The government seems to be bending to the developers in and around the Toronto area,” said Turton. “The land development is so vast that all the non-conservation land is used up, and now where do you build?”

Added Turton, “We understand that some environmentally-friendly areas are being filled in with dirt for housing construction, etc. This is not right. The Conservation Authorities have used science-based collaborative strategies in decision making and will continue this path.”

The greenbelt has been a controversial subject since 2019, when landowner Lucia Milani of Rizmi Holdings approached the provincial government, intending to get the protected status lifted off a 60-acre piece of land in northeast Vaughan. The CBC reports that the campaign has since been closed.

The MC encouraged watershed residents to “take a moment to read the material developed by Ontario Nature and the Canadian Environmental Law Association and sign their petition.” You can find it at Ontario Nature Petition.

The campaign asks the Ontario government to retain the current mandate of the province’s 36 Conservation Authorities.

An excerpt from the campaign letter said, “Ontario’s Conservation Authorities are a unique and widely- respected innovation. They provide a much-valued bridge across municipal boundaries to understand and address environmental concerns, such as flooding. They are ideally positioned to encourage science-based collaborative strategies and decision-making because they operate at the watershed level.

“The changes proposed in Schedule 6 will reduce or constrain the mandate of Conservation Authorities, and are therefore contradictory to the interests of the people of Ontario, who are facing enormous risks and costs as a result of climate change and ongoing biodiversity loss.”

In a statement on its website, Ontario Nature says, “The vital role of our Conservation Authorities in watershed-based land use planning and permitting must be retained to prevent unchecked development, that puts communities at risk from flooding and other climate change impacts through the loss of wetlands, woodlands, and farmland.”

Conservation Authorities’ core role has been under review since 2019 when Ontario committed to its Made-in-Ontario Environment Plan to ensure that conservation authorities focus and deliver on their core mandate.

The roles of preparing and protecting against the impacts of natural hazards, maintaining and managing conservation lands, and drinking water source protection are the focus of the review.

According to a notice posted on Ontario.ca, consultations have been held with “conservation authorities and a diverse group of stakeholders, including municipalities, the agricultural and development sectors, environmental and conservation organizations, and landowners,” on the appropriate role for conservation authorities.

Phil Beard, general manager of MC, said, “I attended the consultation session in London. The majority of presentations were supportive of conservation authorities and their present mandate and services.

“However, the government did not release the results of the consultation sessions,” he added. “So, they are the only ones who know what was actually submitted for comments.”

“If the government would reveal the results of the consultation sessions, then it would be transparent to everyone that they have or have not taken the consultation sessions into account,” added Beard.

Conservation Ontario (CO) recommends the province repeal Schedule 6 because the changes being proposed will create more red tape and higher costs for Ontario taxpayers, as well as threaten the independent watershed-based approach used by conservation authorities in land-use planning, it said in a press release dated Nov. 18.

CO is encouraging residents and watershed partners to reach out to the Premier, the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks, the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry and the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, as well as their local MPPs to request them to repeal Schedule 6 of the Bill 229: Protect, Support and Recover from COVID- 19 Act (Budget Measures Act).

Cory Bilyea, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wingham Advance Times