London

Conservation authority calls Ontario's $30M wetland fund 'a distraction'

The general manager of the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority calls a $30 million wetland fund from the Ontario government 'a distraction' from what he argues is the real issue: giving developers more leeway to build on flood plains and creating potential public safety issues. 

The program was announced after seven members of the Greenbelt Council quit, including the chair

The general manager of the Upper Thames Valley Conservation Authority calls a $30 million wetland fund from the Ontario government 'a distraction' from what he argues is the real issue: giving developers more leeway to build on flood plains, something he says is a 'public safety issue.' (Colin Butler/CBC News)

The general manager of the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority calls a $30 million wetland fund from the Ontario government "a distraction" from what he argues is the real issue: giving developers more leeway to build on flood plains and creating potential public safety issues. 

The wetland program was announced Monday by Ontario municipal affairs minister Steve Clark after six members of Ontario's Greenbelt Council resigned Sunday, after former chair David Crombie quit on Saturday.

Crombie left, he said, because of measures contained in the Progressive Conservatives' budget bill that he argued would eviscerate key environmental protections in favour of real estate developers.

On Monday, Clark announced the $30 million dollar fund to create and restore wetlands while simultaneously ducking questions from reporters about why the proposed environmental changes are being made in the first place and who exactly wanted them made. 

With 36 conservation authorities across Ontario, the money would average out to less than a million dollars apiece, but besides Ducks Unlimited, Clark was vague about where the money would actually go. 

"In the first year of a five-year program, the province will invest $6 million with Ducks Unlimited Canada," he said. "As the program extends in years two through five, it will be expanded through additional partnerships and include wetland restoration projects."

The Progressive Conservative government argues the changes proposed in Bill 229 are needed in order to give municipalities a greater voice in how civic money is being spent on regional environmental projects. 

However, critics argue the changes would be a victory for developers at the expense of public safety and would effectively negate the fundamental role of conservation authorities by allowing developers to sidestep scientifically-based decisions through provincial overrides. 

On Monday, Upper Thames River Conservation Authority general manager Ian Wilcox called the $30 million announcement to create and restore wetlands "a distraction" from an environmental overhaul he argues threatens to roll back 70 years worth of environmental policies. 

"We're concerned the changes open the door to what I would call 'crazy ideas' to build in high risk areas that put people and property at risk, and that's been our argument to the province, that's our objection to Bill 229 ,and today's announcement detracts from our concern that this is a public safety issue."

Wilcox cited areas such as the Sifton Bog or Dorchester Swamp that would be among the places that could potentially be opened up to development thanks to the proposed changes to Ontario's environmental protections. 

Chief among his concerns though are the flood plain areas that rim waterways, often in the heart of communities, which have traditionally been off-limits to developers but have become even more attractive thanks to the province's unprecedented real estate boom. 

"Whether it's Gibbons Park, Harris Park, Labatt Park, those are park land areas because that's an appropriate use of flood plain lands because they will flood," he said, "but there are all kinds of development pressure to put housing there with comments that we haven't seen it flood in 30 years."

'Those places we feel are now vulnerable with the changes that are being proposed through Bill 229."

Wilcox said about 90 per cent of the wetlands in Southern Ontario have been destroyed, and he said he was disappointed in the language used by Clark at Monday's news conference, suggesting that the money would only be used to create and restore wetlands, rather than protect the wetlands that already exist. 

"What seems to be absent, and this ties into the timing of the announcement, and that's 'protect' wetlands," he said.

"Wetlands are not like a Walmart. You can't go buy one and build it. They take decades to build. You can't dig a hole and fill it with a garden hose and throw a few cat tails in."

"It takes 100 years to create a functioning wetland," he said. "I appreciate the intent, but I feel like it's misdirected."

now