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Conservation authority says Ontario's COVID-19 budget bill would 'negate' its fundamental role

The head of the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority says Ontario's proposed overhaul to conservation authorities would weaken environmental protections and put more power into the hands of developers.

The bill also seeks to decentralize environmental programs by allowing communities to opt out

The Upper Thames River Conservation Authority says Ontario's COVID-19 budget bill would hand its power to developers and create a 'patchwork' of environmental programs that would undermine environmental protections. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

The head of the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (UTRCA) says Ontario's proposed overhaul of conservation authorities would weaken environmental protections and put more power into the hands of private developers, while negating its fundamental role.

The Progressive Conservative government introduced Bill 229 last month. The Protect, Support and Recover from COVID-19 Act is an omnibus bill that, among other things, seeks to change the way Ontario's 36 conservation authorities regulate development along flood plains. 

Critics say the proposed changes underscore a push by Premier Doug Ford's government to dismantle Ontario's environmental regulations and protections, including eliminating cap and trade, loosening air pollution laws and allowing developers to sidestep endangered species protections.  

Andrew Buttigeg, the press secretary for the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, wrote in an email to CBC News that the proposed changes are meant to improve oversight, governance and accountability of conservation authorities. 

"The proposed changes would provide a new mechanism for the province to become involved in the issuance of permits, where there are matters of provincial interest. The scope of this mechanism will be further determined through the development and consultation of regulations," he wrote. 

Even though the exact details of the proposed regulations have yet to be finalized, it hasn't stopped conservation authorities from sounding the alarm over changes they believe would make them more ineffective. 

"There's a reason we're concerned. [The changes] seem to bypass or negate our fundamental role, which is watershed management," said Ian Wilcox, the general manager of the UTRCA. 

"We were not informed whether conservation authorities would be part of this bill, so it was a bit of a shock. In our opinion, it really has nothing to do with the stated purpose of that omnibus bill." 

The Progressive Conservative government said the bill would improve transparency and consistency by giving municipalities more power over how the province's 36 conservation authorities conduct their core business of flood control. 

Conservation authorities counter that, by giving municipalities more power including the ability to opt out of certain environmental programs, the bill actually undermines transparency and consistency and turns the clock back on Ontario's environmental policy by almost 70 years. 

Developers would be able to bypass conservation authorities

What the government wants conservation authorities to do is to stick to what it calls their "core business," which is simply flood control.  (CBC Ottawa)

Under current regulations, conservation authorities can deny permits for private developers to build in flood zones if its deemed an unsafe place to build.

Under Bill 229, developers would be able to go around conservation authorities by going to the Minister of Natural Resources or the Ontario Land Tribunal directly in "matters of provincial interest." 

The minister could then hypothetically grant permits unilaterally or overturn conservation authority decisions, which Wilcox argues would create added layers of bureaucracy, delays and costs.  

As Ontario exerts more control, it pays less and less

The proposed changes underscore a push by Premier Doug Ford's government to dismantle Ontario's environmental regulations and protections. (File Photo)

"It's another example of how we feel the province is controlling much more directly what we do. We're concerned they're not using the same criteria, the same environmental basis, as well," Wilcox said.  

"We're concerned the minister has the ability to just override the science and the data and make a decision based on other criteria. We're not sure how that protects the people of Ontario."

While the province exerts more and more control over conservation authorities, it pays less and less for their operations. Wilcox said that Ontario now pays for less than five per cent of their total budget, while municipalities and self-generated revenue streams, such as contracts and user fees from parks, make up the other 40 and almost 60 per cent, respectively. 

The government also wants to make conservation authorities beholden to member municipalities, requiring them to enter into agreements with each community anytime their money is used to bankroll costs for an environmental program that doesn't directly involve flood control. 

Decentralization could recreate conditions of 'dirty 30s' 

Among the environmental changes already made by the Ontario government was to enable developers to sidestep endangered species protection in exchange for a donation to threatened species funds.

Wilcox said in the case of the UTRCA, which includes 17 municipalities, each municipality would have to be consulted, negotiated with and signed into an agreement to continue certain programs.  

"For example, if we wanted to continue with an environmental education program, we would have to negotiate an agreement with all 17 municipalities and they could choose to opt in or out of that service," Wilcox said. 

"Our fear is the whole watershed approach, which has been the basis of our success, is being replaced with a patchwork of little agreements that will take huge administrative effort and negate the whole foundation that conservation authorities were created for." 

One of the reasons conservation authorities were created in Ontario in 1946 was in response to poor land, water and forestry practices created by a patchwork of local jurisdictions each working according to their own agendas rather than the greater good. 

Wilcox worries the proposed changes could bring the province back to a place that could not only recreate the conditions of the "dirty 30s," or even set the stage for the type of disaster that killed seven people and sickened 2,000 in Walkerton, Ont. two decades ago. 

"We're going to end up with a patchwork of programs, so we're only looking after water quality in those municipalities who support it and are willing to pay us for it. Water doesn't stay in a municipality, it flows down steam, so I'm really baffled how that kind of system can work."

Wilcox said cities who are willing to pay for clean water and environmental initiatives such as London may end up bearing the burden and cost of cleaning up after its neighbours. 

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this article imprecisely described the reasons for the Ontario PC government's proposed reforms to conservation authorities. While the government does want to create jobs and reduce tape overall, it said the purpose of the overhaul is to improve transparency and consistency by giving municipalities and developers within watersheds more power to shape future decisions.
    Nov 24, 2020 11:26 AM ET

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

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