By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Alarm bells are ringing as sweeping changes to Ontario’s Conservation Act edge closer to reality.
Bill 229, a budget omnibus bill, has received second reading at Queen’s Park and could become law as early as Dec. 10 if the process isn’t interrupted.
Because it is part of a budget bill, no consultation is required, either with the public or with affected conservation authorities and environmental agencies.
Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority executive director Mark Peacock, says the new legislation slashes funding to conservation authorities placing a greater financial burden on municipalities.
A host of responsibilities will be switched to municipalities as well, though how this will roll out is unclear.
“Authority members will no longer be responsible to the authority, but to the municipality,” Peacock says.
Water quality, natural habitat and flooding, which scientists say is increasing because of climate change, are crucial issues Ontario’s conservation authorities currently monitor and govern.
Peacock says authorities across the province collaborate with each other and elected municipal officials are part of the process as they serve on authority boards.
Teamwork is essential when working on protecting the environment, he adds.
“Because everyone is working together, we accomplish this,” Peacock notes.
“We monitor water quality and water flows downhill,” Peacock explains. “There’s connectivity.”
Ontario’s Conservation Authority Act dates back to 1946.
Currently there are 36 conservation authorities in the province.
Bill 229 also removes the legal teeth of Ontario’s conservation authorities, which issue land use permits to ensure safe water quality and sound land management practices.
Some critics are saying the Ford government is catering to wealthy developers, paving the way for them by sidestepping rules that protect the environment.
The new legislation will give the province the ability to greenlight development in ecologically important areas without the checks and balances provided by the conservation authorities.
East Kent Coun. John Wright, who sits on the LTVCA board, says the local authority had no opportunity to provide input on the legislation.
“We had no say,” Wright explains, adding the changes “came out of nowhere.
“The sad part is, somebody in Toronto made the decision,” he says. “Probably somebody who has never even been to a wetland.”
More than 100 groups, including Ontario Nature and Ecojustice, are currently lobbying the province to hold off on the change until proper consultation can be completed.
It’s estimated that 68% of Ontario’s wetlands have been lost to agriculture and industrial and residential development.
Pam Wright is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Herald. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.