Fears for Ontario wetlands as changes to evaluations finalized
The majority of the greater Toronto area’s sensitive wetlands could be de-conserved under the provincial government’s drastic overhaul of wetland ratings, leaving the lands open to development, critics say.
The province completed its proposed changes to the Ontario Wetland Evaluation System (OWES) — an assessment method that determines whether a wetland deserves provincial protection — on the eve of the winter holiday. This is despite nearly 15,000 comments from “public, environmental and conservation organizations, academic/scientific community, indigenous communities and local authorities” expressing “concern about changes affecting wetland conservation.”
Critics, including Ontario’s Auditor General, said the changes would “completely undermine protection of Ontario’s wetlands” while doing little to solve the housing crisis.
Changes the province is pushing include: reducing government oversight of wetland assessments; Assess smaller wetlands independently and not as part of a larger wetland complex, which would likely render them unprotectable; and to change the rating so that the presence of an endangered species or an endangered species does not automatically qualify the wetland for protection.
Conservation agencies in Toronto, Halton and the Niagara Peninsula, which are responsible for wetland management, said up to 95 percent of provincially significant wetlands (PSW) in their jurisdictions could be “adversely affected.”
“The full overhaul of the OWES…will ensure that very few wetlands will be classified as provincially significant in the future and that many, if not most, existing PSWs could lose this designation,” said a letter sent to the province, issued by 70 environmental groups have signed in Ontario, including Ontario Nature, Birds Canada and the National Farmers Union. “As a result, very few of Ontario’s wetlands would benefit in the future from the protection that PSW designation currently provides.”
Critics said this means many currently protected wetlands could be re-evaluated or those queued for an evaluation could ultimately see development.
In southern Ontario, wetlands play a key role in the province’s flood control strategy. They are areas that have been soaked in water long enough for the ground to become soggy – and they include swamps, bogs, and marshes. Not only do they prevent flood damage, but they also provide habitat for wildlife and filter water.
Conservation Halton said 95 percent of its wetlands of provincial importance could be reassessed under the provincial changes. Biodiversity areas of Niagara could see 80 percent of identified wetlands “negatively impacted.” The Toronto and region conservation agency said the numbers were “staggering” and that 9,000 of its 10,000 wetlands could be at risk from the proposed changes.
“We are concerned that subsequent impacts/removals would affect essential natural functions of the wetlands such as: These include flood mitigation, erosion control, water conservation and purification, and biodiversity support,” Toronto’s Conservation Authority said in its submissions to the province on the wetland changes last month.
The province created a wetland rating system in 1983 to curb their destruction and establish scientific criteria to determine how to protect them. Wetlands that are considered provincially important are generally protected from development and must be buffered from development on adjacent properties.
TRCA, under its jurisdiction, said wetlands make up less than five percent of the land, which accounts for about 11,000 hectares. And a number of wetlands — such as the Lower Duffins Creek wetland — have been under development pressure, particularly under the application of the Ford government’s ministerial zoning regulations, which permit development on wetlands under certain conditions.
In releasing the changes to the Ontario Environmental Registry rating system in November — the same day the omnibus housing law was unveiled — the province said it introduced the changes to “provide greater certainty and clarity as to how significant wetlands are assessed and identified” and “to allow further rationalization of development decisions by removing the requirement for the Department to review and confirm wetland assessment results.”
In an email to the Star, a spokesman for Graydon Smith, Secretary of State for Natural Resources and Forestry, said: “Our Government recognizes the importance of wetlands in communities across the province. The proposed update…would eliminate duplicate requirements and streamline the assessment process,” said Melissa Candelaria.
However, critics said one of the most worrying changes was the removal of provincial oversight from the assessment process altogether.
Currently, the Department of Natural Resources and Forestry and the Department of Communities and Housing share responsibility for assessing wetlands and ensuring they are protected in light of development. But under the new changes, the assessments would not be conducted by the MNRF, but by a privately trained wetland assessor who would inform the local community whether a wetland should be protected.
“The elimination of provincial oversight in the wetland assessment process introduces a further risk of inconsistency in the assessment and hence protection of wetlands across the province,” writes Bonnie Lysyk, Auditor General, in her November Flood Risk Reduction Report.
In particular, critics fear that the province’s changes would no longer rate groups of wetlands as a complex, but instead would rate each individual part of a complex. Currently, wetlands under two hectares are not assessed, but may be protected if assessed and assessed as part of a larger complex.
In its letter, TRCA said that 90 percent of the wetlands in its jurisdiction are less than five acres — roughly the size of four football fields — and this change “puts a large majority of wetlands within TRCA jurisdiction… at risk.”
Brad Stephens, senior manager of planning ecology at TRCA, said almost all of the wetlands in the GTA are complexes, including the Toronto Islands, Lower Duffins Creek wetland and Carruthers Creek. “It’s very rare that we have one huge wetland in our jurisdiction,” he said.
Conservation Halton’s Shelly Datseris said treating wetlands as complexes is a “science-based approach that recognizes that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” and that the “removal of complexes means many PSWs can be reassessed as a whole.” unit after unit and will probably no longer be PSWs.”
Datseris said 95 percent of Conservation Halton’s wetlands of provincial importance are part of complexes, and with the proposed changes they could be “reassessed in a piecemeal approach that could render each individual entity insignificant one at a time”.
Environmental groups said they are also concerned that the province will no longer consider the presence of an endangered or threatened species in a wetland when determining whether it is of provincial importance. And that the province will implement a compensation policy where they would compensate for the loss of wetlands in one place by creating another.
“Implementing an offset policy could set precedents for the removal of wetlands, forests and wildlife habitats, regardless of their importance,” a group of ecologists and environmental advisers said in a letter to the province, adding that the province’s proposal “does not recognize that Complexities, challenges and costs of managing and implementing ecosystem recovery.”
However, the province said it has invested $30 million in a wetland restoration program that “will result in a net positive impact on wetlands.”
In her report, the Auditor General said that while such programs “can help preserve individual wetlands on private land, the lack of an overarching strategy and targets increases the risk that wetlands, which can reduce urban flood risk, will continue to be lost or.” be harmed”.
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