Attacking Ontario’s conservation authorities puts lives at risk
By Wendy Burton Toronto Star
First came the deluge — six inches of spring rain on snow over five days. River levels rose seven meters above normal.
Then came destruction — $52 million in today’s dollars, more than 1,000 homes and businesses damaged beyond repair, a man swept from a rescue boat, a train engineer and two passengers killed as an overpass gave way, a doctor rushing to the scene drowned when a bridge collapsed as he drove over it.
This was in 1937 in London, Ont., where unregulated development in the Thames River watershed had destroyed forests, wetlands, and green fields. The stripped landscape could not absorb the devastating floodwaters.
Now, Conservation Authorities prevent such disasters — but for how long? The future is in doubt as some developers demand a weakening of protection — and the provincial government indicates it is listening.
Conservation authorities (CAs) are an Ontario innovation — based on nature’s boundaries, rather than political boundaries. Municipalities within a single watershed create CAs in order to share the costs of managing water quality and quantity, benefitting farmers and local residents and businesses.
Throughout the 1930s, farmers, conservationists, hunters and fishermen pressed for wiser watershed management. Finally, in 1946, the Progressive Conservative government of George Drew passed the Conservation Authorities Act.
It took the even bigger 1954 disaster of Hurricane Hazel to make more Ontarians embrace watershed management. Hurricane Hazel killed 81 people. The damage cost $1.3 billion (in current dollars).
In the aftermath of Hurricane Hazel, the Ontario government enhanced the flood protection mandate of Conservation Authorities. They even increased funding to buy and hold lands that would reduce runoff and flooding. Today, 36 CAs conserve, restore, and manage natural resources for the 95 per cent of Ontarians within their boundaries.
Thanks to Conservation Authorities, Ontario is a leader in Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM). At a time when climate change is impacting water quality and quantity in disastrous ways, IWRM and Conservation Authorities are more important than ever.
Despite their important role, some CAs face opposition from short-sighted or self-interested parties wanting to build in flood plains, significant woodlands, or beside or in wetlands.
They argue that such protections must be swept aside to make room for more housing and perpetuate a myth that there is a scarcity of land zoned within our towns and cities for more building. This, although all municipalities have already set aside more than enough lands for projected future population growth.
The province should ignore the calls for hobbling CAs and help the ones in under-resourced areas operate as well as the better resourced ones can. Ontario’s CAs save lives, preserve economic prospects, and protect our environment. Let’s build on our successes and appreciate, rather than attack, this unique Ontario innovation.