Reviewing the Conservation Authorities Act

Superior Water Photo Credit: Gray MerriamThe following was submitted under the Environmental Registry posting # 012-4509: Conservation Authorities Act Review Discussion Paper

Dear Ms. Holder,

Thank you for the opportunity to provide comments on the Discussion Paper regarding the review of the Conservation Authorities Act.
We are fortunate in Ontario to have gorgeous landscapes and lots of fresh water, natural resources and rich farmland. But we can’t take this for granted. We have to care of what we love and value.
For this reason, the GPO strongly supports the province’s Conservation Authorities. The GPO believes the conservation authorities must be strengthened in order to protect our watersheds and the health and well being of our communities. 
Ontario needs a comprehensive vision for the protection of our water. In the age of climate change, the role of our Conservation Authorities (CAs) will become increasingly important. Our CAs must have sustainable funding, better transparency and oversight, and appropriate regulatory authority to fulfill their vital mandate: undertaking watershed-based programs for the conservation, restoration, development and management of Ontario’s natural resources.
Please accept the following comments on CAs for your consideration:
1. Deliver a comprehensive vision for protecting our water and the places we love
The decision to divide the comments on the CAs and the discussions on wetlands conservation is very disappointing. We need to take this opportunity to identify and deliver a more fully integrated system of natural heritage protection, watershed management and land use planning in Ontario.
It’s important that CAs have the authority to regulate wetland and watercourse from effects across a broad range of developments, including aggregates, road construction, pipelines, domestic and municipal water use, infrastructure and other developments.
2. Develop a sustainable funding formula and reduce the influence of special interests
We need to manage our natural capital responsibly. To do this, CAs must have adequate funding. It’s also important that funding isn’t tied to special interests.
A Ministry of Natural Resources study estimates the value of ecosystem services in southern Ontario alone at $84 billion. Our natural environment provides services such as water filtration, flood control, climate stabilization, waste treatment, wildlife habitat, and recreation – free of charge. It’s important that we manage these assets properly so they are there for us now and in the future.
The Ontario government should be adequately funding CAs with stable funding for the long term. 
CAs should not have to rely on funding from companies, municipalities or anyone who they are regulating. This could lead to real or perceived unfair influence from vested interests. We must ensure that CAs are able to have independent debates and decisions.
By stepping in with provincial funding, and banning donations from corporations or individuals involved in projects, we can avoid even the perception of a conflict of interest.
Even though it is outside the scope of this review, the GPO supports increasing charges for aggregates and water taking in order to provide increased funding for the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Conservation Authorities so that they have the financial resources to adequately do their job of protecting our watersheds.
In the case of municipal funding, the problem arises when a municipality stands to gain financially from a project. Because some CA board members are also municipal councillors, this may put them in conflict with their duty to protect our water due to municipally approved developments. Strict and clear conflict of interest guidelines should be in place to prevent conflicts of interest and avoid the perception of a conflict of interest. The province may consider replacing municipal council members with provincial appointees with area expertise.
It would also be beneficial to return to a governance system where experts in watershed management are a substantial part of the board, as well as local representatives who have knowledge or expertise to contribute. 
3. Confirm and expand the mandate for CAs
The existing mandate for CAs should be confirmed: to undertake watershed-based programs for the conservation, restoration, development and management of natural resources.
Exemptions for some sectors currently under s.28 of the CAA should be eliminated. In order for CAs to properly manage watersheds, provincial infrastructure, aggregate and farming should be regulated under the CA where their operations affect watersheds.
CAs can fill an important responsibility at a regional scale because of their formation on geographical rather than political lines. But they need a solid governance model, as well as stable funding and resources in order to deliver on their mandate.
We should take this chance to ensure each provincial plan that relates to watersheds – such as the Niagara Escarpment Plan, Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan and Lake Simcoe Protection plan –  have a shared vision as well as consistency in language and direction with the Conservation Authorities Act.
4. Transparency
We must move away from behind-closed-doors decisions and exemptions that threaten our natural heritage. Rules need to be fair, transparent, and effective. 
Section 28 permits should come under the Environmental Bill of Rights to allow for a period of public notice, comment and leave to appeal. 
Meetings of CAs should be open and decisions available to the public. Right now, there is concern public policy decisions are being made without proper public consultation. It’s important that CA decisions are made in a transparent and accountable way so that we can be assured that the public interest is put before private corporate interests.  
For a specific example, the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority is not being transparent in its discussions about regarding the Efficiency Audit report related to the Midhurst mega-development. This development threatens 1,900 acres of farmland, the Minesing Wetlands, the Nottawasaga watershed and important natural heritage, yet concerned community members are not being heard.
Conservation Authorities can play an important role in managing our watersheds. But to properly fulfill their mandate, CAs need a comprehensive vision for watershed management set by the province across related legislation, stable provincial funding, governance reform, and more transparency and accountability.
Thank you for your review of this important legislation.
Mike Schreiner
Leader, GPO
Photo Credit: Grey Merriam