Environmental Law, Conservation Authorities, & Why You Should Care!

Environmental Law, Conservation Authorities, & Why You Should Care!

Things Are Changing

According to the Environmental Registry of Ontario, conservation authorities have been expanding their activities and scope of work. As a result, some municipalities were unhappy about the additional taxes they had to pay in order to support their projects.

The provincial government responded. In late 2020, Ontario’s conservative government decided to make some major changes to the Conservation Authorities Act. In doing so, it significantly reduced the control of conservation authorities in the decision making process. Unfortunately, many now fear that this will compromise science-based environmental management. While this has wide range of repercussions, Ontario’s watersheds in particular will be affected.

Jack Black showing his enthusiasm for science!

The Major Changes To The Conservation Authorities Act

  1. First, they now allow an applicant to appeal the conservation authority’s decision and go directly to the Minister, who can then make decisions without a hearing. This is obviously concerning as it gives a lot of power to a single individual (and their personal biases & influences).
  2. Applicants can also appeal to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal. This can also override the conservation authority’s decisions. It also adds an additional 200 days (or more) to the process.

In a nutshell: LESS power to conservation authorities + MORE bureaucracies. So why are we doing this?!

A map of the watersheds of Southern and Eastern Ontario- what was normally managed by the conservation authorities.
A map of the watersheds of Southern and Eastern Ontario [Image: Conservation Ontario].

What is a Conservation Authority?

The main objective of conservation authorities is to manage and conserve our natural heritage, including waterways. They strive to do this in a way that protects residents from natural hazards, while also allowing for the promotion of business and the economy. Ensuring that development does not take place in flood-prone areas is one example of this. They’re basically looking out for our safety, and that of the environment, as we go about our economic development.

Since water, budgetary issues, and environmental concerns are fluid,😅 so too are the roles of conservation authorities. There are of course plenty of norms and standards however. For instance, conservation authorities usually work together to share ideas and research. They also work with residents, businesses, and governments and provide science-based research to aid in decision making at these levels.

Their teams include scientists, ecologists (both land and aquatic), geospatial analysts, city planners, communication teams, etc. They’ve also added an educational aspect. This is part of the effort to get more young people outside and better acquainted with nature. Through these programs, they hope to help raise a generation that is compassionate and caring towards the environment.

Watersheds: What About ‘Em?

Watershed is more than a buzz word. It affects our lives daily! If you live in Ontario, and go for regular walks, chances are you’ve come across creeks or even artificial ponds. These little streams drain into rivers which eventually feed into our mighty Great Lakes.  

Watersheds are determined by which body of water into which these streams drain. For the sake of governing, monitoring, and managing these water bodies, most of the conservation authorities in Ontario are divided based on these watersheds. Do you know which watershed you live in and the rivers and streams that make it up?

Rivers and ponds play a key part in our watershed, something normally administered by the conservation authorities.
Even a tiny pond has a role to play!😮 [Image: Mike/Pexels].

How Does This Affect Us?

One common goal that all conservation authorities work towards is reducing flooding and storm surges in their watersheds. In turn, this helps to improve water quality in the Great Lakes. These efforts affect all of our lives and communities. Some of the direct impacts can include:

  • Protection from flooding by barring development in floodplain regions.
  • Decrease in storm surges through reservoirs. These ponds and the surrounding plants hold onto water after a storm and slowly release it into the lake, reducing flash flooding.
  • Permits and decisions for new developments affect our own communities and neighborhoods. Will it be a naturalized forest or a new strip plaza? How about both?
young women having rest near calm lake with ducks
Enjoying some time with nature definitely benefits your mental health! Click the pic for more. [Image: Charlotte May/Pexels].

The Ideal Scenario

When a group applies for a construction permit, an ideal case of decision making would have the following two elements:

  1. An easy-to-understand process, with minimal bureaucracies.    
  2. A quick response from the conservation authorities. Will the proposal be accepted or rejected? What changes are necessary?

Conservation authorities strive to make a fair, science-based evaluation with the interest of the natural habitats and business in mind. Imagine that your project gets flooded 10 years down the line…approving it would probably be a BAD idea!

plantation of rice growing in tropical farm
Flooding can be useful, if you want to grow rice!😉 [Image: Maria Orlova/Pexels].

Aiming For Better

Conservation authorities have focused hard on streamlining their process to achieve the “ideal scenario” I mentioned above. In April 2019, they initiated the Client Service and Streamlining Initiative. The agenda revolved around three main points:

  • Improve client service and accountability. This would include more training for conservation authority staff, more consistency and transparency across the board.
  • Decrease the time taken to make decisions on permits. Conservation authorities identify places with major holdups and ways to solve these barriers so permits can be issued efficiently.
  • Identify and implement ways to be even more efficient! This means reducing bureaucracies wherever possible so that things get moving.
Sylvia Earle quote, "There's plenty of water in the universe without life, but nowhere is there life without water."
Click for more from the amazing Sylvia Earle.🤩

Careful Consideration

After reading both sides of the issue, my humble opinion is that these recent changes will bring more harm than help.

It takes years, even decades, to implement environmental changes and to see results. Thus, we need to insure that conservation authorities are allowed to provide data and guidance based on science. Streamlining the process helps to ensure that they serve the environment and protect humans from natural hazards.

In addition, their involvement in projects limits the chances of economic biases from those financially invested. Moreover, reducing the scope of science and handing out permits to lucrative businesses can also cause more harm in the future.

long wing butterfly on frog head soak on water
[Image: Pixabay/Pexels].

A Watershed Moment

In a world that’s so connected, we should prioritize quick access to information. It helps us to be aware of what effects us. These changes to the conservation authorities for instance. It reduces their effectiveness and gives more power to municipalities.

In theory that might not sound all that bad. But in reality, municipalities are already tight on time and budget, and they’re not exactly the experts in this field. Rather, by allowing conservation authorities to do the research as well as provide the necessary reports and permits saves a whole lot of time and bureaucracy!

Researching this post, I couldn’t find any info that related the conservation authorities educational programs as an issue either. In either case, I strongly believe that investing in outdoor educational and recreational programs has a whole host of intrinsic benefits.

Communities where citizens are more connected to nature could mean lower crime rates, and overall healthier populations. Having worked as an outdoor educator with both municipalities and conservation authorities, I’d have to say that the latter does a way better job with its resources!

Editing by Megan Fuller.


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