On October 25, 2022, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) posted a proposal to overhaul the Ontario Wetland Evaluation System (OWES). The deadline for public comment is November 24, 2022.
OWES assessments are necessary to designate Provincially Significant Wetlands (PSWs). Such designation results in a high level of protection for wetlands under provincial law and policy. Yet the proposed reworking of the OWES will mean that very few wetlands would be deemed provincially significant in the future and that many, if not most, existing PSWs could lose that designation. As a result, very few of Ontario’s wetlands may benefit in the future from the protection that PSW designation currently provides.
The stated purpose of the proposed OWES overhaul is to support the construction of 1.5 million new housing units over the next ten years by streamlining the wetland evaluation process. Yet, this purpose is misguided and misleading, given that a shortage of land isn’t the cause of the housing shortage , as Ontario’s Housing Affordability Task Force explained in its 2022 report. The amount of greenfield land already designated for development and added to municipal settlement boundaries, but still sitting unbuilt far exceeds what is needed to meet long range housing targets. That includes, for example, more than 86,000 acres within the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area alone.
Our Chief Concerns About the Proposed OWES Changes
Wetland complexes no longer to be recognized or considered
The OWES is the official procedure to identify PSWs and determine their boundaries, based on a scoring system that considers biological, social, hydrological and special features. Identifying wetland complexes has always been integral to the evaluation and scoring process, based on the understanding that many wetlands are interconnected with complementary functions that contribute to the health and significance of the whole (i.e., the complex).
MNRF is proposing, however, to no longer consider wetland complexes as part of the OWES. If the changes go forward, very few new PSWs will be designated in the future and many existing PSWs will lose that designation and the protection it affords.
Endangered and threatened species no longer to be recognized
MNRF is proposing to ignore the presence of endangered or threatened species in the OWES process, a criterion which is a key factor in determining provincial significance. Currently, the presence of endangered or threatened species automatically qualifies the wetland as provincially significant. But with the proposed changes, species at risk will be considered only as “provincially tracked species,” worth far less in the evaluation. This major change would affect the scoring of most wetlands in Ontario, leaving many of them, and the significant species that rely on them, vulnerable to development.
Provincial government oversight and coordination to be removed
MNRF is proposing to remove itself from any involvement in Ontario’s wetland evaluation process, despite the deep and valuable expertise of ministry staff who have overseen the process for decades. No central agency is being assigned to coordinate or approve evaluations or to ensure that information about PSW designation is publicly accessible. Consultation with MNRF will no longer be an option.
It appears that approval authority will be downloaded to municipalities, many of which have little expertise and would no longer be able to consult with conservation authorities (due to proposed Bill 23 amendments to the Conservation Authorities Act). Instead, the onus would be on the wetland evaluator (working in most cases for the development proponent) to inform the municipality and landowners in writing about the outcome of the evaluation or re-evaluation.
Have no authority to intervene on behalf of the public regarding an evaluation of questionable merit
The proposed changes to the OWES are going forward at the same time as Bill 23 and other proposed law and policy amendments that will negatively impact wetland conservation in Ontario. The broad scope of the proposals and the speed with which they are being pushed forward severely compromises the public’s ability to comprehend and respond.
Ontario’s wetlands play a critical role in sustaining healthy communities, enhancing climate change resilience and conserving biodiversity. Together, we must do our utmost to ensure that the government does not proceed with the proposed overhaul of the OWES.