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Divining the real value of Ontario’s water – Future of Bluebelt hinges on stewardship

By Dick Snyder,
Special to the Toronto Star,

April 22 2017

Webster Falls near Hamilton, Ont. The proposed new Bluebelt covers the vast water resources scattered across the Greater Golden Horseshoe.

Sometime this summer, the provincial cabinet will make a decision that will carve out the future course of Ontario’s so-called Bluebelt.

Consider “the blue” to be the kid brother of the Greenbelt, that (almost) two-million acre swath of farmland and green space protected by provincial legislation since 2005.

The Greenbelt anchors the agricultural, tourism and recreation industries in Ontario to the tune of $9.1 billion per year in overall economic impact and 161,000 full-time jobs. Eco-services such as water filtration, flood control and recreational opportunities account for $3.2 billion of activity.

The proposed new Bluebelt covers the vast water resources made up of moraines, aquifers, headwaters, urban river valleys, lakes and wetlands scattered across the Greater Golden Horseshoe (and a little beyond).

Nine out of 10 Ontarians support an expanded Greenbelt in order to protect water, farmland and Ontario’s natural heritage from development sprawl. There are some areas of the province – such as inland communities like Waterloo, Guelph-Wellington and Simcoe County – that rely on groundwater. This is a precious limited resource. Yet these areas are outside the realm of Greenbelt protection or, indeed, any provincial legislation.

“Waterloo Region is particularly vulnerable because we are the largest community in North America dependent on ground water,” says Kevin Thomason of Smart Growth Waterloo. “We don’t have a big pipe to the Great Lakes, we don’t have mountain streams running down into our community. We have solely our water wells.”

Say proponents of the original Greenbelt legislation set 12 years ago: It’s time to focus on water. Or rather, it’s time to focus on our stewardship of a precious resource that has been taken for granted. This will set the framework for how some of the province’s water resources will be managed and protected for years to come – if all goes according to plan.

Water plays a significant part in some of the 87 recommendations former Toronto mayor David Crombie submitted to the provincial government after completing a mandated review of the Greenbelt legislation and related land-use planning slated to take place at the Greenbelt’s 10-year mark.

As chair of the Coordinated Land Use Planning Review Advisory Panel, Crombie and his team toured the province in 2014 and 2015, seeking stakeholder and public input to help shape future policy. The panel’s recommendations seek to unite the objectives set out in the legislated plans for the Greenbelt, the provincial Growth Plan, the Oak Ridges Moraine and the Niagara Escarpment.

“I’m optimistic – but people tell me I’m chronically cheerful,” said the 80-year-old former Toronto mayor in an interview. “It is a historic opportunity for the government to begin implementing one of the largest and most significant regional planning set of recommendations in North America.”

Public perceptions of water are changing, Crombie says, partly driven by an awareness of climate change and conditions in less waterrich parts of the world.

“We sit on 21 per cent of the world’s fresh water. No one else has the Great Lakes like we do, and therefore the river valleys that flow into it.”

“We took it for granted that -it’s there- and always would be. So using it as a sewer is no problem, paving it over is no problem, all in the name of progress. But now there’s a rebirth in the understanding of the importance of water. So boy, we better remember it won’t be there forever and we’ve got to treat it with a little more care.”

Crombie has had his hands wet for a long while. In 1988, he was commissioner of the Royal Commission on the Future of the Toronto Waterfront, which grew out of public dismay over waterside development on federal lands. This led to the opening of the 350-kilometre Waterfront Trail in 1995, connecting parks, wildlife habitats and recreation areas from Stoney Creek to Trenton.
Today the trail covers more than 1,600 kilometres spanning from Lake Erie east into Quebec, with further expansion planned for Lake Huron and Northumberland County.

“Wherever we go, people understand that the trail is a vehicle by which you attract attention to the quality of the water and the quality of its relationship to the land.”

But it’s taken some work to get there.

“Now there’s a clear understanding that good ecology is a producer of wealth,” Crombie says. “That’s the fact of it. A wetland sits there and it cleans water – it’s not a stagnant thing.”

Debbe Crandall has been involved with efforts to protect the Oak Ridges Moraine since 1990, back when “it was pretty much the Wild West.” There was no legislation to protect watercourses from being paved over or filled-in in the name of economic development.

“If you were to look at a map (of areas of the Greater Golden Horseshoe) pre-1980s, and then look at the same map today, you would notice that the landscape has become simplified,” she says. “All these little headwater tributaries are gone. They’ve been plowed over or drained. They’ve been paved.”

There was no unifying legislation to guide the myriad regions and municipalities that touched on the moraine. More significantly, there was a lack of understanding of the science, geography and hydrology at play.

“Because each municipality didn’t have a sense of the “whole” – and how important that little bubbly thing, which may seem so small at one spot, how they all join together to create these river systems.”

Crandall calls the Oak Ridges Moraine – which spans 24 municipalities and 160 km – “a perfect rain barrel” because it’s lined with silty glacial soils that act as a massive bucket. Even when all else is dry, the moraine produces teeming rivers of water.

But it was not always understood – or appreciated – as such. Today, the science has caught up, thanks to decades of work by such groups as STORM (Save the Oak Ridges Moraine), Ontario Nature, Eco Spark, Environmental Defense, Earthroots and the Ontario Greenbelt Alliance – just to name a few of the dozens of grassroots organizations advocating for water protection in the province.

On May 17, 2001, the Oak Ridges Moraine Protection Act was passed. Earth Day 2017 marks 15 years since the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act was approved as a regulation under the new legislation.

Crandall points to work that still needs to be done. Unfettered permits to take water – as revealed last year during the public outcry over Nestlé’s 3.6 million-litre-a-day allotment at its Aberfoyle site – are a particular sore point that Crandall would like to see rectified.

“We have to find ways to build communities, respect the ecology and be helpful to the economy,” Crombie says. “The old way that separated those three things is no longer not just good thinking, it is no longer a part of making us a productive, healthy and sustainable place.”