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Investing In Resiliency

By Rachel Williams,
Novae Res Urbis: Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area,
Wednesday February 13 2019,
Vol. 22 No. 7

With the province gutting environmental programs and promoting austerity to balance the budget, conservation authorities are wary of provincial funding cuts.

In its pre-budget submission to the province, Conservation Ontario has requested that the provincial government continue to support the programs administered by the 36 conservation authorities in Ontario to mitigate the impacts of climate change and protect public health. These programs include flood management, water and erosion control, drinking water and natural heritage protection,  watershed stewardship and technical support for land use planning.

“We didn’t ask for additional funding this year. We wanted to respect the government’s goal of trying to reduce its debt, so what we did is identified to the government that we’d like to maintain the current funding that we get,” said Conservation Ontario general manager Kim Gavine.

The province currently provides annual transfer payments of $7.4-million for natural hazards work including flooding and erosion, $5-million in matching
funding to address flood infrastructure issues, and a further $7.2-million under the
Ontario Drinking Water Source Protection program to protect sources of drinking water. This accounts for roughly 9 per cent of funding and is spread out among 36 different authorities. Municipal levies (54 per cent), self-generated revenue (34 per cent) and federal grants or contracts (3 per cent) account for the remaining portions.

“It used to be the province funded a fair bit of what the conservation authorities were responsible for and then they just cut that way back which means  conservation authorities had to find other means of operating,” said Ontario
Nature conservation and education director Anne Bell. Under the leadership
of former Ontario Premier Mike Harris, amendments to the Conservation Authorities Act made in 1995 reduced provincial operating grants by $7.4-million per year, a 42 per cent reduction. Provincial capital grants were also phased
out. This led to conservation authorities having to reduce their staff between 20 and 60 per cent, according to the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy. Although there have been increases in investment for conservation authority programming since the Harris government’s claw backs, municipalities have been shouldering most of the costs.

“In previous pre-budget submissions to the province, we have pleaded our case that additional funding is needed,” said Gavine.

For example, Gavine explained Conservation Ontario received $7.4-million for flood operations in 2015, but estimated the real cost of doing flood operations is
approximately $63.5-million per year. Conservation Ontario also owns and operates $2.7-billion worth of infrastructure, yet receives only $5-million from
the province, which is matched municipally, to work towards repairing that infrastructure.

Updated flood plain mapping is also a priority for Conservation Ontario, as many conservation authorities have older maps that do not adequately capture the newer flood events as conditions change. Gavine told NRU these maps need to be updated, but the cost is estimated to be $136-million, far beyond what conservation authorities can afford.

“I think it would be reasonable to be worried about funding for conservation programs in Ontario,” said Environmental Defence clean economy program manager Sarah Buchanan. “I think having seen how much funding has been cut from environmental programs in Ontario, I think most people out there taking action on climate change who are funded provincially are probably worried with this upcoming budget.”

Since being elected on June 7, the province has scrapped the cap and trade  program aimed to lower greenhouse gas emissions, cancelled the Green Ontario Fund that offered thousands in rebates to  homeowners who completed energy-efficiency renovations and abolished the Office of the Environmental  Commissioner.

In a recent Ernst & Young report commissioned by the province analyzing provincial government expenditures from 2002 to 2017, the authors noted total government expenditure for the 15-year period has grown from $95-billion to $144-billion, with transfer payments growing by $46.3-billion. Transfer payments are made to school boards, universities and colleges, LHINs and hospitals, social service agencies and conservation authorities and are expected to be reduced in the 2019 provincial budget. “That money that we get from the province is in the form of transfer payments, so I know they’re looking at all transfer payments,” noted Gavine. “We want to be able to work with the current government in reducing their deficit, but we are requesting that they at least maintain the current budget levels. We want them to embrace and support conservation
authorities as on the ground environmental delivery agents for the people of Ontario.”

Ontario Headwaters Institute executive director Andrew McCammon said that
Conservation Ontario’s request to maintain current funding levels for work on natural hazards and source protection was “overly reasonable, especially
given a changing climate and increasing population.”

“The OHI supports the request for at least two years of funding, but we suggest a
broader dialogue for longerterm program delivery, with increased reporting and
transparency from conservation authorities and source protection agencies,” he said.

With climate change and more frequent weather events inflicting severe damage on the environment and infrastructure, the role of conservation authorities is becoming increasingly important. These local watershed organizations help with flood management and erosion through planning services, flood forecast and warning, and flood infrastructure  management. They also help municipalities, communities and landowners build resilience through wetland restoration,
management of invasive species, implementation of rural water quality programs,
stormwater management, low-impact development and green infrastructure.

“The [provincial government] talks about local solutions and evidence-based solutions, well if that’s what they really want, they need to invest in conservation
authorities,” Bell said.

Additionally, one of the pillars in the province’s new Environmental Plan released in January is the protection and restoration of lakes, waterways and groundwater. The Environmental Plan also touches on the need to  enhance resiliency and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

“Conservation authorities are perfectly positioned for that work. They know where the hazard lands are, they know where the wetlands are, they’ve done the mapping, they’ve done the assessments, so let’s make sure we use this local knowledge and that we do indeed work to make ourselves more resilient,” Bell said.

The 2019 provincial budget is expected to be released this spring.

Posted with permission of the publisher of NRU Publishing Inc. Original article first appeared in Novae Res Urbis – GTHA Edition, Vol. 22, No. 7, Wednesday, February 13, 2019.