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Mandate Unclear

By Rachel Williams,
Novae Res Urbis: Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area,
Wednesday August 21 2019,
Vol. 22 No. 33

Conservation authority staff and environmentalists are urging the provincial government to be more transparent and provide greater clarity with respect to its recent request that conservation authorities begin winding down programs that do not fall within the authority’s core mandate.

In a letter issued to conservation authorities and municipal mayors on Friday evening, environment, conservation and parks minister Jeff Yurek requested that staff begin preparations to scale back activities that fall outside their ‘core mandate’. The letter states that winding down these non-core programs will provide greater control to municipalities over conservation authority programs and budgets, thereby improving public transparency, consistency and accountability in conservation authority operations.

But according to Conservation Ontario general manager Kim Gavine, the province has yet to release information on what would fall outside the conservation authority’s core mandate, or who would carry out non-core work if certain environmental initiatives were removed from the jurisdiction of the conservation authority.

“There were changes to the Conservation Authorities Act in Bill 108, Schedule 2. The province had made reference to the core programs which have been identified, but one of the things we were waiting for is for the province to send us regulations in terms of what would those core programs entail. What would be the details of the programs and services,” she said.

Five core programs and services were identified in the letter, including risk of natural hazards; conservation and management of conservation authority-owned or controlled lands; drinking water source protection; protection of the Lake Simcoe watershed; and other programs or services prescribed by regulation.

Without these prescribed regulations, or a clear understanding of which activities would fall within core programs and services and which would fall outside, Gavine said it’s difficult to begin winding down specific initiatives. She added, if municipalities wanted conservation authorities to carry out specific work that would be classified as “non-core”, the two parties could enter into a memorandum of understanding [MOU] outlining scope of work, oversight, costs, timetables, and so on. These MOUs would not require provincial  involvement or funding. Gavine said the province has yet to confirm how these negotiated agreements would proceed.

“One of the key mandates of conservation authorities is to keep people and their properties safe and protected, so we keep people safe from flooding, and we also keep people safe with their drinking water. The more cuts to these programs, the more difficult that is,” she said.

The province has already cut funding for flood management programs by 50 per cent, from $7.4-million to approximately $3.7-million. Gavine said there could be further cuts to the source water protection program by 2021. In an emailed statement from the minister’s office, the province said it is also looking to halt programming and events run by conservation authorities, such as maple syrup festivals, ziplining, photography and wedding permits, which do not fall
within the conservation authorities’ core mandate but which help with cost recovery.

“You want to drive some revenue through [conservation authority] parks, so that’s what we’ve been doing with maple syrup festivals and fall festivals…but it’s all done with a cost recovery model,” said Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) CAO Deborah Martin-Downs. “Staff are there being paid for through our levy budget, but we get cost recovery, so our CVC parks are now bringing [in] about 50 cents on the dollar back by the money they raise.”

Martin-Downs told NRU she is also concerned about how these program cuts will impact watershed  management across the province. Conservation authorities were initially set up in the 1940s to address erosion, soil loss, drought and flooding by managing natural resources on a watershed basis. But this work cannot be done without evaluating surrounding land uses around watersheds to determine how the land is affecting water quantity and quality. Once that is  assessed, staff can recommend an action plan which may include maintaining the forest cover, installing stormwater  infrastructure and other climate change mitigation and adaptation initiatives.

“Along the way, the province has focused in on the hazard lines and hazard limits,” said Martin-Downs, with less attention being paid to the surrounding landscape and its impacts on watersheds. “We can either manage the landscape or we can just look at the hazards, but we will just watch [the hazards] get bigger as time goes on and I don’t think anybody wants that, especially in an era of climate change, we need to be trying to minimize the impact on the hazard lands, hazards being both flood plains, steep slopes and shorelines as well.”

Watershed planning and data collection is also crucial to ensuring major  infrastructure projects can move forward. The Town of Erin is proposing a new sewage treatment plant to address servicing, planning and environmental issues. The municipality did not have the data on surrounding watersheds that were needed to support their approvals. CVC conducted the watershed monitoring work to ensure the town could move ahead on this crucial infrastructure project.

“We need that long-term data that allows us to manage the watershed. That’s at risk if people don’t value that or don’t see it as something that they want to pay for,” she said.

Development industry groups have been lobbying the provincial government to amend the Conservation Authorities Act to ensure conservation authorities remain focused on delivering their core mandate. In its submission to the province on amendments to the Conservation Authorities Act, the Ontario Home Builders’
Association (OHBA) accused conservation authorities of “mandate creep”, of extending advice beyond the scope of their jurisdiction on land use planning matters, which they say leads to duplication of reporting requirements and delays in the planning approvals process.

The OHBA submission notes the significance of  delineating responsibilities between what a conservation authority’s role is under generic regulation and what their role is under the Planning Act. To provide clarity in the delineation of responsibilities, OHBA recommends that when providing comments on planning matters, conservation authorities should note that their comments are “advisory” and not an extension of their legislative authority. Municipalities should also not delay the progression of an application as a result of these “advisory” comments.

“It would be a huge concern if we didn’t have conservation authorities as involved in land use planning decisions and permitting at a local level,” said Ontario Nature conservation and education director Anne Bell. “They are the experts in terms of watershed health and understanding the laws and policies and understanding [what the] implications are when development proposals go forward. If you cut them out of those conversations, you are facing real problems.”

Bell also noted that the proposed changes to the Provincial Policy Statement emphasize the importance of preparing for climate change. “How can municipalities be expected to prepare for climate change if conservation authorities are hamstrung by funding cuts and rollbacks? You can’t just pay lip service to these things. If you’re serious about preparing for climate change, then you’d better be serious about investing in solutions and investing in those agencies that can actually deliver solutions,” she said.

Posted with permission of the publisher of NRU Publishing Inc. Original article first appeared in Novae Res Urbis – GTHA, Vol. 22, No. 33, Wednesday, August 21, 2019.