Working to Protect Ontario’s Headwaters, their Natural Heritage, and our Watersheds

About Headwaters

A first-order stream is one with no tributaries, as above, while a second-order stream starts where two first-order streams converge.
First and second-order streams can be ephemeral (where flow is based on precipitation) or intermittent (where flow occurs when the water table rises).

What are headwaters and why are they so important?
The OHI defines headwaters as:
  • Surface and groundwater collection areas, including sub-surface flows;
  • Areas of groundwater discharge and up-welling;
  • Vernal ponds, spring-fed ponds, and wetlands;
  • Headwater drainage features, including ephemeral and intermittent streams;
  • First, second, and third order streams. A first order stream is one with no tributaries, while a second order stream starts where two first order streams converge, as per the drawing, and so on.

While most scientific literature includes third order streams in the definition of headwaters, the OHI has selected a tighter area of focus – first and second order streams and their catchments – due to the extent of development, the predominance of private ownership, the lack of current data on the condition of headwaters, and the need for enhanced stewardship for headwater health across southern Ontario.

Headwaters form the basis of the ecological integrity of our watersheds and contribute fundamental social and economic goods and services. Headwaters and their catchments, areas drained by small streams:

  • Drain the majority of surface area in a watershed;
  • Comprise the majority of stream length in most watersheds;
  • Contribute the majority of flow to most watercourses;
  • Help regulate watercourse flow – through natural cover, soil type, and geology – to both surface and ground water, which flooding, erosion, and water budgets for downstream areas;
  • Furnish key habitat types for the breeding, feeding, and sheltering of upstream species. In fact, more species require headwaters at some point in their lives than any other type of habitat; and,
  • Nurture downstream ecosystems by providing significant portions of a watersheds nutrients, organic material, and sediment, thereby providing the base of a watershed’s biodiversity and resilience.

Current Challenges

While Ontario has extensive frameworks for land use planning and watershed management, and some regional targets for natural cover, the OHI is concerned that development is out-stripping the science, policy, and performance frameworks required to maintain the ecological integrity of our watersheds, especially in southern Ontario.

Broad initiatives for land use planning and watershed management in Ontario include the Planning Act and its accompanying Provincial Policy Statement, the Conservation Authorities Act, the Lakes and Rivers Improvement Act, the Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act, the Greenbelt Act, the Far North Land Use Planning Initiative, various acts on the Great Lakes or other specified bodies of water, a Biodiversity Strategy, and a 1993 document entitled Water Management on a Watershed Basis: Implementing an Ecosystem Approach.

Unfortunately, policy, implementation, and funding gaps are legion, to quote Mary Shelly. Deferring an extensive appraisal of gaps and over-sights to another time and place, key issues include:

  • An absence of provincial guidelines for ecological integrity, like those in How Much Habitat is Enough, underscored by on-going cutbacks to natural science budgets;
  • A lack of balance in the “one-window” approach under the Provincial Policy Statement, wherein the ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing appears to facilitate development above concerns about natural heritage and watershed management;
  • The absence of a provincial wetland strategy, awkward mechanisms for the identification of significant wetlands and their inclusion in municipal plans, and aberrations such as the sixteen definitions for a wetland in the agencies charged with delivering the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan;
  • Conflicts between the Drainage Act and the Conservation Authorities Act, as well as conflicts between municipal and conservation authority mandates as a result of having municipalities appoint the members of authority boards. This latter conflict is not so much of commission but of omission – when municipal appointees to CA boards oppose and/or their municipalities refuse to fund sound CA natural heritage initiatives; and,
  • Varied policies regarding the protection of headwaters in different conservation authorities.

From our perspective, Ontario’s historic leadership in watershed management, from the expansion of the role of conservation authorities after Hurricane Hazel through several years following the publication of Water Management on a Watershed Basis, has not received either the policy support nor the resources needed to be a full partner in the shift to land use planning frameworks represented by initiatives such as the Provincial Policy Statement and the Greenbelt and Growth plans.

The OHI considers these issues existential: they are occurring at a time when development is expanding across the landscape, and as we face a changing climate with clear impacts for the hydrologic cycle.

How can we better protect our headwaters?

The OHI believes that our headwaters and their watersheds should be the object of a provincial commitment to enhance our framework approach to watershed management that could include:

  • Up-to-date natural heritage inventories;
  • The inclusion of key headwater indicators in watershed report cards;
  • Cumulative monitoring, with meaningful, timely, and publicly-accessible data;
  • Improved protective policy and implementation, including efforts to identify and preserve regionally significant headwater areas;
  • Increased funding to and better coordination between natural heritage agencies; and,
  • Expanded sectoral stewardship initiatives.

We also believe that our headwaters, natural heritage, and watersheds could be better protected through the application of an OHI construct called Contiguous Upland Headwater Catchments – CUCHs – areas where first and second order catchments touch each other. Our research has shown that these areas provide critical reservoirs that protect regional ecological integrity and may need special protection in watersheds facing development pressures.