Promoting Watershed Security in Ontario – Water for People and for Nature

Water is Life

Most people seem preoccupied with transitioning into fall: getting back to normal routines while the daylight dwindles.

Those of us who obsess about ecology see more ominous shadows. Geologists appear to have reached a consensus that human impacts on Earth are so profound that we are passing from the Holocene into the Anthropocene. The only thing left to debate appears to be when it started, based on the prolific markers being left in the geological record by either carbon, plastic, radio-nuclides, or the domestic chicken.

Various aspects of our impacts stack up. We’ve pushed through 400 ppm of CO2. We’ve lost 10% of inventoried wilderness in 25 years. Our oceans are warming, becoming more acidic, and we continue to over-harvest, particularly the larger species. And North America has a shortfall of 1.5 billion birds, with many species spiraling toward regional extirpation, and perhaps extinction.

Many government agencies, civic organizations, and private enterprises are working on new approaches and possible solutions, touching on policy, best practices, and new technologies. Some of our sister organizations, in particular, focus on the Great Lakes, energy, the Greenbelt, and specific species such as ducks, wolves, amphibians, the American eel, and more.

Such diversity is fortunate, as we face a phalanx of current Ontario government initiatives to implement or review a significant group of initiatives, several of which are aligned directly or indirectly. This includes implementation of the Great Lakes Protection Act and the Far North Act, as well as reviews of acts or policies related to land use planning, conservation authorities, wetlands, aggregates, and the Ontario Municipal Board.

Intensely focused and diligent effort is required to make informed comments on each of these initiatives, and to encourage small steps on specific aspects that can require a long memory, understanding potential impacts on varied stakeholders, legal expertise, and a fair bit of diplomacy.

At the same time, government and society must not shy away from addressing cross-cutting issues that may be lost when individual acts, regulations, or policy directives are being amended.

It’s encouragingly progressive that land use planning directives in the Greenbelt may in the future require watershed and sub-watershed planning, but why only in the Greenbelt? If not everywhere, it certainly should be a requirement when certain thresholds of development are being approached or even contemplated across the landscape, such as in the Far North.

On this same tack, the new land use planning direction suggests that 30% of each new development should be protected as natural heritage. This is a welcome target, but one with broader implications. In 1972, the report of the world commission on sustainable development recommended that 12% of each type of habitat be protected nationally. Some of Ontario’s more enlightened regional actions now target 30%, while a federal guidance document cites 50% of each watershed be set aside as a low-risk target to ensure future ecological integrity. More recently, E. O. Wilson, the father of conservation biology, has suggested that humans have done so much damage to natural systems that 50% of our natural areas should now be protected.

Clearly, Ontario needs extensive discussion on this. How much natural heritage shall we sat aside? How do we account for agriculture in this? Do we do this on a per development basis, a watershed basis, and/or a broader scale? What does protected mean?

Finally, the province has also recently suggested that it will produce a guidance document on watershed planning, within 2 years of acceptance of new land use planning directives. Little is known about the document at this time, but the OHI sees this as an important opportunity to embrace Integrated Watershed Management, something called for in the past by the OHI and, more substantively, both Conservation Ontario and the province’s Environmental Commissioner.

The OHI will be seeking to identify key cross-cutting issues between now and October 31, the deadline for submissions on the Co-ordinated Land Use Planning Review. In addition to our own submission, we will be crafting a sign-on letter to support better alignment of Ontario’s efforts on natural heritage protection, watershed management, and land use planning.

We look forward to hearing from others on how we can collaborate to achieve the best set of aligned policies in these areas  – as the population grows, the demand for natural resources and agricultural products increases, and the climate changes.

The Anthropocene is here: we need to limit its future impact.