December 10, 2007

Ontario faces long-term challenge of balancing development plans, ecological priorities, says Environmental Commissioner

Reconciling Ontario's plans for growth and development with the protection and preservation of its natural environment is the leading challenge associated with creating sustainable communities in the south and a sustainable planning system for the vast northern expanses. These conflicting priorities are the theme of the 2006-2007 annual report from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO), released December 4 in Toronto.

"In my report," said Commissioner Gord Miller, "I observe a conflict between our efforts to plan for economic growth and development while simultaneously protecting our environment; we are trying to have our cake and eat it too.

"Our growth plan for Southern Ontario communities has some laudable features, but in some areas it calls for development that would exceed the ability of the local environment to support it," Miller continued. "And in the North, it is evident that many proposed activities and development are going ahead in the absence of any overall planning mechanism. That's a risky course of action."

The Commissioner's annual report, titled Reconciling our Priorities, contains a number of examples of conflicting priorities in Ontario's environmental planning and management. For example, although southern Ontario has many of Canada's fastest-growing urban areas, existing planning processes cannot protect ecosystems while accommodating the growing demands for infrastructure, roads and water.

In northern Ontario, the vast majority of land is under provincial ownership. But the report says the government has few substantive legal mechanisms applicable to Crown land that attempt to deal comprehensively with land use planning issues, including the competing priorities of forestry, mining and tourism and the ecological needs of species like woodland caribou.

The ECO commends the provincial government's efforts to strike a balance between the rapid growth of communities in southern Ontario and the need to protect natural resources and ecologically important features. To this end, the province has dedicated considerable energy to developing legislation, plans, policies and guidelines.

In evaluating these planning efforts, however, the ECO has concluded that there remain serious conflicts--described by the report as irreconcilable priorities--pitting urban growth and ecosystem sustainability against each other. The report discusses four specific examples of these conflicting priorities.

*Living sustainably within a watershed vs pushing beyond natural limits: Communities need not only adequate surface water and groundwater supplies, they need a water resource system capable of absorbing and assimilating wastewater discharges. Ecologically sustainable water management requires adopting a holistic approach, taking into account factors such as natural water flows and sources of pollution that threaten aquatic ecosystem health, as well as water supplies.

The ECO notes that Ontario's source water protection initiatives, while commendable, focus on source water protection without making enough of an effort to establish sustainable water use cycles as an integral part of land use planning in southern Ontario communities.

The Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH) plan, while making some provision for protecting water quality and supply, essentially "puts the cart before the horse," making accommodation of rapid population growth the central driver, rather than the need to live with the natural limits of the ecosystem. Large infrastructure projects, designed to increase water and wastewater capacity in designated urban growth areas, risk extending the capacity challenges to more distant watersheds in the long term, says the report.

*Creating a sustainable transportation system vs paving over the landscape: The GGH plan, in addition to establishing growth centres with associated density and intensification targets, calls for improvements in public transit aimed at reducing the number of vehicles on southern Ontario roads and, consequently, the need for expanding road construction. However, says the report, major highway expansions are still being planned outside the Greater Toronto Area, where lower population densities encourage more use of private vehicles than of public transit.

The ECO says the GGH plan's intensification and density targets will have to be significantly enhanced and a higher rate of transit use achieved in areas outside Greater Toronto if the conflict between transportation demand and natural heritage protection is to be minimized. The report recommends that the Ministries of Municipal Affairs and Housing and of Public Infrastructure Renewal work together to increase the GGH plan's intensification and density targets above existing business-as-usual development targets.

*Protecting wetlands vs draining for development: Wetlands play a vital role in all facets of the aquatic ecosystem and provincial policy clearly states that they should be protected, notes the report. In southern Ontario, however, 70% of the wetlands that existed prior to European settlement have disappeared and the remainder are going fast, lost to other priorities such as urban development, roadbuilding and pits and quarries. "We cannot afford to lose any more wetlands," states the ECO.

The report concludes that regulatory and policy loopholes in the existing, complicated framework governing wetlands will allow these losses to continue unless action is taken. The ECO urges the province to: accelerate the process of wetland identification and evaluation and ensure that Provincially Significant Wetlands (PSWs) are incorporated into municipal official plans; and prohibit construction of new infrastructure such as highways in PSWs unless there are no reasonable alternatives and it has been demonstrated that there will be no negative impacts on their ecological functions.

*Preserving natural areas vs extracting aggregates where they lie: Demand for stone, sand and gravel continues to grow, and applications for new pits and quarries under the Aggregate Resources Act (ARA) are almost always approved, notes the report. These operations tend to be situated in areas of high natural value, such as the Niagara Escarpment, the Oak Ridges Moraine and the new Greenbelt. Even though these areas are protected by legislation, they still face the likelihood of new aggregate operations.

Accordingly, the ECO recommends that the provincial government reconcile its conflicting priorities between aggregate extraction and environmental protection. Specifically, the province should develop a new mechanism within the ARA approvals process that screens out, at an early stage, proposals conflicting with identified natural heritage or source water protection values.

The report further recommends that the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) improve the rehabilitation rates of Ontario pits and quarries by introducing stronger legislation with targets and timelines, by applying up-to-date rules to grandparented licences, and by further strengthening the ministry's own field capacity for inspections.

Overall, the ECO says there have been a number of positive developments relating to urban planning over the past seven years, and the government's recent commitment to reforming the environmental assessment process is welcome evidence of its understanding that past development patterns are unsustainable and cannot continue.

At the same time, however, the ECO observes that most of Ontario's environmental laws and policies are premised on a case-by-case review and approval process for projects such as aggregate pits, sewers, and roads and highways. These processes, says the report, have become intellectually dishonest because they do not include an a priori discussion about the actual need for the proposed development, nor do they permit a public debate about the conflicting consumptive vs heritage priorities involved.

Another prevalent assumption is that the impact mitigation measures and monitoring provisions attached to approvals will be sufficient to deal with the long-term problems associated with large projects. While mitigation can help reduce impacts, this and other environmental planning techniques are not enough to undo the long-term destruction of natural heritage features, green spaces and agricultural land that has already occurred in southern Ontario.

The fundamental challenge for society, says the report, will be to integrate sustainability principles into land use and infrastructure planning, to measure proposed projects against them, and to abide by the outcomes in the event that certain projects do not pass muster.

Turning its attention northward, the report says northern Ontario, a region of continental ecological significance, should be subject to the same standard of planning as the rest of the province. The north is under pressure to open up further to forestry, hydroelectric power, mining and other industrial development, and current land use planning mechanisms provide no systematic, comprehensive resource management. The ECO's review suggests that environmental priorities are being sacrificed in favour of short-term economic benefit and ministries seem to be oblivious to big-picture planning, concerned only with their own particular mandates.

Ontario's far north, says the report, provides a rare opportunity-a clean slate on which the province can develop a strong, ecologically sound landscape-level planning approach. Currently, however, the only tool the province can use to to govern land use planning is the Public Lands Act, a piece of legislation that has remained relatively unchanged since it was introduced in 1913. Minor revisions over the years have produced a disjointed act with no clear overall direction and no reference to sustainable resource management.

The Public Lands Act, says the report, is in serious need of reforms to give the province greater authority to properly manage Crown lands. New Crown land management legislation should provide legislative requirements and legal authority for land use plans on Crown land. It should detail planning requirements and ensure protection for ecological values. The ECO also calls for reforms to the Mining Act to reflect current land use priorities, including ecological values.

The report drew considerable public attention for its observations concerning the use of road de-icing salt. This issue also reflects conflict between the priorities of ice-free roads and environmental protection. An estimated two million tonnes of this material is applied annually in Ontario and in early 2006, two environmental groups filed an application under the Environmental Bill of Rights legislation asking the Ministry of Environment (MOE) to revoke Regulation 339 which exempts road salts from the provisions of the Environmental Protection Act.

This regulation has not been amended since it was passed in 1972, and in fact contradicts another regulation under the Ontario Water Resources Act (which does not exempt road salt from its section 30 prohibiting the discharge of a material into waters that may impair water quality).

The groups proposed replacing Regulation 339 with a mandatory road salts management regime and new regulations setting targets for reducing road salt use, establishing monitoring and reporting practices, and setting penalties for noncompliance.

The MOE denied the applicants' request, releasing its decision in late 2006 eight months after the deadline for doing so. Even though it acknowledged the environmental harm attributed to road salt use, the Ministry cited public safety issues and continuing best management practices in its rationale.

The ECO disagrees with this decision and is critical of the MOE's adherence to the status quo on the road salt issue. In the Commissioner's view, the Ministry should have approved the request for a review of Regulation 339, and the report recommends that the MOE develop a comprehensive, mandatory, province-wide road salts management strategy to ensure aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems are protected from chlorides. It points out that several municipalities are already realizing the environmental, economic and health benefits of implementing a road salt minimization strategy.

The Reconciling Our Priorities report may be viewed on the ECO Web site, www.eco.on.ca.

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