Collaborative Greenbelt Wetlands Assessment Project

Some of Canada’s fastest growing urban areas are in and around Ontario’s Greenbelt.  The 2007 Report of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO) stated that this “unprecedented growth” is putting “great pressure” on natural features such as wetlands.  “The province,” the report continued, “has invested significant energy in the development of legislation, plans, policies and guidelines aimed at striking a balance between the rapid growth of human communities and the need to protect important natural resources and features.”  The report concluded that it is necessary now “to take a step back and evaluate whether these efforts will achieve the intended goals of ecosystem protection and the creation of truly sustainable urban communities in Southern Ontario.”

As part of a collaborative project led by Ecojustice (formerly Sierra Legal Defence Fund) and generously funded by the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, Earthroots will be examining how well the Greenbelt legislation is protecting wetlands and their surrounding watersheds.  Echoing the concerns of the Environmental Commissioner, we fear that integral issues affecting Southern Ontario’s hydrologic systems are seeping through the cracks between overlapping pieces of legislation and split responsibilities among Ontario’s Ministries.  

Ontario’s Greenbelt encompasses the previously protected Oak Ridges Moraine and Niagara Escarpment, as well as creating an additional million acres of Protected Countryside, forming a complete ring of protection from the Niagara region in the east, to Peterborough and Northumberland counties in the west.  Because the Greenbelt includes the previously protected Oak Ridges Moraine and Niagara Escarpment, different plans and policies offer different levels of protection on the respective Oak Ridges Moraine, Niagara Escarpment, and Protected Countryside areas of the Greenbelt.

The division of responsibilities between Ontario’s Ministries adds another level of complexity to the layers of legislation protecting our water sources: the Ministry of Natural Resources is responsible for identifying, classifying and keeping an inventory of wetlands; the Ministry of the Environment is responsible for monitoring and sustainably regulating the use of water from lakes, rivers, streams, and underground aquifers; and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing created and is responsible for the Greenbelt Plan as well as the protection that it offers to all of these different hydrological features.  

Earthroots has been playing a watch dog role, particularly on the Oak Ridges Moraine, to get a sense of how protection is actually unfolding on the ground.  Unfortunately, it appears there are numerous gaps, loopholes, and weaknesses in protection that are allowing the continued degradation of key water features.  For example, in Aurora, a controversial new golf course development is threatening to bypass legislation.  If this development moves forward it will have untold impacts on 7 onsite provincially significant wetlands, as well as further taxing aquifers in an area already experiencing serious water shortages.  For more information, click here.   

Our work with Ecojustice on the 2008 “Ontario’s Water Hazard” case study also exposed serious weaknesses in the Ministry of the Environment’s (MOE) system for sustainably allowing the use of water resources.  Lax standards and a failure to examine the cumulative impacts of water taking permits has resulted in the over-use of groundwater in our case study area on the Moraine, such that groundwater levels have been declining in the area since at least 1997 (for more information visit the Ontario’s Water Hazard link area of our website).  Earthroots is now examining the legality and long-term implications of two separate applications that are proposing to pipe water from the protected area of the Oak Ridges Moraine to service new developments outside of the Greenbelt.  For more information, click here.  This is by no means an exhaustive list of issues with current protection.  What many people do not realize is that ‘protection’ can have many different meanings; as the Greenbelt is now 5 years old and nearing its first formal review in 2015, we must now evaluate the effectiveness of this legislation and how it is actually working out on the ground.

With the generous support of the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation and the added expertise of our project partners at Ecojustice, Ontario Nature, and Ducks Unlimited, we are excited to be moving forward with this collaborative Greenbelt Wetlands Assessment project.  Through a series of case studies on the Oak Ridges Moraine, Niagara Escarpment, and Protected Countryside areas of the Greenbelt, we will appraise the effectiveness of the Greenbelt in protecting wetlands and their surrounding watersheds.  Case studies will be geographically diverse, and involve proposals that were (or are being) considered by a municipality and that would potentially impact wetlands.  

Using an integrated approach, we will also be examining all of the water takings (surface and ground) within a relevant vicinity of our wetlands case studies, allowing us to examine the cumulative impacts of water use.  This will also allow us to examine the integral connections between wetlands, surface water, and groundwater, connections that we fear are currently falling through gaps in policy that exist between provincial Ministries and their respective mandates and responsibilities.

Our objectives include commenting on the implementation of the Greenbelt, as well as identifying barriers and opportunities for policy reform prior to the upcoming 2015 review of the Greenbelt legislation.  Once our research is complete, we will engage in a rigorous outreach program to share our results and recommendation with a number of stakeholders who are wrestling with this new legislation, including provincial Ministries, other interested not-for-profit organizations, concerned members of the public, and municipalities.

Initial work on this project began in the summer of 2009, when Earthroots, Ecojustice, and our project partners were awarded a start-up planning grant from the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, allowing us to begin developing our project and methodology.  Our full project is now underway and is expected to be wrap up in June 2011.