Now that the new provincial government is firmly installed as a result of the October 2003 election, we are starting to see some positive environmental initiatives, most or all of which will better protect aquatic habitats. In December 2003, the government introduced Bill 26, which will amend the Planning Act.When finally passed, it will, among other things, require that municipalities “be consistent with” the Provincial Policy Statement or PPS (which includes wetland protection policies) when they make their land use planning decisions. The decisions of the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), to which municipal planning decisions can be appealed, will also need to ensure that their decisions are “consistent with”the PPS. This is a significant improvement, since in the past, OMB decisions merely had to “have regard for” the PPS. For example, the PPS states that there is to be no development in Provincially Significant Wetlands.
Ontario conservation groups are pressing the government to overhaul the PPS before it brings Bill 26 into law, since many of the policies in the PPS are not sufficiently protective of natural habitats. A number of statements in the PPS actually encourage urban sprawl and therefore destroy habitats. Conservation groups would generally like to see the rest of Bill 26 approved, but with a hold-back on the “be consistent with” section until such time as the PPS is made greener.
Habitat activists want to see a sweeping overhaul of the Planning Act (Bill 26 consists of only a very few though important changes), as well as comprehensive reform to the OMB hearing process, which tends to favour developers over cash-strapped grassroots groups fighting to protect habitats. The provincial government has indicated a strong interest in overhauling the OMB process.
Specifically on water, in December 2003, the Province announced an immediate one-year moratorium on the issuance of new and expanded Permits to Take Water for most forms of commercial water-taking, such as for bottled water. The one-year freeze will provide time to review Ontario’s groundwater supplies and draft new rules for water-taking. The government also plans to stop the give-away of Ontario’s water; in the future, Ontario will charge commercial water-users for the resource.
To follow through on the December announcement, Ontario Minister of the Environment Leona Dombrowsky released a “white paper” in mid-February that sets out for discussion a framework for planning to protect drinking water sources. This discussion paper – a step in the direction towards new provincial law to protect watersheds and water resources that is welcomed by conservation groups – is the government’s followup to the recommendations of the Walkerton Inquiry, which examined the deaths of seven people and the illness of 2,300 more in the year 2000 from municipal well water in the town of Walkerton tainted with a virulent strain of the E coli bacterium.
Another positive move by the new government was the December 2003 introduction of Bill 27, to create a 600,000-acre greenbelt in the “Golden Horseshoe” area from Niagara Falls to the western end of Lake Ontario at Hamilton and including the Greater Toronto Area. While the multi-stakeholder Greenbelt Task Force develops recommendations for how the government can create a greenbelt in this most intensively developed part of Ontario, the government has imposed a one-year freeze on urban boundary expansions in the Golden Horseshoe. What remains to be seen is exactly how the government will create the proposed greenbelt, and what land uses will be permitted and prohibited. Much of the land is already protected through the Niagara Escarpment Plan and the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan; what we do not yet know is how the government plans to protect the remaining large swaths of land in the proposed greenbelt.
The picture is not entire rosy, however. Despite encouragement from numerous conservation groups such as Ontario Nature, the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and Friends of Red Hill Valley, the new provincial government has not cancelled the $120 million in provincial funding for the proposed Red Hill Creek Expressway in Hamilton – smack in the middle of the proposed Golden Horseshoe Greenbelt. This would be a quick and easy way for the cash-strapped Province to save money – and the precious terrestrial and aquatic habitats of Red Hill Valley.