By Linda Pim, Ontario Nature
On March 1 of this year, a new policy came into effect in Ontario that affords better protection for some wetlands, new Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) under the Planning Act.
Southern Ontario, where most of the province’s farmland is located and most of the population is based, has lost at least 70 percent of its wetlands since the time that European settlement began (about the year 1800) due to various human uses of the land. We have therefore lost the vital ecological functions provided by wetlands (fish and wildlife habitat, groundwater recharge and discharge, water quality protection, flood and erosion control) and the increased biodiversity that wetlands provide. The remaining wetlands, both in the north and the south, are havens of biological richness, and include marshes, swamps, bogs and fens.
In the version of the PPS that was in effect from March 1996 to February 2005, there was a prohibition on development and site alteration in “Provincially Significant Wetlands” (PSWs) located south and east of the Canadian (Precambrian) Shield, that hulk of granite bedrock that sheaths northern Ontario and extends in a broad “V” into southeastern Ontario near Kingston on Lake Ontario.
But there were two problems with the 1996 policy: First, the area of Ontario south and east of the Shield is a relatively small part of the province, although it is the area experiencing the most intense development pressure. It includes all of the Lakes Erie and Ontario basins and part of the Lake Huron basin. For the rest of the province, development was permitted in PSWs as long as it could be demonstrated, usually by developers’ consultants, that there would be no negative impacts on the features or functions of the wetland. Second, in making their land use planning decisions, municipalities only needed to “have regard for” the policies in the PPS, which could mean as little as reading it and putting it back on the shelf. With a very few notable exceptions, such as the Cloud Bay Provincially Significant Wetland on Lake Superior south of Thunder Bay where a citizens’ group partly funded by GLAHNF saved the PSW, wetlands on the Shield – including all of northern Ontario – received very poor protection.
The new Provincial Policy Statement does two important things for wetlands: It extends much further northward the “no development” line for PSWs. All lands in what the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources calls Ecoregions 5E, 6E and 7E benefit from the “no development”rule.The line now begins in the west roughly at Montreal River near Sault Ste. Marie and runs east to Lake Timiskaming on the Quebec border, well north of North Bay. By shifting the “no development” line this far north, the area of Ontario covered by the new policy has more than doubled. The second improvement is that municipalities must make their planning decisions “consistent with” the PPS, rather than merely “have regard for” it. This latter improvement had been advocated by environmental groups for many years – and we won!
On the face of it, there may seem to be a gap, and there is: The “no development” area excludes almost all of the Lake Superior Basin in Ontario. It also excludes the vast area of Ontario north of the three-ecoregions’ northerly limit. However, there is at least some new hope for both Lake Superior and all the other Great Lakes in that, for the first time, the PPS now states that there will be no development and site alteration in “significant coastal wetlands.” The “significant” part is defined through a wetlands evaluation system established by the Ministry of Natural Resources.“Coastal wetlands” are defined as any wetland located on one of the Great Lakes or their connecting channels (Lake St. Clair, St. Mary’s, St. Clair, Detroit, Niagara and St. Lawrence Rivers); or any other wetland that is on a tributary to any of the above-noted water bodies and lies entirely or partly downstream of a line located two kilometres (1-1/4 miles) upstream of the 1:100 year floodline of the large water body to which the tributary is connected.
Happily for wetlands but sadly for all other natural features in Ontario, wetlands were the only class of features that were accorded extended protection in the new Provincial Policy Statement. And even for wetlands, there’s a catch – the definition of “development” excludes most infrastructure projects, meaning that a road, highway or sewer line could be rammed right through the middle of a Provincially SignificantWetland. But Ontario grassroots groups can be counted on to fight to try to protect every wetland in their communities, whatever the lines are on the maps or the words are in the definitions.
To read the Provincial Policy Statement, the direct link is:www.mah.gov.on.ca/userfiles/page_attachments/Library/1/78 9108_ppsenglish.pdf. The wetlands policy is in Section 2.1. Look at the map and definitions near the end of the PPS.