The 2006/2007 ECO annual report was submitted to the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly on December 4, 2007.

Priorities must reflect ecological limits, warns Environmental Commissioner

Ontario’s plans for growth and development are not reconciled with our priorities of preserving and protecting our natural environment, warned Gord Miller, Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO). Miller, who monitors compliance by provincial ministries with the Environmental Bill of Rights, released his 2006/07 annual report, “Reconciling our Priorities,” to the Legislature this morning at the Queen”s Park Media Studio.

“Because there is a new government with a new mandate, it’s a good time to step back and take a thoughtful look at how sustainable our present course is,” said Miller. “In my report 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,” continued Miller. “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 report 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, our existing planning processes cannot protect ecosystems while accommodating the growing demands for infrastructure, roads and water. In the North, the vast majority of land is Crown land. Yet, there are few legal mechanisms of any weight for Crown land that attempt to deal with land use planning issues, such as the competing priorities of forestry, mining, tourism, and the ecological needs of species like woodland caribou, in a comprehensive fashion.

Among other topics, the report also explores wetlands, road salts, the Portlands Energy Centre, and sand and gravel operations. “On a number of other fronts, there has been progress to a more sustainable future,” Miller reported. “The renewed legislation governing parks, endangered species and source water protection are all very positive achievements.”

Key Findings

Irreconcilable Priorities: The Challenge of Creating Sustainable Communities in Southern Ontario (pg. 14)

Southern Ontario has many of Canada’s fastest growing urban areas. A result is unprecedented growth in demand for roads, housing, and municipal infrastructure, putting great pressure on our natural features, wetlands, water supplies and biological diversity. The province 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. While the province’s efforts to date are laudable, the ECO believes it is now timely 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.

The risks to environment and quality of life over the long-term will be great if these planning efforts should fail. The ECO’s own preliminary evaluations suggest that serious conflicts – described here as “irreconcilable priorities” – are inherent in the province’s plans for balancing growth and ecosystem sustainability. Some priorities that promote unsustainable approaches to community development in Southern Ontario remain ingrained and unchallenged in recent provincial initiatives. Moreover, the planning decisions to facilitate development and growth are trumping priorities and options that would more effectively promote ecosystem and community sustainability.

Examples of some of these conflicting priorities from Southern Ontario include:

Living Sustainably Within a Watershed, OR Pushing Beyond Natural Limits? (pg. 22)
One of the most compelling examples of competing priorities is the growing demand for clean water versus finding something to do with the wastewater. The viability of a growing community depends on having adequate quantities of ground and surface water, along with the capacity to absorb and assimilate wastewater discharges. Ontario’s source water protection efforts are commendable, but emphasize only source protection. There is no concerted effort to establish sustainable water use cycles as an integral part of land use planning in Southern Ontario communities – and this will become ever more problematic given the population growth projections for regions such as the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH). Accommodating economic growth, rather than respecting ecosystem limits, appears to have been the primary objective in the process of allocating provincial community growth targets.

Creating a Sustainable Transportation System, OR Paving Over the Landscape? (p. 28)
Through the Places to Grow Act and associated growth plans, the province has embarked on a major land use planning initiative. The plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe Region of Ontario established growth centres (including density and intensification targets for these centres), and goals for enhancing the mobility of people and goods. According to the Ministry of Public Infrastructure and Renewal, when the plan is implemented “getting around will be easy” in the GGH Region. The ECO’s analysis of the plan indicates that it falls short of the mark when it comes to reducing the environmental impact of the transportation system and its associated infrastructure. Since automobile ownership and use continue to rise in Ontario, the demand for new highways will continue to put pressure on the southern Ontario landscape, impacting wetlands, natural areas, and farmlands and putting more demand on aggregate resources. If the vision of the GGH Region Plan is to be achieved, the ECO concludes that significant enhancements will need to be made to this region’s intensification and density targets as well as the use and quality of its transit systems. Otherwise, transportation demand and natural heritage protection will remain irreconcilable priorities in southern Ontario.

Protecting Wetlands, OR Draining for Development? (p. 35)
Provincial policy clearly states that wetlands should be protected. However, wetlands and the benefits that they provide future generations continue to disappear because the forces behind wetland protection are too weak to win the contest with other conflicting priorities, such as residential development, road building, and new pits and quarries. Wetlands help maintain hydrologic flow patterns and mitigate some of the environmental impacts of climate change. In addition, wetlands provide critical habitat and breeding grounds for many species of plants and animals, including a number of species at risk. In southern Ontario, 70 per cent of the wetlands present prior to European settlement are already gone. We cannot afford to lose any more wetlands.

A complex and at times conflicting legislative framework allows these losses to continue. To be protected, wetlands must be first identified and evaluated, and then given official land use status in Official Plans; even then, wetlands can be encroached upon by development via exemptions that allow for infrastructure works, agriculture and some resource extraction activities. Under the existing framework, wetlands must be evaluated to be protected. Yet province-wide, less than 1 per cent of wetlands have been evaluated.

Municipal growth will continue to pave over significant wetlands that are not both identified and incorporated into municipal Official Plans. The ECO is urging the province to strengthen the protections afforded wetlands under provincial policy, and to bring forward an effective and concerted evaluation and protection strategy.

Preserving Natural Areas, OR Extracting Aggregates Wherever They Lie?(Pg. 44)

Demand for aggregates (stone, sand, and gravel) continues to grow. Despite industry claims that obtaining approval is difficult, applications under the Aggregate Resources Acts almost always are approved and often occur in areas of very high natural value. The Niagara Escarpment, the new Greenbelt, and the Oak Ridges Moraine areas are protected through legislation, yet they continue to face the likelihood of new aggregate operations. ECO notes that once proposals for new aggregate operations are initiated, they appear to be unstoppable no matter the ecological or social cost. What is needed is a better process which screens out bad proposals at an early stage, taking a precautionary approach to protecting the environment.

Northern Land Use Planning (pg. 51)

Northern Ontario is a region of continental ecological significance. It should have the same standard of planning that applies to the rest of the province. Yet current land use planning mechanisms fail to ensure that the resources of the vast expanses of Crown land in the north are being managed in a sustainable way. There are strong pressures to further open up this region to commercial forestry and power generation projects, as well as a growing number of mineral development projects. Unfortunately, the evidence reviewed by ECO suggests that environmental priorities have been sacrificed in favour of short-term economic benefit. Ministries appear to have blinders on with respect to big picture planning, concerning themselves only with their own mandates in energy supply, mining and forestry. Ontario’s Mining Act for example, impedes land use planning since it assumes that mineral development will always proceed. The ministries’ disjointed approach does not serve Ontarians effectively, nor does it provide adequate assurances of environmental protection in the quest for resource development.

Without a comprehensive land use planning system in place for the north, the current system of forest management planning under the Crown Forest Sustainability Act ends up being the de facto land use planning system for a significant portion of Ontario. The Ministry of Natural Resources’ forest management process is intended to promote sustainability but it is not intended to comprehensively plan for all land use values across the landscape. Moreover, some ecological values that are fortunate enough to be considered in the existing forest management process, like the threatened population of woodland caribou, nonetheless face very perilous futures.

The ECO believes that the Public Lands Act needs to be reformed so that the Ontario government will be able to properly manage provincial Crown lands. New Crown land management legislation should provide legislative requirements, as well as legal authority for land use plans on Crown land. In addition, the new legislation should identify provincial interests, set out detailed planning requirements, and provide protection for ecological values. Such a planning system should take precedence over laws that govern individual land uses, such as forestry and mining.

Other topics that are covered in the ECO Report:

Conserving Woodland Caribou: The Benchmark for Northern Sustainability (pg.75)
Woodland caribou are a sensitive indicator of the ecological effects of development in northern Ontario. The success or failure of conservation efforts for this species serves as a benchmark to measure the sustainability of policy choices made by the Ontario government. If the threats to woodland caribou are not addressed systematically and in a concerted manner, this species could soon disappear from Ontario’s boreal forests forever. The ECO raises grave concerns about the adequacy of the Ontario government’s current measures to protect this threatened species and icon of Canadian wilderness. The ECO’s report notes that historical forestry practices have always led to the elimination of local caribou populations.

Protected Areas Law: Ecological Integrity as the First Priority (pg. 99)
Protected areas are the foundation of any concerted effort to conserve Ontario’s biological diversity. Ontario’s law for provincial parks had not been significantly revised in more than half a century, since its introduction in 1954. During this time, the number of protected areas in the province increased from 8 to 631 sites, now covering approximately 94,000 km2 or 9% of the province. The new Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act is an important milestone in making ecosystem protection the top priority in the management of protected areas. However, the ECO has serious concerns about the lack of adequate government funding for parks and the Ontario government’s overall approach to managing Crown land.

Road salt: Can ice-free roads and environmental protection be reconciled? (p.136)
It is estimated that two million tonnes of road salts are applied annually in Ontario. Road salts damage aquatic and terrestrial environments, threaten drinking water and increase costs to repair transportation infrastructure. An application under the Environmental Bill of Rights was brought by two environmental groups calling upon MOE to revoke Regulation 339, which exempts road salts from the provisions of the Environmental Protection Act (EPA). The Ministry of the Environment (MOE) has long recognized the harm that road salts pose for the environment, but nonetheless denied the request to review the exemption of road salts from the EPA. Several municipalities are currently realizing the environmental, economic and health benefits of implementing a road salt minimization strategy. The ECO is recommending the development of a comprehensive, mandatory, province-wide road salts management strategy.

Keeping the EBR in Sync With New Laws and Government Initiatives (pg. 169)
There continue to be serious delays in making certain ministries and laws subject to the EBR and maintaining transparency and accountability in key areas of public policy. In the 2006/2007 reporting period, the ECO observed very little progress in expanding EBR coverage, despite past ministry commitments to the ECO. Even though the Ministry of Public Infrastructure Renewal (MPIR) agreed to be subject to the EBR in 2004 so that it could begin to post Registry notices for public comment and prepare a Statement of Environmental Values, no progress has been made on the required regulatory changes. The lack of progress in prescribing MPIR under the EBR is a significant disappointment because MPIR plays an important role in growth management plans for many areas of Ontario, clearly bearing on the “irreconcilable priorities” covered in this year’s report.

Flooding Risks in the Face of Climate Change (pg. 197)
Our climate is changing, resulting in more frequent and intense precipitation events, and some stormwater systems, particularly those in smaller urban centres are not designed to handle the larger storm events. Floodplain mapping, the design of dams, stormwater systems and municipal plans are all based on historical rainfall and flooding events. As urban sprawl paves over surfaces that formerly allowed precipitation to infiltrate to the ground, runoff is increased and can only be controlled by extremely expensive stormwater controls – the result is that risks of flooding and erosion continue to grow. Floodplain mapping and flood management services provided by the conservation authorities under federal and provincial programs have been chronically underfunded since the 1990s.

About one-quarter of Ontario’s 2,400 dams are more than 50 years old and in need of maintenance and repair. One-fifth of Toronto’s storm sewer system is more than 80 years old. Many Ontario communities are experiencing problems caused by larger storm events impacting on these older structures and this situation can only worsen in the years ahead. New designs and infrastructure renewal must take into account changing climate and hydrology.

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