OFA COMMENTARY: Add your voice to upcoming Ontario Conservation Authorities’ consultations

In principle we all want the same thing – clean water and a healthy environment.

Ontario is home to one of the most diverse natural landscapes and environments in the country. We’re fortunate to have an expanse of natural watercourses and wetlands that protect and sustain our ecosystems, provide wildlife habitat, manage floods and weather events, and so much more. The critical management of most of these areas falls to Ontario’s 36 conservation authorities that are governed by the Conservation Authorities Act. The Ontario government is conducting multi-stakeholder consultations to better define the core mandate of conservation authorities and their programs and services. As part of the consultations, the government has launched an online survey – open until March 13 – asking for input from stakeholders like Ontario farmers.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) encourages all our members to participate in the survey – available online at www.ontario.ca/form/survey-ontario-conservation-authorities – and share their perspectives on what programs conservation authorities should deliver. A French version of the survey is also available at www.ontario.ca/fr/page/consultation-offices-de-protection-de-la-nature-de-lontario. There have been several initiatives to modernize conservation authorities in recent years, attempting to clearly define the mandatory and non-mandatory programs and services these groups should deliver. Many of OFA’s farm families live and farm in municipalities where conservation authorities exercise their mandate, including activities impacting farm businesses.

OFA recently provided in-person and written input to the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks as part of the multi-stakeholder consultations and review of the act. Here are highlights from OFA’s submission.

Conservation authorities require secure funding. The imbalance of population between rural and urban areas often means that rural conservation authorities operate with minimal funding. The provincial government must ensure that all conservation authorities have the resources to fulfill their core mandates. We know that Ontario farmers are regularly frustrated with the inconsistencies between the 36 conservation authorities in offering stewardship programming and on the ground environmental enhancements.

Much of this inconsistency stems from the imbalance of funding available to stewardship programming. Further challenges and inconsistencies come from differing interpretation of Section 28 and the provincial policy statement, policies for activities on farms and respect for the role farmers and their land play in providing ecological goods and services that benefit all Ontarians. Farmers are environmentalists. In addition to producing food, fibre and fuel, conservation authorities must recognize that agricultural land in Ontario provides a broad range of environmental ecological goods and services that are often overlooked. These include flood management, improved air quality, nutrient cycling, pollinator habitat, erosion control, and habitat for wildlife and species at risk.

Terms within the act need to be clarified. There’s often confusion around the terms “watercourses” and “wetlands” within Section 28 of the act. OFA is asking the Ontario government to get on with the job of defining Section 28 terms, specifically “development activity”, “watercourse and wetlands”, “interference with a wetland” and “conservation of land”. We’re prepared to assist with this process ensuring the farm voice is at the table. Conservation authorities are established on a watershed basis, and in many cases Ontario farmers regularly engage with one or multiple conservation authorities as part of their farm operations. We strongly urge conservation authorities to engage with our county federations when developing new stewardship programs or amending existing ones.

Ontario’s conservation authorities operate with a core mandate to prepare against natural hazards, manage conservation authority lands and protect drinking water sources. OFA is advocating for Ontario farmers and their roles and responsibilities that fall within the act. We’re asking our members to add their voices to provide input through the online survey and share their perspective on necessary changes to the roles and responsibilities of Ontario’s conservation authorities to create a more positive model for collaboration going forward.

Steve Brackenridge, Director, Ontario Federation of Agriculture