By Deborah Martin-Downs, Chief Administrative Officer, Credit Valley Conservation
I learned early in my career the importance of the relationship between the land and water. How different geology, soils and landforms influence the types of streams and habitats in rivers. That to understand water bodies, I needed to understand the watershed.
A watershed is an area of land that drains its rain and snow-melt into a body of water, which flows to a larger water-body, which ultimately flows to a lake, river or ocean. The Credit River, which is 97 kilometres long, drains an area of 950 square kilometres containing forests, wetlands, towns, cities, gravel pits and farmlands.
Early conservationists and scientists knew the watershed was the logical unit of study to manage flooding and drought problems of the time. Managing natural resources at the watershed scale was deemed the best solution, and in 1946, Ontario’s first Conservation Authorities Act was passed.
The act allowed conservation authorities to be formed across Ontario on a watershed basis (not municipal boundaries). It gave conservation authorities the powers “to study and investigate the watershed and to determine a program whereby the natural resources of the watershed may be conserved, restored, developed and managed” for both provincial and municipal interests.
Over decades, the act has been updated to address changing conditions. When Hurricane Hazel struck in 1954, the province added powers “to control the flow of surface waters in order to prevent floods or pollution or to reduce the adverse effects thereof”.
After the 2006 inquiry report into the Walkerton tragedy, the province restated that the watershed was the logical unit to address drinking water protection. Source water protection areas were set-up based on existing conservation authorities’ watershed boundaries.
In 2017, the Ontario government took a bold step to modernize the Conservation Authorities Act by passing the Building Better Communities and Conserving Watersheds Act, 2017. The renewed legislation reaffirmed the importance of Ontario’s conservation authorities and continued to recognize the fundamental value of managing natural resources on a watershed basis.
Arguably our most significant role is determining the extent of floodplains and ensuring people are kept safe from flooding. Section 28 of the Conservation Authorities Act, as amended by 2017 updates, prohibits “development in areas related to natural hazards such as floodplains, shorelines, wetlands and hazardous lands (i.e. lands that could be unsafe for development because of naturally occurring processes associated with flooding, [and] erosion…)”.
This role often frustrates anyone or any company seeking a permit from a conservation authority. That is, however, until they’re faced with the enormous consequences and costs of a major flood.
As I write this, eight states of emergencies are in effect in Ontario and Quebec because of severe flooding. Thousands of residents have been forced from homes. Sand bags line streets and homes in attempts to hold back rushing waters. Rain and rising water remain in forecasts.
The Province of Ontario recognizes the importance of flooding and climate change in their introduction to new proposals to once again update the Conservation Authorities Act (https://ero.ontario.ca/notice/013-5018 and https://ero.ontario.ca/notice/013-4992).
The proposed changes continue to include natural hazard and management as a core mandate as well as adding drinking water source protection to it. The important reference to watershed, however, no longer appears.
Is this oversight or intentional?
Floodplains can only be managed if we look up the watershed and review proposals that may impact water runoff. We can watch floodplains get bigger or we can actively engage in managing, and perhaps reducing, them.
We cannot manage the quality and quantity of drinking water if we are not looking at an entire watershed. We must ensure that the water to support supply continues to get where it needs to go.
We must continue studying and mapping hazards and risk. We need to ensure there are enough healthy natural resources in watersheds to absorb heavier rains and snow-melts that are now more frequent and severe, and forecast to worsen.
Conservation authorities are proud to continue working with the province and our municipal partners to manage for natural hazards in Ontario.
For over 60 years, water and watersheds have been inseparable in Ontario. Let’s help the province understand that you can’t separate the watershed from the water.
What can you do?
Tell our government that budget cuts to conservation authorities will put public safety at risk, and this is not acceptable.
Tell them that our forefathers had it right – someone must be looking out for the watershed. Conservation authorities have done that in Ontario for decades. That work needs to continue to protect peoples’ lives and properties.
Tell them you value work on the ground to make residents safe and our natural environment more resilient. There is no one else doing what conservation authorities do in this province. Without our work, Ontario will be a less desirable, less prosperous place to be.