Stewards of Elgin County’s watersheds and wetlands expressed mixed emotions as Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government doubled down this week on plans to change the Conservation Authorities Act.

“To be clear, there would be no change to the key role that conservation authorities (CAs) play in protecting and preserving Ontario’s natural spaces,” said the Hon. Jeff Yurek, Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) for Elgin Middlesex London.  “Any suggestion otherwise is completely false.

“Our proposed changes would make sure CAs are focused on delivering their core mandate: protecting people and property from the impacts of natural hazards, protecting sources of drinking water, and managing conservation-authority-owned lands,” added Yurek, Ontario’s Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks.

Yurek’s firm language counters the strong rhetoric criticizing proposed amendments to the Conservation Authorities Act, introduced on November 5, 2020 in Schedule 6 of Bill 229, an omnibus budget measures bill.

Most prominently, former Toronto mayor David Crombie spoke out with his resignation as chairman of Ontario’s Greenbelt Council. Six other Council members also stepped down. The Council is the government’s advisory agency overlooking the Greenbelt, a protected area of green space, farmland, forests, wetlands, and watersheds, surrounding the Golden Horseshoe.

Environmentalists fear Schedule 6 will make it easier for developers to build on watersheds and wetlands. Crombie said the proposed changes “will cut the heart out of watershed planning, which is vital to environmental planning in the province of Ontario.”

At the heart of the matter are development authorizations which can be issued by the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, potentially bypassing conservation authorities’ science-based permitting process.

Developers could appeal CA decisions directly to the Minister or petition the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT). Traditionally, these matters were taken directly to the local conservation authority executive board. Other changes contemplate diminishing CAs’ influence at LPAT hearings.

“This is a serious change to conservation authorities, removing much of their power to protect our environment,” said Central Elgin Mayor Sally Martyn, Chair of the Catfish Creek Conservation Authority Board. “It leaves it wide open for developers to circumvent the scientific data that conservation authorities use to determine where important environmental areas should not be destroyed.”

In a letter to Yurek and other Provincial authorities, Kettle Creek Conservation Authority (KCCA) Chair Stephen Harvey echoes Martyn’s sentiments and urges Queen’s Park to remove Schedule 6 from Bill 229. Harvey said more time is needed to at least clarify the proposed changes.

“Conservation authorities are not against development,” said Kim Gavine, general manager of Conservation Ontario, the umbrella organization representing the province’s 36 conservation authorities. “We just want to make sure it happens in the right places, to protect people’s properties and the environment.

“If this passes as it is, it could have some negative, unintended impacts on the environment,” added Gavine. “We are respectfully asking the government to put a pause on the bill.”

Lynette Mader, Ontario Manager of Provincial Operations, Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC), said her organization has also been directly involved in the consultation process and stakeholder workshops.

“It is a complicated issue, however, DUC’s focus is on ensuring the ongoing conservation and restoration of wetlands across Ontario,” added Mader. “We acknowledge the intent of the legislative changes is to provide consistency, transparency and improved oversight of CAs. At this time, we are not assuming that the legislative changes will lessen protection for wetlands and will look to see how the changes are operationalized.”

DUC works collaboratively with the provincial government and conservation authorities on wetland restoration projects that benefit watershed health and landscape resilience. So far this year, DUC has funded nine projects with Elgin County landowners.

“I have been involved with the Elgin Stewardship Council (ESC) for 25 years and we have a great relationship with the conservation authorities,” said Kit Brown, an ESC director. “I don’t believe there’s going to be any bad effect on what we’re going to do in the future.”

Brown’s confidence comes after a personal telephone call from Yurek. “I trust him.” Like Yurek, Brown believes some CAs have strayed from their original mandate. “It’s not going to be harmful to the aims of what CAs should be. Flood control, water quality … all of that isn’t going to be changed.”

Kyle Cronk, President of the Lake Erie North Shore Landowners Association, shares Brown’s optimism.

“Conservation Authorities have had way too much unaccountability for too long and you can tell by their push back that they are scared to lose the power,” said Cronk. “It’s time.”

Changes to the Conservation Authorities Act may even enable landowners in the Kettle Creek watershed to build revetments to battle the devastating impact of erosion on Lake Erie’s north shore. KCCA currently opposes such developments, citing science that shows revetments don’t stop erosion, just divert it.

“In every other area or CA it’s very possible and this summer several went in, (but) it is doubtful we in the high buffs in Kettle Creek will be able to do anything until Jeff Yurek get his changes through,” said Cronk. “I can tell you in a nutshell we fully support Doug Ford and Jeff Yurek.”