Resource conservation and management have become increasingly complex due to increases in Ontario’s population numbers and density. With increasing pressures of climate change on the environment, conservation authorities will have an increasingly important role to play.
Recently proposed changes to the Conservation Authorities Act will strengthen the ability of the province, municipalities and others to continue to work with conservation authorities. For over 70 years, they have had a role in resource stewardship and protecting people, property, and communities from water-related natural hazards.
Chris Hibberd, Watershed Management Director at the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority (NVCA) govern the watershed in Barrie and Simcoe County. Their mandate consists of lands and stewardship, planning and permits, and recreational opportunities at various conservation areas or water.
“It really is a broad mandate that we implement within our waters, which is in the Nottawasaga Valley watershed,” he explains.
The proposed modernization of the act that has completed its first reading, gives conservation authorities the power to issue stop work orders. A positive step for the regions but something already been in place at the municipal level.
Hibberd explains that is “not a unique function that the province has included but it is a function that’s within the Conservation Authorities Act now,” he says.
The Act was originally approved in 1946 and there have been updates but this new draft provides “an opportunity to modernize it, and that’s what the province has done,” explains Hibberd.
“It provides some clarity to not only the conservation authorities who work through that Act but stakeholders, the municipalities and other partners. It provides some clarity on our roles and functions and I think that’s a very important thing,” says Hibberd.
Hibberd is pleased to see increased collaboration with the public, stakeholders, municipalities and Indigenous communities highlighted in the draft legislation.
“In terms of collaboration, it’s something that we strongly support and we certainly look to engage our various stakeholders – whether it be the Ministry of Agriculture, environmental groups, among others,” he says.
He takes it further by encouraging members of the community to participate in their activities and support the work that they do.
“We would be pleased to have anyone who is interested in the conservation authorities, they can give us a call or if they’re looking for more information – go on our website.”
“The new legislation provides an opportunity for people to become more informed of what their local Conservation Authority does.”
Their role constantly evolves and the province will “provide that modernization in a changing environment, things like climate change is an example of that, where agencies and ministries have to be aware of that and have to provide strategies to mitigate or adapt to that,” says Hibberd.
Mike Walters, CAO of the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority is hoping the proposed changes will take effect as early as September.
“This could happen this year, so it is exciting in that regard – this is long overdue because the Conservation Authorities Act, it’s been amended over the years, but nothing to this degree.”
One of the biggest amendments for them is on the enforcement side of the regulation, as they have been asking for the ability to issue stop work orders for years. “That means that instead of having a resource that continues to be degraded or impacted, we can actually stop the work,” he explains.
They have plans to request that the province look at taking this one step further allowing them to mitigate more immediately.
“We’re going to request something called an ‘order to comply’ which would require the provincial component whose undertaking the work that’s in violation,” he says. This means that anyone digging in the wetland, for example, can be forced by the authority to start working to restore the wetland vs. waiting.
“It’s something different, it’s not currently in the proposed amendments to the legislation. It’s something that we’re going to be asking for,” states Walters.
Proposed fines have also increased for individuals and corporations, which Walters says is a “deterrent in itself; we’ve gone to court, we’ve got convictions and then they get fined $10k. Well, that’s not a deterrent,” he says.
The amended Act also acknowledges the diverse role of Authorities beyond their mandate to regulate activities around the watershed.
“They’ve recognized we’re more than just a regulatory agency, we actually are a watershed-based agency involved in science and tries to restore and advance rather than just try and regulate,” explains Walters.
This will give authorities the opportunity to define their programs and services, providing a more formal role that will benefit from restructured resourcing.
“That’s the other great news that under the restructuring for the funding, the modernizing funding mechanisms, they are going to be looking at the funding models for services that we provide directly,” says Walters.
He also encourages community participation in their activities and events, in an effort to raise awareness and support increased collaboration.
“Through our engagement process, there are lots of ways people can get involved; they can volunteer, they can work on projects, they can help out with education and communication work,” he says.
“If people knew more about the issues and problems that the watershed faces, that certainly could affect change more. So just getting educated and seeing what opportunities exist out there for people to do in their own homes even,” he explains.
Anyone interested in volunteering and working for the Conservation Authority can contact them to begin the process of matching up with the right project. To learn more, visit: www.nvca.on.ca or www.lrsca.on.ca.