There was a time in the not so distant past when people believed that wetlands were dank wastelands. Early settlers in Ontario drained, cleared and filled wetlands to make way for farms, villages and towns.
Today we know that wetlands are a vital part of our landscape. Often referred to as nature’s filter, wetlands purify water by trapping sediments and retaining excess nutrients and other pollutants such as heavy metals. They provide habitat for both aquatic and terrestrial species, store water during flooding and release it during droughts. Unfortunately, these natural heritage features are still under the same threats as early settlement times. It is estimated that more than two-thirds of Southern Ontario’s pre-settlement wetlands have been lost through agricultural drainage, development, encroachment, land clearance, filling, and road construction.
Under the Conservation Authorities Act, watershed-based conservation authorities regulate development and activities in and adjacent to wetlands, but there is some discretion as to which wetlands they regulate.
In land use planning, provincially significant wetlands and coastal wetlands are provided some protection from development and site alteration through the Provincial Policy Statement, 2014. But this approach has several weaknesses because exemptions allow for infrastructure, agricultural drainage projects, and some mining activities. The definition of infrastructure includes sewage and water systems, septage treatment systems, stormwater management systems, waste management systems, electricity generation facilities, electricity transmission and distribution systems, communications/telecommunications, transit and transportation corridors and facilities, oil and gas pipelines and associated facilities. Protection also depends on the wetland’s geographic location, whether or not the wetland has been formally evaluated, and if it has been officially designated in land use plans.
In my 2006/2007 Annual Report, I recommended that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry significantly speed up the process of wetland identification and evaluation and ensure that provincially significant wetlands are incorporated into municipal official plans. I also recommended that the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing amend the Provincial Policy Statement, 2005 to prohibit new infrastructure such as highways in provincially significant wetlands unless there are no reasonable alternatives and it has been demonstrated that there will be no negative impacts on their ecological functions. Regrettably, the updated Provincial Policy Statement, 2014 does little to resolve some of these weaknesses in wetland protection.
Another weakness is the discord between wetland protection and agricultural drainage. The Drainage Act, administered by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, regulates the creation, maintenance and repair of municipal agricultural drains. Municipal drains, including open ditches and tile drains, are used to remove water from land to increase agricultural production and productivity. Under the Act, landowners can petition their local municipality to carry out agricultural drainage works, such as the construction of a new drain. Drainage works, by their very nature of dewatering land, pose a real and significant threat to wetlands in rural Ontario by removing water – the very substance that is critical to their existence.
In Ontario, drains continue to contribute to the degradation, fragmentation and loss of wetlands. The Drainage Act is intended for agricultural purposes. But, rural land owners in the City of Ottawa, just outside of the urban boundary, were able to use the Drainage Act to bypass provincially significant wetland protection provisions in the Provincial Policy Statement. Presumably the landowners were trying to drain their land to remove any future development restrictions and make their land more desirable to developers rather than for farming purposes. In my 2009/2010 Annual Report, I recommended that the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs amend the Drainage Act and its policies to ensure that provincially significant wetlands are protected from being drained.
We have come a long way in understanding the importance of wetlands since Europeans first settled Ontario. Despite this, the protection of wetlands through provincial legislation and policies is fragmented and inadequate. On September 25, 2014, the Premier of Ontario directed the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to work with other ministers, municipalities and partners to conduct a review of Ontario’s broader wetland strategy. The goal of this review is to strengthen wetland policies and stop the net loss of wetlands. Such a review is long overdue. Perhaps one day we will provide our wetlands with protection suitable for “one of the most important life support systems in the natural environment” (as described by Environment Canada), and not as the dank wastelands from the past.