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Conservation authorities face funding issues even as problems mount

Faced with cutbacks and budgetary pressures even as climate change creates new hurdles, the province’s conservation authorities are being called on to do more with less. Getting the attention of Queen’s Park is a key challenge, Wellesley council heard this week.

“There is a lot of pressure on us funding-wise and we want to make sure the province understands our role,” Don Pearson, former general manager at Conservation Ontario, told councillors Monday night.

Like most such agencies in Ontario, he explained, the Grand River Conservation Authority must spend more time and effort communicating with the provincial government when it comes to funding.

“There’s some real active work with the Wellesley community,” Pearson said.

He added that rural municipalities should be conscious of the conservation authority’s role, as the majority of land within the watershed is owned by farmers.

“We have a lot of agriculture so it’s very important that we continue to work with the farm community. The farm community owns the land in the watershed, basically, and 70 per cent of it is actively farmed so it has an important role in water quality.”

That land will be under increasing pressure as the population within the watershed continues to grow – another 25 per cent by 2021 – presenting a challenge for officials.

In the scenario, funding will be even more crucial, he argued.

Ontario grants that were originally frozen at $950,000 are permanently reduced this year, with the entire provincial cut targeting the GRCA and the Toronto Region Conservation Authority. The province explained the two large organizations would be able to absorb the impact of the cuts better than some of the smaller agencies in Ontario.

There is a looming threat of climate change on the horizon, made apparent by last summer’s severe drought, Pearson told councillors. With less money available each year, dealing with such changes will be difficult.

Conservation Ontario wrote a new paper,Water Management Futures for Ontario, he said, in a recent attempt to get Ontario’s 36 conservation authorities on track with the Ontario government. The paper is meant to spur a discussion with the province regarding how the government will deal with conservation authorities in the future.

“There is actually declining provincial funding and the province doesn’t actually live up to their commitment to fund 50 per cent under the flood control program. It’s been a real challenge for us and they tend to continue to cut back,” Pearson said.

On the home front, the GRCA has made some cutbacks of its own to try and keep costs down. Staff meetings are now limited to one a month, cut back from two the previous year. Some positions made vacant by employees on maternity leave are also being kept open as current staff is re-assigned to cover various duties.

“From my perspective the important thing is that you are doing more with less,” said Mayor Ross Kelterborn.

He agreed that the watershed plays a key role in rural life as Wellesley Township utilizes mainly public water resources.

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