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GRCA, local supporters push back at plans to weaken conservation organizations

Provincial government plans to change how it regulates conservation authorities could make it harder for those organizations to protect the environment and carry out its duties, say officials at the Grand River Conservation Authority (GRCA).

Charged with protecting people and property by managing rivers and water bodies in the watershed, the agency could find itself handcuffed by proposed amendments to the Authorities Act and the Planning Act through Schedule 6 in Bill 229, said Samantha Lawson, the GRCA’s chief administrative officer, in a report presented at a special meeting on Monday.

“If enacted, some changes will significantly impact the role of a conservation authority board to establish programs and services. As well, the proposed amendments will enable regulations that will either limit or completely change the role of conservation authorities to protect Ontario’s environment and ensure people and property are safe from natural hazards,” she wrote.

At the meeting, the GRCA board voted to send to the province a list of concerns and proposed changes to the legislation.

The special meeting also served to gauge directors’ response to the provincial legislation, said board chair Helen Jowett.

“We felt it necessary to be able to harness and understand the board’s intent … in response to the bill that came out from the provincial government,” said Jowett. “We needed to be able to discuss the implications and certainly unintended consequences associated with the outlay of the bill, and even attempt to anticipate what regulations would follow it, because regulations don’t always have to come out at the same time as a bill does.”

She says one of the biggest concerns they have from the proposed changes includes a mandate that “only municipal  councillors will be allowed to sit on a conservation authority board, and that board members’ fiduciary duty must be to their individual municipalities rather  than to the conservation authority.”

Jowett says this could potentially put the interests of municipalities above the watershed and, in turn, cause problems down the road.

“The danger there is that it literally could set us up for operational negligence. I mean, the Clean Water Act came out, and as a regional councillor I had to sit through the entire day of understanding what happened at Walkerton. [Through this process] we had to be tested and provide promissory oaths that we would manage water quality and quantity, specifically in this regard,” she said. “We are concerned that it could undermine that watershed approach, which is very successful currently.”

The board is also concerned about changes that would allow the minister of Natural Resources and Forestry to make decisions on permit appeals and issue permits without watershed data. That, she said, would be detrimental because the GRCA has decades of scientific data that demonstrates vulnerability to the watershed, and [the changes] would override their collected information.

Ultimately, that could have implications for water quality and the million or so people who get their drinking water in the watershed, Jowett added.

That’s a concern shared locally by the Township of Woolwich Environmental Enhancement Committee (TWEEC), which is encouraging residents to join in with campaigns fighting the provincial plans, including signing petitions and contacting local MPPs.

TWEEC chair Susan Bryant issued an appeal to help protect the GRCA, which has long supported local efforts under the banner of TWEEC, Trees for Woolwich and the Clean Waterways Group, among others.

“All of these (and many more) GRCA services are in jeopardy if this proposed legislation passes. Please help save our forests and wetlands by supporting our conservation authorities in any way you can.”

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