January 30, 2013

CVC chief fears erosion of political support

As published in The Erin Advocate

Erosion of political support for environmental protection could have disastrous consequences, according to Rae Horst, Chief Administrative Officer at Credit Valley Conservation (CVC).

Those who care about the environment must keep up the pressure on politicians at all levels, not just on local issues, but for the preservation of the Green Belt and the survival of conservation authorities (CAs), she said.

"Conservation authories are under serious threat," said Horst, who will be retiring in May. "All could be lost, if decisive action is not taken by all environmentalists in the province – the crisis is coming."

She was speaking to members of the Credit River Alliance, a coalition of environmental groups, who met last week in Brampton to renew their commitment to the watershed, and to refocus on new environmental threats.

They are also mourning the death in December of one of their founders, Peter Orphanos, former Chair of Sierra Club for Peel Region, who dedicated more than 30 years to the protection and restoration of the Credit River.

When Horst worked for the province in the 90s she said the Ministries of Natural Resources and the Environment were well-funded.

"They have been decimated and are skeletons of their former selves, incapable of protecting the natural environment locally," she said. "The inability of the province, and the unwillingness of the federal government to protect the natural environment could not happen at a worse time. We're at an all-time weak position in Canada."

She said one major threat is extinctions – locally there are 42 rare, threatened or endangered species. The other is climate change, already too late to stop. Much of the burden for promoting protection and adaptation (ie stronger infrastructure) is falling on conservation authorities.

Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak has said that he wants to dissolve conservation authorities or strip them of their powers. The CAs long ago lost their strong provincial funding, but municipalities such as Peel Region have stepped up with major support. From 2001 to 2013 the CVC budget went from $3.5 million to $25 million, and staff increased from 35 to 175. CVC spent $1 million in the successful fight to stop the Rockfort quarry.

"CVC is a force to be reckoned with environmentally in this watershed. This happened largely because of the Credit River Alliance. The CA has the clout if it wants to use it, and the Alliance can make the CA use it and keep the municipalities honest."

Many would like to see Ontario's Greenbelt expanded, but Horst said it could be a struggle just to hold on to what we have. The Greenbelt, the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan and the Niagara Escarpment Plan are all to be reviewed in 2015.

Horst said the creation of the Alliance in 2004, representing over 20,000 people, helped ensure that the CVC's mandate to protect the watershed was taken seriously by local politicians.

"The challenge of unbridled development was starting to tell on the watershed –  Mississauga was already experiencing flooding and erosion," said Lorraine Symmes, who is stepping down as coordinator. "More ominously, Brampton was beginning a huge era of expansion that would seriously threaten the health of the river. The Credit is the most diverse cold water fishery in the province."

They formed a coalition of community groups to raise awareness with local governments about their concerns, at a time when the Walkerton report emphasized the importance of looking entire ecosystems. The Credit runs through 10 municipalities.

"Only the conservation authority has the big picture of the watershed and the ability  to do the science which is really key to understanding and supporting the river's overall health," said Symmes.

They came up with seven guiding principles, pushing for: better storm water management and sediment control, funding for land acquisition of sensitive sites, a prohibition on stream course alteration, limits on water-taking permits, funding for tree planting in stream corridors and incentives to increase wetlands and forest cover in the watershed.

They were able to speak out on behalf of their 31 member groups, which include environmental activists, fishing advocates, quarry opponents, local land stewardship organizations, naturalists, organic farmers and neighbourhood associations. They've made many presentations on municipal issues, attended and addressed meetings of the CVC board, and generally promoted low-impact development. More information is available at www.creditriveralliance.ca.

"We have spoken up for the river," said Symmes. "It's better than it would have been without us."