Trouble on the Trent-Severn Waterway
Our largest national historic site is in dire need of repair, but who is going to fix it and who will pay?
Equipment repairs are hardly the only problem, though. In its 2008 report, the expert panel cited the case of the dead carp. Early in its consultations, the group began to receive complaints about thousands of carp carcasses washing up on the shores of Kawarthas lakes. As it inquired about solutions, the panel found itself confronting the fact that the TSW is regulated by everyone and therefore no one. While Parks Canada is ostensibly in charge, the water is subject to the authority of two dozen government agencies (including Fisheries and Oceans Canada), plus nearly 70 pieces of legislation, some of which are almost absurdly out of date. “The dead carp issue graphically illustrated to us the challenge of governance on the waterway,” the panel noted. Adds the coalition’s Martin Rist, “It is an anomaly for the federal government to be managing provincial waters.” (The Ministry of Natural Resources concluded the carp died because of environmental factors, spawning stress, and the high population, all of which made them susceptible to a disease outbreak.)
Provincial water rules tend to be conservation oriented, but the TSW’s regulations are a holdover from the water-way’s industrial past. Parks Canada staff closely manage the canals’ depths by driving around to the reservoir lakes and adjusting the number of squared logs at the dams based on the water level in the canals, to ensure the waterway is navigable. As they watch lake levels fall over the course of each summer, upstream cottagers are frustrated by Parks Canada’s management practices, such as releasing water from dams even if there’s been a lot of rain. Hunt also makes the point that an automated system of upstream dams would be more efficient and more sen-sitive to local conditions. But, he adds, “We’re not even talking about that.”
In January 2010, about 150 people representing the TSW’s many stakeholders gathered at Trent University in Peterborough for what was billed as a leaders’ forum. Organized by Parks Canada and the university, the event was designed to tease out ideas on how to shore up the TSW’s future. (A report with recommendations came out in May.) The event was co-chaired by the TSW’s Dawn Bronson, the energetic superintendent appointed in 2010.
Money is at the top of her agenda. Because the government has frozen user fees, such as docking or parking charges, until the end of 2011, and expects only modest increases next year—Bruce Stanton says higher fees would discourage tourism—Parks Canada is looking to generate additional economic activity through the development of new run-of-the-river hydro dams, for example, as well as leasing out federally owned waterfront land along the canals for commercial uses, such as stores, restaurants, and other tourist attractions. As the panel study found, the TSW canal system gets about 1.5 million land-based visits each year. “I think there are other opportunities up and down the waterway,” Bronson says. “We’re going to start making some hard analysis.” To that end, Bronson has hired a hydro and new-business development manager to drum up private-sector partners and work with municipalities along the waterway to find other ways to spur development. But Parks Canada has yet to fully flesh out the balance of its economic development strategy.
For his part, Brian Hunt says the government should identify alternative funding sources. One possibility is a dedicated tax on waterfront landowners to maintain the infrastructure, though both Hunt and Rist stop short of calling for that. One problem is who would levy the tax. While the municipalities along the TSW collect $240 million in property taxes from waterfront real estate each year, some balk at the notion of kicking in any of those funds, or collecting even more, for the care of another government’s asset. “We don’t have enough money to look after our core services,” says County of Peterborough warden J. Murray Jones, who adds that sharing the tax base “is not going to happen from a municipal standpoint.” Others, however, leave the door ajar: “If we can play a role,” says Peterborough mayor Daryl Bennett, “we should be exploring it.”
It seems unlikely that the dozens of municipalities along the waterway could come to a consensus about establishing such a levy. After all, they don’t own the asset. In fact, during four years of scrutiny about the waterway’s troubled present and its somewhat uncertain future, Ottawa’s been clear about one key point: It’s not prepared to divest its responsibility for this enormous network of inland lakes and canals.
“At the end of the day,” concedes Bruce Stanton, “the Government of Canada has to pony up and get this system back to the point where it can provide the benefits of which it’s capable.”
This article was originally published on September 21, 2011