Update: On November 15, just days after the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario delivered her 2018 annual report, the Ontario government tabled legislation to eliminate the position. In its Fall Economic Statement, the Ford regime announced that the duties of three legislative officers—the ECO, the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, and the French Language Services Commissioner—were to be transferred to the Ombudsman or the Auditor General.
Dianne Saxe, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, has released her 2018 Environmental Protection Report, Back to Basics. In it, she focusses on five Ws—water, wetlands, woodlands, wildlife, and wilderness—and outlines how the province can do much more to take care of them.
The Ontario government needs to do more to protect our lakes and rivers, says the ECO. “It is unbelievable that in 2018, the government allows this much filth into our lakes and rivers,” Saxe says in a release, referring to raw sewage from municipal systems and runoff laden with fertilizer and road salt. “These are the places Ontarians spend time with their families, where they swim and fish. These shorelines and waters are home to Ontario’s rich biodiversity, and to us.”
Saxe chided the government for its lack of commitment to funding the source water protection program that was put in place after the drinking water crisis at Walkerton, Ont., in 2000, when seven people lost their lives and thousands became ill because of E. coli contamination. She also pointed out that much of Northern Ontario is not covered under the protection program and that private wells or intakes, which more than 1.7 million people in Southern Ontario rely upon for their drinking water, are also not included.
Septic systems are another concern for the ECO. Re-inspections for systems not in source water protection zones are not mandated, and “septic systems can be used for many decades without ever being inspected,” says the report, which urges the province to expand inspection and maintenance programs.
Wetlands and woodlands are also a major concern for the ECO. In her statement, Saxe says, “Southern Ontario was once 25% wetlands. Today, it is less than 7%…Yet despite years of promises, the government continues to allow the loss of the wetlands and woodlands that we have left. This is not an accident.” If a wetland is identified as “provincially significant,” it gets protected. But the evaluation process is slow and inefficient; there’s “a 260-year backlog,” she says, recommending that all wetlands should be presumed significant and protected until proven otherwise.
As for Ontario’s disappearing woodlands, the average forest cover is 25 per cent, below the minimum 30 per cent needed to keep ecosystems functioning, and in some parts of Southwestern Ontario the coverage is less than 10 per cent. One recommendation to increase coverage is to expand and improve the Managed Forest Tax Incentive Program, a voluntary program that gives tax breaks to private landowners, such as cottagers, who manage and protect forests on their property. The ECO says the government should subsidize the costs of seedlings and planting; reduce the minimum size to enrol in the program; increase the property tax relief; and strategically market the MFTIP and another initiative, the 50 Million Trees Program, established in 2007 to give incentives to landowners to plant trees on their property.
Finally, the ECO faults the government for not doing more to protect wildlife, which is under unprecedented pressure from habitat destruction, invasive species, disease, climate change, and other threats. “The Ontario government, in partnership with others, collects much information about nature. But raw data from uncoordinated programs can only get us so far,” says the report. “The government needs to effectively collect, analyze and share data to identify problems and trends, and to know which actions will most effectively conserve wildlife and wilderness.” The good news: modest long-term funding commitments for the conservation work done by volunteers and non-profit organizations such as the Ontario Biodiversity Council is “highly cost-effective.” Says Saxe: “Small but consistent investments…yield big returns.”