Deciding the Future of Toronto's Hard-Working Wetlands
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Deciding the Future of Toronto’s Hard-Working Wetlands

Proposed changes to the 2007 Official Plan for the City are set to be debated this week, which would see wetlands given special attention.

Picture Toronto’s ecological landscape and its ravines and much-loved islands come to mind. The city’s wetlands on the other hand, six of which are provincially significant for the habitat they provide imperilled plants and animals, are used to being overlooked. Even still, you’d be hard-pressed to find a harder working ecosystem.

You’d also be hard-pressed to find an ecosystem as threatened. More than 70 per cent of southern Ontario’s historic wetlands were emptied and paved over by 1982, leaving Toronto with just 1.6 square kilometres of significant wetlands from the Lower Humber River in the west to the Rouge River and Highland Creek systems in the east. Most of Toronto’s significant wetlands are valued by Queen’s Park because the relative scarcity of wetlands in the GTA has made those remaining spaces hotspots for endangered or threatened species. The Blanding’s Turtle, the northern map turtle, the eastern milksnake, and the least bittern, a small heron found near the mouth of the Rouge River, all make their home in Toronto wetlands.

The good news is that Toronto enshrined wetland protection into its 2007 Official Plan, and it’s not stopping there. Jane Weninger, a senior City planner on natural heritage issues, told Torontoist her office intends to add a map detailing the location and size of Toronto’s provincially significant wetlands as an amendment to the Environmental Policy section of the Official Plan. The public will be more engaged in wetland protection and restoration if they know where those wetlands are, the thinking goes. The proposed change to the Official Plan will be debated at the Planning and Growth Management Committee on September 16 and at a public session on October 8.

It now appears the province is following suit to shore up existing wetlands across Ontario. It may also consider working towards a “no net loss” wetland policy by 2030. This summer, Queen’s Park released a discussion paper to stimulate ideas from municipalities and private citizens about how best to protect existing wetlands in Ontario from land conversion, pollution and invasive species, three key drivers of wetland degradation and loss.

David Hintz, a policy wonk with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and lead author on the discussion paper, told me it emerged from years of work with municipalities, planners, developers and conservation agencies whose take on wetlands often clash. Wetlands are a “polarizing” topic, Hintz said; in drafting the paper, his team attempted to strike a balance between those who want every wetland drained and replaced with suburban housing and those who insist all wetlands in Ontario be protected.

Queen’s Park contacted mayors and city clerks across the province to solicit comments while posting the notice on the Environmental Bill of Rights website for public comment. And while the conversation about how (or whether) to protect wetlands changes if you’re in Toronto, Thamesville or Timmins, for Hintz, it’s ultimately a question of value. Wetlands possess intrinsic value, sure, in a nature-is-my-temple kind of way. But it’s more than that. “It’s about things that would cost millions of dollars to replace, were it not for wetlands,” Hintz says.

Toronto’s remaining coastal and river valley marshes now pull double duty in providing an incredible array of services we take for granted, including flood protection, water quality improvement, erosion prevention and climate change mitigation, to name a few. More than $1.3 billion in ecosystem services–everything from waste treatment to water quality control–is offered by the Greenbelt enveloping the city. It’s silly to undercut these services; what we destroy that nature has provided free of charge, taxpayers quickly find themselves on the hook for. The $135 million Corktown Common berm in Toronto’s Pan Am Village that protects downtown from flooding is, in many respects, a replacement for the free flood protection that historic wetlands at the mouth of the Don River once provided naturally.

Weninger doesn’t know if Toronto will issue a formal statement on the province’s paper; she needs to look at it more closely. But Toronto’s predominantly river valley wetlands already enjoy substantial protections through the 2014 Provincial Policy Statement, the City’s Ravine and Natural Feature Protection Bylaw and regulations from the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. Council supported the creation of the Oak Ridges Moraine and the Greenbelt Plan in the early 2000s, both of which protect the City’s upstream water sources. Toronto’s planning department has also conducted the necessary fieldwork to safeguard city wetlands from developers if their boundaries are ever challenged at the Ontario Municipal Board. According to Weninger, “our wetlands in the City of Toronto are not really threatened from development.”

So breathe easy, Toronto. Your incredibly valuable wetlands are in good hands. But if you have thoughts on how the province should preserve its wetlands, the discussion paper’s comment window is open until October 30, 2015.