Jeff Green | Nov 25, 2020

Changes to the way Conservation Authorities (CAs) are governed is slated to change the watershed-based approach they take, allowing for more centralised provincially controlled decision-making, if measures that were inserted into the Ontario budget enacting legislation, Bill 229, are not changed.

And change in the legislation is unlikely.

Conservation Authorities are unique institutions in Ontario in that their boundaries are based on watersheds instead of political jurisdictions. They are funded almost entirely through municipal taxation, and in addition to controlling water flows through dam structures and managing conservation authority lands, they provide services to municipalities for planning and other purposes.

There are four CAs that are partially located in Frontenac County, Quinte, Cataraqui, Mississippi Valley and Rideau Valley.

Sommer Casgrain-Roberston from Rideau Valley Conservation, Katrina Furlaneto from Rideau Valley Conservation, and Sally McIntyre from Mississippi Valley Conservation provided a presentation to a meeting of Frontenac County Council last week on the proposed changes.

Sommer Casgrain-Robertson outlined the proposed changes to the Conservation Authority that are included in Bill 229.

One set of changes relates to governance. Currently board members on CAs can be either municipal council members or municipal appointees. Under the new rules, only council members will be eligible. Going forward chairs and vice chairs of CAs will only be able to serve for two years. The Minister of the Environment will also have the option of appointing an agricultural representative to the board. New regulations could require the establishment of advisory board and prescribe their composition, function and powers. The province could also decide to regulate the kinds of fees that CA’s can charge to municipalities.

“These are currently decisions that are made at the local level by municipal bodies,” said Casgrain-Roberston. “And that may change.”

The decision-making authority of CA’s over permits that are necessary for development on or near floodplains, wetlands and shorelines to proceed, will also be subject to provincial over-rule in specific cases under the new Act.

Those decisions are currently made locally and they can be appealed [to a tribunal], but under the new Act the minister could over-ride a decision being made by a Conservation Authority, and the minister would be able to issue permits for development in any of our watersheds, and that decision would not be appealable once made by the minister,” she said.

CAs also deliver programs on behalf of municipalities, including septic inspections programs and land management services. Under the new act, those programs will be permitted, but will require formal agreements be negotiated with municipalities

The ability of Conservation Authorities to run educational and stewardship programs with lake associations and school groups may be limited as well.

“There is wording in the proposed changes wherein the province could prescribe or limit the kinds of programs that a conservation authority could provide to municipalities or on behalf of the watershed. Right now, municipalities really govern and oversee Conservation Authorities, and now we are seeing proposals that would give the province a little bit of a stronger hand in terms of decisions being made for local Conservation Authorities.

When asked what municipalities could do about the situation, Casgrain-Robertson said that because the changes are included as part of the budget enabling legislation, they are not subject to public consultations, and the enabling legislation is slated to receive its final reading within a couple of weeks.

“I would encourage any municipality that has concerns to reach out to their local MPP. I think that’s your most effective route given the speed that its moving and the fact that there is no consultation opportunity. We feel like Conservation Authorities belong to the municipality: you create us, you govern us and you fund us. If you feel that you want to keep local control over Conservation Authorities you should contact your MPP as soon as possible.

Councillor Bill Macdonald pointed out that our local MPP, Randy Hillier, “is not exactly a friend to Conservation Authorities.”

Casgrain-Robertson said Council could contact other regional MPP’s. including the Minister of Municipal Affairs Steve Clark, who represents the neighbouring riding of Leeds, Grenville, Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes.

Council also passed a motion later in the meeting ins support of maintaining local control over Conservation Authority activities.

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