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The Value of and Danger to Wetlands

Wetlands—ranging from ponds and swamps to marshes, bogs and fens—take thousands of years to develop naturally. Their value to society includes their ability to remove pollutants and pathogens from water, their ability to absorb and store carbon, their sponge-like ability to soak up flood water, and their provision of a habitat for a vast diversity of species.

This value of wetlands was recognized by the Ontario and Federal governments in the 1980s as they jointly established the Ontario Wetland Evaluation System (OWES), presided over by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) in conjunction with the various conservation authorities.

OWES is a science-based ranking system based on a scoring system that considers biological, social, hydrological and special features, resulting in a standardized approach to determining the relative value of wetlands and designating the key ones as Provincially Significant Wetlands (PSWs).

Identifying wetland complexes has been integral to this process, given that many wetlands are interconnected and have complementary functions that contribute to the health and significance of the overall system.

Wetlands can’t be paved over and arbitrarily substituted with other land. The economic cost of replacing the value of Ontario’s wetlands, if we were to attempt to do so artificially, is estimated to be in order of $2 billion.

Yet in its mind-boggling lack of wisdom and its short-sightedness, the Ford administration in Ontario started the process of gutting OWES and decimating Ontario’s wetlands the day after being re-elected in October 2022.

The purported rationale for this was to make land available for the provincial goal of building 1.5 million new houses over the next 10 years. However, many studies have shown that more than enough land is already available within city boundaries to meet this target without touching designated wetlands or the Greenbelt.

Some of the alarming changes proposed to OWES by the Ford administration include:

  • No longer recognizing or considering for designation the concept of wetland complexes.
  • Ignoring the presence of endangered or threatened species in the OWES process.
  • Removal of the MNRF from the OWES process, together with downloading the approval process to municipalities.

This last point is especially concerning given that:

  • Municipalities typically have very little expertise in this area.
  • Their reliance on their local conservation authority for consultation has been essentially removed through the proposed Bill 23 amendments, gutting conservation authorities.
  • The approval process will now be in the hands of (often developer-appointed) evaluators who have taken a short course and now have a piece of paper to hang in their offices.
  • The MNRF no longer has the jurisdiction to audit and overturn questionable evaluations.