Let’s try a new approach to our lakes and rivers

By MPP Toby Barrett 

As a long-time legislator, I have been involved in many debates and clashes of conflicting and competing interests over the years involving our lakes and rivers. 

Ontario is blessed with 250,000 lakes which play a central role in our history, our heritage and culture, and in our fishing-, transportation- and tourism-based economies.  Our incredible water legacy impacts our patterns of settlement, our economic activity, and our quality of life. 

Recently, two Ontario water-related documents crossed my desk: Bill 5, titled York Region Wastewater Act, resulted from the impact of a rapidly-growing population and its possible effect on Lake Simcoe and the Great Lakes. Secondly, a Port Dover Maple Leaf article by Hannah Harrison titled ‘Has the time now come to protect our “Blue Belt”?’, raises the proposal of a new concept to protect our Great Lakes fishing heritage and economy. 

Bill 5 puts a pause to York Region’s environmental assessment application to give time for an expert advisory panel to present options to deal with the environmental, social and financial impacts of wastewater produced in Ontario’s third largest municipality. This rapidly growing area is expected to reach 1.5 million people in 10 years. 

The Blue Belt proposal suggests many of the same protections and multi-pronged policy approaches to Great Lakes economies, culture and food systems that are found in Ontario’s Green Belt for agricultural and environmentally-sensitive lands subject to urban sprawl and development. 

Further to this, I have introduced and debated a piece of proposed legislation titled The Great Lakes Protection and Promotion Act.  Coupled with the Blue Belt concept, there is potential to open the door for future work, analysis and action based on a number of principles: involve people and all levels of government; focus on the needs of the lakes and their tributaries regardless of whether they be in Ontario, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin; emphasize communication and consultation; stay away from overlap and duplication; lean toward strong monitoring and science; and learn from past successes. 

Frameworks and laws are already in place.  For example, Harrison proposes broadening Ontario’s right to farm legislation—the Farming and Food Production Protection Act—to also conserve, protect and encourage the development and improvement of Ontario’s commercial fisheries and their normal practices and essential infrastructure.  

She also makes the case for zoning modernization to safeguard waterfront access and infrastructure for the marine trades and water-dependent businesses.  This approach to zoning helps prevent some types of development, such as residential or commercial that don’t require water access, from encroaching on waterfronts. 

Like the Farming and Food Production Protection Act, there are other applicable laws and guidance documents in place. Provincial and municipal policy statements deal with land use planning.   There is the Nutrient Management Act and the Ontario Heritage Act.  There is the Clean Water Act, the Safeguarding and Sustaining Ontario’s Water Act, the Lake Simcoe Protection Act, the Great Lakes Protection Act and, of course, my Private Members Bill—The Great Lakes Protection and Promotion Act

We can focus on the Great Lakes—on both sides of the border, and we can also include lakes Simcoe, Nipigon, Nipissing and St. Clair—as well as the other 250,000 lakes, and their watersheds where applicable. 

If we are to continue to Green Belt, and hopefully Blue Belt, our approaches to a rapidly populating Ontario we must address the challenges and the opportunities—the conflicts and the potential for alignment among competing interests. 

Toby Barrett is MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk.