By Jon Yaneff
Lake Simcoe is an essential part of Ontario’s natural and ecological heritage, supporting tourism and recreational fishing, as well as being a source of drinking water for local communities.
According to Campaign Lake Simcoe, the lake’s watershed ecosystem has deteriorated due to growth pressures and land use changes dating back more than 200 years. These pressures include excessive nutrients, pollutants, invasive species, impacts of climate change and pressures from population growth.
Three stakeholder advisory workshops were held by the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) in April, which were attended by people involved in charities, community groups, farmer and cottager associations, developers, as well as municipalities around the lake.
A citizen response to the discussion paper, entitled What it Takes to Save Lake Simcoe, was written by Campaign Lake Simcoe. Forty-one groups signed on to support this response to the discussion paper, which is a good reflection of the community’s support for Campaign Lake Simcoe and its suggestions for the direction the province should take on the Lake Simcoe Protection Act.
The two main comments made by Campaign Lake Simcoe are that the proposed legislation needs to deal with more than water quality and phosphorus levels, and that through the legislation, land use policies must be developed to identify and protect natural and agricultural areas in the Lake Simcoe watershed and surrounding area.
MOE also put on two public information forums to ask advice from concerned citizens on what should be included in a new Lake Simcoe protection strategy. Minister of the Environment John Gerretsen provided a brief presentation. More than 100 people attended each forum.
The first forum was in Barrie April 16 and the second was at the Newmarket Community Centre April 23.
There are about 380,000 residents, 12,000 cottages and at least 43 species at risk in the Lake Simcoe watershed. The lake is a central place for local economic activity.
According to provincial plans, by 2031 there will be 227,000 additional people living and working in Simcoe County. A recent study predicted approximately a 25 per cent increase in phosphorus loading in the committed future growth scenario of the lake. If all the new urban development proposals in south Simcoe were built, they would add another 240,000 people.
“People overwhelmingly want to see that land use be included in the Lake Simcoe Protection Act,” said Claire Malcolmson, project coordinator of Campaign Lake Simcoe from Environmental Defence. “This means protecting woodlands, wetlands and making sure we have land use designations that are similar to those in the Greenbelt.”
“We are concerned with a lot of the recent development proposals that have come to our area (East Gwillimbury) and if it will it be a lot of urban sprawl which takes up a lot of agricultural land,” said Phil Trow from Bondhead BWG Residents for Responsible Development. “We hope that since we were left out of the Greenbelt, this Protection Act will contain some land use planning to protect our area from large scale outlet proposals, which would take out large amounts of agricultural land.”
Malcolmson said Environmental Defence wants to make sure that developments are innovative, responsible and clean while giving back to the community.
At the release of the province’s discussion paper March 27, Gerretsen said, “I want our strategy for protecting Lake Simcoe to set the gold standard for creating sustainable communities that safeguard the environment they depend on and enjoy.”
“In order to ‘get the gold’ the province needs to respond to what was said at the public consultations about protecting green space and developing appropriate land use policies in the Lake Simcoe area,” said Dr. Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, in a press release. “We are taking the Minister at his word and believe the province will do what it takes to set the standard.”
“(Of interest to) people living near water in Ontario, on water and living in sustainable communities, I understand that the province would like to replicate this Act in other water sheds around the province,” said Malcolmson.
“Public input is extremely important and we’ve found people are in favour of this type of a protection plan,” said Gerretsen at the Newmarket forum. “People also want their voices heard to make sure Lake Simcoe is protected for future generations.”
Malcolmson said that Campaign Lake Simcoe’s main criticism of the province’s discussion paper is that it focuses entirely on water quality and doesn’t address land use problems adequately.
“They talk about improving water quality, but how will that happen if development isn’t controlled? The cleanest, easiest and cheapest way to clean up a lake is to protect your wetlands and forests.”
Besides improving water quality and maintaining its quantity, some suggested short-term priorities stated in the province’s discussion paper included improving the health of the ecosystem by protecting and rehabilitating important areas, such as water recharge areas, forested or vegetated buffers along shorelines and riversides with the fish habitat and wetlands. Reducing beach closures is also a priority.
In December, the province took immediate action, including an $850,000 investment in studies and innovative projects on the management of non-point sources of phosphorus. There is also an interim regulation that places stricter limits on phosphorus discharges into Lake Simcoe and its watershed tributaries from municipal and industrial sewage treatment plants, prohibit the establishment of new industrial or municipal sewage treatment plants in the watershed and sets strict design standards for any new storm water management facilities servicing new developments.
These regulations are now law until the end of March 2009. The provincially appointed scientific advisory committee and the stakeholder advisory committee will be working with the Ministry of the Environment to make sense of the public feedback and to help the province craft the Lake Simcoe Protection Act and Plan over the next year.