Unchecked urban sprawl in southern Ontario is becoming hugely expensive and unsustainable, says Ontario’s environmental watchdog in his annual report.
Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller levelled criticism in his Nov. 1 report at the province’s land use planning policy, saying woodlands, wetlands, species at risk and water quality are not being protected from large-scale development.
Miller says the province’s own population growth predictions forecast an additional six million people moving into the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) over the next 25 years - “two Torontos on the outskirts of Toronto” - which will undoubtedly put pressure on the consumption of water, energy and land.
The same forecast projects an 8.5-per-cent population decline in Northern Ontario. Miller advocates finding ways to shift people and jobs to the North.
In an interview with Northern Ontario Business, Miller says turning a blind eye to the problem poses huge ramifications and costly infrastructure problems for all levels of government and will affect the sustainability of cities.
“Passively going along does not necessarily produce a better result than actively trying to get some jobs in the North.”
To attract industry and jobs north, Miller said, the government can “aggressively take the lead” by moving public institutions to the region to diversify the economic base there. “Once you get a core of jobs, more would follow.”
A short-lived effort was made in the early 1990s to decentralize some institutions. It led to the establishment of the Canada Revenue Agency data entry centre in Sudbury and the Ontario Lottery Corporation headquarters in Sault Ste. Marie.
Highway 400: Mistakes made in Muskoka
Miller also observed major deficiencies in highway construction methods, saying environmental protection rules in the Highway 400 extension through Muskoka were disregarded and short cuts were made.
He says highway contractors ignored the rules and construction practices killed mature trees, obstructed waterways and caused year-round flooding.
“The control systems that would have caught that didn’t work.”
Though Miller was not aware if such problems persist with the ongoing four-laning of Highways 11 and 69, he says the Ministry of Transportation must make a commitment to better train its environmental inspectors and contract administrators.
Forest management policy is also in need of an overhaul, particularly the Ministry of Natural Resources’ new forest fire suppression policy, which he calls “flawed and shortsighted.”
Miller says fire is a desirable silvicultural practice and recommends more prescribed burns.
Small fires help rejuvenate forest ecosystems and by burning dead trees and underbrush, they reduce the potential for larger, more catastrophic fires that can impact the industry for decades.
“Suppressing fire all the time, all it does is set you up for the big one.”
But Miller says many, in government and industry alike, don’t see the long-term benefits, only the immediate return on investment.
A fishy situation at a former farm
Continuing problems with Ontario’s aquaculture industry were raised in his report, as illustrated by an aerial photograph taken of a former fish farm operation in the La Cloche Channel on Lake Huron.
Although the floating cages were removed seven years before, the impressions of the pens are still evident in the lake bottom sediment - even through melting spring ice - as caused by fish feces and uneaten fish food.
Miller says Ontario needs clear environmental standards to treat free-falling sewage with a regulatory system to inspect and monitor fish farm operations.
A lack of standards has been blamed by some within the aquaculture sector for stifling the industry’s growth.
Miller agrees there remains confusion and inconsistency in regulatory control and wants to see rigorous standards put in place along with a licensing process that allows the public to participate.
Further clarification is needed to address industrial development on private lands and shorelines.
The controversy over a proposed Wawa trap rock quarry on Lake Superior, and its potential environmental impact, could have been avoided if all of Ontario were covered under the Aggregates Resources Act.
Some local residents at Michipicoten Harbour became alarmed when the planned quarry on privately-held land would not be subject to any environmental requirements.
It forced both the Natural Resources and Environment ministries to scramble and designate the area under the act which governs how quarries are approved, operated, licensed, monitored and rehabilitated after closure.
All pits and quarries in southern Ontario are subject to the act, however only small pockets of the North are covered.
“Everybody who operates pits and quarries should be under the same set of rules,” says Miller.
He says a vision is needed for the Superior coast line to provide clarification on what protections need to be in place for aggregate operations and other industries on Crown and private lands.
A substantial discussion is necessary to determine what the so-called Great Lakes Heritage Coast designation really means. “It seems to be a statement of intent with no legal status.”