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Oak Ridges Moraine: Not safe yet

Toronto Star

August 10,2011

By Jayme Poisson

The Oak Ridges Moraine can’t wait.

That’s the message a coalition of environmental groups dedicated to protecting southern Ontario’s “rain barrel” want the province to hear. And so far, they say the government is largely ignoring problems that are at a tipping point, including depletion of water resources and potential contamination of drinking water.

“What’s the legacy we’re leaving our kids?” asks Debbe Crandall, executive director of Save the Oak Ridges Moraine (STORM) coalition, a group of moraine residents committed to protecting the 160 kilometres of sandy hills, which stretch from the Trent River in the east to the Niagara Escarpment in the west.

The moraine is a natural gem, serving as a recharge and discharge area for groundwater, supplying drinking water to more than 250,000 people.

A stone’s throw from Toronto, the region is also a rich source of aggregates, such as gravel and sand, used for urban construction.

Ultimately, balancing development with the moraine’s environmental integrity is a tricky business.

In the 10 years since the province passed the leading-edge legislation called the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan, deficiencies and frailties are popping up, says Crandall.

While the plan was supposed to be reviewed in 2012, that’s been put off until 2015, to be looked at with the Greenbelt legislation. But the environmentalists argue some activities need to be more robustly regulated now.

“There’s a lot of damage that could be done between now and 2015. Lets not wait until 2015 to solve the problem,” says Crandall.

It’s something Kim Gavine, executive director of the Oak Ridges Moraine Foundation, says her foundation could help with, by bringing the various actors to the table and working with landowners to restore streams and forests. But they’re running out of money.

The foundation was created soon after the plan and given $15 million by the province to invest in projects and education around the moraine. The foundation raised a further $35.8 million, funding 177 projects.

Gavine says requests for more funding from the province have been ignored and soon they’ll have to shut their doors.

In an email statement, Minister of the Environment John Wilkinson said the province under Dalton McGuinty has made safeguarding the environment a priority, protecting an area the size of Great Britain from development.

“That’s a wonderful legacy to leave our children, which the Hudak PCs voted against,” said the statement.

On Wednesday, Crandall, along with Gavine and Caroline Schultz of Ontario Nature, took a Star reporter and photographer over the moraine in a helicopter to point out five “environmental assaults” on the leafy region.

More roads, pipes and utilities

At 1,500 acres, Happy Valley in King Township is one of the larger intact forests left in the region, sheltering 110 species of birds and endangered animals. The groups point to Highway 400 and other roads and pipes that slice through it, interfering with animal movement. Crandall is worried current legislation wouldn’t stop highway expansion.

Fill dumping

Abandoned aggregate pits are sometimes used as dump sites for commercial fill coming in from the GTA. At one site on Lakeridge Rd. in Scugog, there was evidence of heavy metals and petroleum hydrocarbons above permitted levels in the fill near a vulnerable aquifer. That site is not currently operating. But others are, and the groups are concerned that the system is “leaky.” While trucks may be dumping only clean material, the province lacks mechanisms to ensure that’s the case.

“Everyone is passing the buck,” says Crandall. “People are saying it’s the responsibility of municipalities to give permits, municipalities are saying it’s the Ministry of Environment who should be doing the testing.” Crandall, a geologist, doesn’t believe municipalities have the expertise, resources or, often, proper bylaws to manage these sites. Wilkinson said in his statement that the sites have strict operating requirements and his ministry works closely with municipalities.

“Water grabbing”

There are concerns that development is depleting the precious water resources of the moraine. The groups cite a 2008 study by Earthroots and Ecojustice that slammed the province for allowing dozens of golf courses on the moraine. Crandall is concerned there’s no real oversight over how much water those courses are drawing and the cumulative effects on the aquifer.

“Grandfathered” development

Some residents are surprised when subdivisions or golf courses suddenly spring up on the moraine despite the protections. This happens because plans approved 10 or 20 years ago, before the moraine protection act came into effect, are allowed to go ahead. Crandall points to one subdivision in Caledon that wouldn’t have been approved under new legislation. The groups realize it’s fair to honour past agreements, but want to see sunset rules — a hard deadline for building in those areas.

Backwards rules

The groups point to an irony about the University of Toronto’s Koffler Scientific Reserve, which does climate-change research in the natural core of the moraine. Crandall says the provincial act has actually hampered the ability of the first-class facility to expand and reach for its goal. “It was unintentionally written so it makes it difficult for educational institutes and for research that is focused directly on conservation practices for the Oak Ridges Moraine,” said Art Weis, director of the Koffler Scientific Reserve. The groups would like to see the bureaucracy streamlined, to aid work that helps the moraine.

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