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Local groups worried that the Oak Ridges Moraine is protected only on paper

The King Sentinel

September 7, 2011

By Josh Garfinkel, Debbe Crandall and Caroline Schultz

This summer marked the 10th anniversary of the Oak Ridges Moraine Protection Act.

No doubt, many people in the Greater Toronto Area believe that, thanks to this piece of legislation (along with the Oak Ridges Moraine Protection Plan that followed), urban sprawl was stopped in its tracks and an ecological treasure was saved.

The reality is something quite different. Yes, some protection has been afforded the moraine, but not nearly to the degree that local citizens and politicians, scientists, environmentalists and local communities had fought for. On the contrary, despite carefully crafted environmental policies that appear sound, the moraine has suffered lower water levels, loss of agricultural land, species in decline and habitat fragmentation.

Indeed, less than 10 per cent of the moraine has been set aside to protect important natural areas. One study looking at golf courses on the moraine revealed that 10 courses alone can use as much as 3.1 billion litres of water annually, enough to cover the needs of 25,000 people. There are 47 golf courses scattered across what is one of southern Ontario’s most distinctive physical features.

Is this what protection looks like?

A dozen years ago, a grassroots coalition, that included Ontario Nature, Save The Oak Ridges Moraine (STORM) and Earthroots, pushed for the preservation of southern Ontario’s “rain barrel,” so called because the moraine’s aquifers supply clean drinking water to more than 250,000 people and is the site of the headwaters for 65 river systems.

The moraine also supports extraordinary habitats, such as kettle lakes, formed when half-buried glaciers melted, leaving holes in the ground filled with water, that are home to plants, birds and rare turtles. Fully 40 per cent of Ontario’s species at risk rely on the Oak Ridges Moraine, and surrounding protected countryside, for survival.

Nevertheless, numerous environmental assaults threaten the ecological integrity of the moraine. Water taking is especially worrisome. More than 100 million litres of water are pumped out of (or leak out of) the moraine’s aquifers every day while runoff contaminates ground and surface water. Yet during this election season, none of the three main political parties are making meaningful recommendations addressing water protection on the moraine.

Roads, pipes and transmission lines continue to be built even through core natural areas. Hundreds of thousands of truckloads containing fill, in some instances contaminated with heavy metals and petroleum hydrocarbons from old industrial sites, are dumped into abandoned aggregate pits. No provincial monitoring is in place to track dumping. Consequently, contaminated fill may end up in the moraine’s watersheds, posing significant health risks to the citizens who depend on these sensitive features for drinking water.

Golf courses and subdivisions continue to pop up because they were approved before the protection act was passed 10 years ago. And while the aggregate industry appears to be unhampered by the protective measures in place for the moraine, small landowners and research groups find they cannot make even sensitive planning changes on their property.

A review of the protection plan for the moraine is scheduled for 2015 to coincide with simultaneous reviews of other provincial plans. But we cannot wait until then for these threats to be addressed. The Province needs to fill in the regulatory loopholes that are undermining the reason the protection plan was created in the first place.

Earthroots, STORM and Ontario Nature are raising awareness about the gaps in protection for the moraine and what is at stake as a result. In the weeks leading up to the election, everyone who cares about the moraine must speak out — these issues aren’t going away, and will only get worse if political leaders and candidates continue to ignore them.

The Oak Ridges Moraine is one of the most vital, continuous green corridors left in southern Ontario. The moraine supports a high concentration of endangered species, and we are seeing significant strain on the watersheds that sustain us.

Let’s hold our political candidates accountable. Whoever wins this election must address the crisis in this one-of-a-kind place. The moraine can’t wait.

Josh Garfinkel is the Senior Campaigner for Earthroots, Debbe Crandall is the Executive Director of STORM Coalition, and Caroline Schultz is the Executive Director of Ontario Nature.

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