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Paving wetlands for housing ignores Ontario’s history of floods

Despite the devastation Hurricane Hazel wrought on Doug Ford’s own neighbourhood, his overhaul of Ontario’s housing policy weakens protections for flood-mitigating wetlands

When the Ford government announced its massive overhaul of Ontario housing policy last week, one particular aspect of the plan flew under the radar.

No, not the gutting of conservation authorities, the agencies that oversee important watersheds. Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives also snuck in a swipe at the rules that protect wetlands — swamps, bogs and marshes that are both crucial and quickly disappearing. 

This gets nerdy, but stick with me. Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry uses a manual to evaluate which wetlands are eligible for “provincially significant” status. The Ford government wants to rewrite that manual. Provincially significant status is granted to wetlands that experts deem so valuable, they should be protected from development. That’s on top of the importance all wetlands carry: they naturally prevent floods, acting like a sponge during heavy rains. They also sequester carbon, provide habitat for species at risk and filter water to keep it clean. 

This protection isn’t perfect, and it hasn’t stopped the Ford government from trying to push forward projects that would harm them or highways that would go on top of them. But the existing rules have also halted development, forced companies to revise their plans and given people an avenue to push for important places to be preserved.

Aerial view of Garner Marsh in, Hamilton, Ont., on Sunday, June 19, 2022.
The Garner Marsh in Hamilton, Ont. As the Ford government moves to overhaul provincial housing policy, it’s also weakening rules that protect wetlands, which naturally prevent floods. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

How the new Ontario housing rules would impact wetlands

The proposed changes to wetland policy, introduced at the same time as Ford’s omnibus housing bill, would eliminate two major avenues by which wetlands can qualify for protection. The first would mean evaluators can no longer consider how species at risk use the habitat. The second would require swamps, bogs and marshes to be considered in isolation, not as part of “wetland complexes,” which are interconnected pockets of wetland in the same area. Think of these pockets like cell phone towers: on their own, they might not appear to be doing much, but together they create an important network that would fall apart without each piece. 

Many wetlands that have status as part of a complex wouldn’t qualify on their own, said Andrea Kirkwood, a professor of biological sciences at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa. The rule changes would also give the province new powers to remove protection for wetlands that now have the status of being provincially significant, but wouldn’t qualify under the rewritten requirements.

“My interpretation from that is, for provincially significant wetlands to be re-evaluated under this criteria, it’s very likely that they would have their provincially significant status removed,” Kirkwood said. 

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The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling environment stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism.

This, from a government that already abandoned a strategy aimed at conserving wetlands and plans to further disempower the conservation authorities that, in some cases, are tasked with protecting them. It comes at a time when about three-quarters of the wetlands that were once present in heavily developed southern Ontario are already gone, and flooding is expected to become more and more of a problem as the climate crisis progresses. 

Ontario Premier Doug Ford surveys flooded areas on Friday, April 26, 2019 in Ottawa.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford surveys flooded areas in Ottawa in 2019. The province is expected to experience more frequent and intense floods as the climate crisis worsens. Photo: Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press

“We have very little wetland habitat left — and complexes, even fewer,” Kirkwood said. The more of them we lose, the more vulnerable Ontario will be to destructive flooding and worsening  water quality. Wetland loss also increases the risk of permanently losing endangered species that live there, and the roles such species play in maintaining full ecosystems.

The Ontario government didn’t answer The Narwhal’s questions about the new rules. But it has said it’s hoping to create a “net gain” for wetlands by allowing developers to “offset” the ones they build over — essentially, remake them somewhere else, but larger. 

The approach was supported by the non-profit Ducks Unlimited Canada, which declined to allow any of its staff to be interviewed about why, saying they “are not in a position to discuss.” 

“We are committed to working with the province to ensure that proposed changes do not result in increased wetland loss for Ontario,” Ducks Unlimited Canada said in a statement.

Even as it plans to reduce wetland protections, the Ontario government has also poured tens of millions into wetland restoration projects in the last few years, some of which went to Ducks Unlimited — for example, the organization received $6 million from the province in 2021.

“Here we are, recognizing the vital nature based solutions that wetlands provide on the one hand,” said Rebecca Rooney, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo who researches wetland ecology. “But then we’re going to simultaneously greenlight a lot of irrevocable wetland loss… Right now I’m just reeling from the juxtaposition.”  

Experts say replacement wetlands cannot fully replace the ecological functions of natural ones. 

The Ontario government’s proposal is “death by a thousand cuts,” Rooney said.

“If we only look at each loss in isolation and we don’t ever add them all up, that incremental loss seems negligible,” she said. “But from the broader perspective of cumulative effects, it’s enormous.”

A tow truck driver floats a car out of the Don Valley Parkway in Toronto on Monday, July 8 2013.
A tow truck driver floats a car out of the Don Valley Parkway in Toronto amid flooding in 2013. A massive wetland at the mouth of the Don River used to mitigate floods in the area, before settlers filled it in. A restoration project is now underway, at a cost of over $1 billion. Photo: The Canadian Press

Building housing on Ontario wetlands would be ‘rushing ahead in an unsustainable direction’

That’s not to say Ontario isn’t in a housing crisis. It is. More housing is definitely needed, and increasing population density — one of the premier’s stated goals for his new plan — can be better for the environment, leading to fewer emissions from the cars needed to traverse sprawling suburbs. 

But we don’t need to sacrifice the environment to address Ontario’s housing crisis, we need to take the time needed to make better decisions, Rooney said: “This is really rushing ahead in an unsustainable direction.” Time and time again, environmentalists have argued that there’s more than enough land already designated for housing construction in southern Ontario to accommodate all the growth the region anticipates. 

And we already have examples of what happens when we get this wrong to look to as a warning.

Take, for example, the mouth of the Don River in Toronto. Settlers who colonized the area also filled in the great wetland that was once there, leaving the land around it more vulnerable to floods. Now, various levels of government are contributing huge sums of money to rebuild what was destroyed, a massive undertaking that will cost over a billion dollars

Another thing Ontario’s own history teaches us is that houses vulnerable to floods are unreliable as homes. A stone’s throw from Ford’s longtime family home in west Toronto lies Raymore Drive, a floodplain where over 30 were killed by the rising waters of the Humber River when Hurricane Hazel struck in 1954. The storm left thousands of people without homes.

Part of Raymore Drive was expropriated and turned into a park after the disaster, never to be developed again. 

The government may indeed get “more homes built faster” as it claims it will do in the title of its new legislation. But if it doesn’t learn from the mistakes of past urban development, there’s no guarantee any of those new homes will be permanent or safe. 

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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We’re breaking news in Ontario
The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling environment stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism.
We’re breaking news in Ontario
The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling environment stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism.