It’s a hot, sunny day in July—we’re talking ideal beach weather. The kind of day when just loading your car with a beach blanket, umbrella and cooler makes you break into a vicious sweat. The beads trickle down your face as you hop into your scalding seat (yow!), roll down the windows and hit the road—eagerly anticipating the ice-cold lake water on your skin.
When you arrive, however, the parking lot is suspiciously empty. Confused, you look around—and that’s when you see it:
WARNING: Toxin-producing blue-green algae is currently present.
If you’ve ever found yourself in a similar situation, urban wetland destruction is quite likely to blame. And given how things are going in Ontario lately, beach days like this are probably going to be much more common.
That said, it’s not too late to change our trajectory. And with World Water Day coming up on March 22, we thought this would be an opportune time to unpack the issue—and suggest one key thing you can do to help.
The wetland lowdown
You know those wetlands that have been making headlines lately? Well, it turns out these unassuming natural areas are kind of a big deal.
If you’re lucky, you’ve seen them in your neighbourhood—they include green spaces that are often flooded after a heavy rainstorm, or that hold water after a quick thaw in the spring. Not only do they store and filter sediment from stormwater, but they actually remove the nutrients that cause these afore-mentioned algae blooms. As an added bonus, their vegetation, peats, and organic soils sequester carbon from the atmosphere and store it—making them an incredibly powerful tool in the fight against climate change. They are also biodiversity hotspots – over 20 percent of the province’s species at risk are directly dependent on wetland habitats.
Once we lose them, no human-made stormwater pond can adequately replace them—and we’re starting to see a host of side effects. Higher algae counts are one of them. We’re also probably going to experience a lot more flooded basements—thanks to higher rates of precipitation and no place for the water to go. You’ll also want to add “more carbon in our atmosphere” to the list and “wasted taxpayer dollars”—which will inevitably be spent after we try to fix the damage. Finally, we’ll lose the ecological resilience that biodiversity provides.
Why are they under threat?
As it turns out, when wetlands are drained, they make for pretty nutrient-rich agricultural land—and if you pave them over all together, they’re prime locations for lucrative development projects. Because of this, 75% of Ontario’s wetlands have disappeared since European settlers first arrived here. And while we were making progress to preserve what’s left, recent moves by the Ontario government are taking us backwards.
The recently-proposed Amazon warehouse on the Duffins Creek wetland is just one example. In alignment with its pro-business mandate, the Ontario government is working hard to make it easier for developers (most notably, party donors and insiders) to build on wetlands.
First, it started using Minister Zoning Orders (MZOs)—a tool traditionally used for emergencies—to accelerate controversial development projects by bypassing expert analysis and public input. (For context, 49 MZOs were issued between 1969 and 2000. Thirty of them were issued in 2019 alone.)
Then, in October, it tacked on Schedule 6 to an unrelated budget bill—which allows the government to force conservation authorities to issue development permits even if the projects go against the best interests of people, infrastructure and the environment.
That’s exactly what we saw during the Duffins Creek debacle. Despite public backlash (and a perfectly suitable golf course to build on that was virtually next door), the government was determined to make it as easy as possible for a specific developer to land the Amazon deal. And thanks to Schedule 6, there was very little anyone could do to stop the project. The only reason it didn’t come to fruition was because Amazon–not the government–caved to public pressure.
It’s time for a change in mindset
The government should recognize the value in our natural ecosystems and waterways and not allow developers to build on them–period. But we should be demanding more than that.
Building a new warehouse on a site that isn’t a wetland is one way to create new jobs without unnecessarily destroying our environment–but why stop there? Why not also…
- offer incentives to help that warehouse adopt business practices that actually reduce its impact on the environment?
- Foster job growth in innovative new industries like green building, biomedical technology, renewable energy and sustainable transportation–so, one day, that warehouse’s trucks won’t have to send tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere?
- Launch a Green Building program which will allow us to offer good employment to workers while helping homeowners, landlords and businesses (like that warehouse) make their buildings more energy efficient?
And now that we’re on the right track, it would make sense to leverage nature’s inexpensive carbon-storing abilities to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Preserving our wetlands is one way to do that, but there are countless others, including: planting more trees, increasing the organic content of our soils, getting more diligent about our land-use plans, building green infrastructure projects and implementing stronger protections for our grasslands and woodlots. (We outline ways to do this, here .)
As you can see, our province doesn’t have to destroy nature to realize new business opportunities–and it actually should be doing a lot more to repair the damage we’ve already done. If you agree, we hope you’ll join us in the fight to save our wetlands. You can do this by sending four important emails to:
(And if you’re feeling really ambitious, check out our Green Vision which offers a host of practical ideas of how we can build back better. )
If we’ve learned anything from recent events, it’s that public pressure works—and your voice, combined with thousands of others, can help us get a little closer to putting Ontario on the right track.
Vanessa Chris is the communications director for the Guelph Greens Constituency Association.