Ontario’s Liberal government unveiled Tuesday what it hopes will be the backbone of a future plan to protect and restore the health of Lake Simcoe and its watershed for decades to come.
“We want to make sure the total watershed is protected. That’s what it’s all about,” Environment Minister John Gerretsen told The Packet & Times after introducing the Lake Simcoe Protection Act at Queen’s Park.
The proposed legislation gives the province the authority to develop an overall lake protection plan that Gerretsen said he expects could be ready for execution nine months from now.
That is “very good news,” said Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, a Toronto-based agency that has worked with other activist groups to protect the lake through legislation.
Though the proposed act doesn’t provide all the answers, it is a “positive framework” as the Lake Simcoe dialogue moves forward, Smith said.
“This is the beginning of the debate today, not the end.”
Politicians can’t turn their backs on the bill, said Simcoe North MPP Garfield Dunlop, a Tory who first floated the idea of ensuring the lake’s protection through legislation.
“I want to do everything that I can to see it through and see it be a bill that will have some teeth,” he said.
The ministry plans to draft a protection plan over the summer and start public consultation late this year.
If passed, the act would allow for a number of policies to coalesce in favour of the lake, including the regulation of shoreline protection measures, the promotion of sustainable development land-use practice, and the requirement of certain bylaws to be adopted by municipalities.
The associated plan is to be buttressed by an allocation of $20 million over four years, funding that could be used to enhance existing programs dealing with agriculture and urban stormwater run-off, Gerretsen suggested.
The minister acknowledged studies have shown a much heftier investment will be necessary to follow through on future actions.
The discharge of phosphorous, found in detergents and fertilizers, has been identified as the lake’s biggest problem, contributing to a host of ailments, including excessive plant growth and reduced oxygen levels.
While invasive species have been a scourge for native ones, pollution has also impacted the cold-water fishery, inhibiting the natural reproduction of some species.
The Lake Simcoe Science Advisory Committee, a panel of experts appointed by the province, noted in its June report that water-quality problems “remain a cause for considerable concern.”
Especially worrisome, the committee noted, were the effects of population growth and land-use changes.
Gerretsen said growth pressures — forecast to hit Simcoe County hard over the next 25 years, with a sharp population influx of 250,000 — are on the provincial radar.
“The message, quite frankly, is that all future development plans… have to conform to the new criteria that are going to be set out.”
Gerretsen said the eventual protection plan would spell out the fine print.
Dunlop said he predicts some headaches in the southern half of the county, which is expected to experience the most growth in coming years. “There will definitely be some head-butting with the development industry,” he said, adding the agricultural sector will likely voice opposition to aspects of a protection plan.
But policy makers should hold firm in the face of controversy, Dunlop added.
“You can’t sit back as parliamentarians and watch something like lakes go into decline, decade after decade, and wonder why no one did anything about it.”