Early in 2021 the Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) consulted on the review of the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan (LSPP) and made some presentations to municipal Councils. The Ministry will either make, or not make, amendments to the LSPP by this summer.
The Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition (RLSC) analysed the five staff reports on the LSPP from York Region, Durham Region, and the lower tier municipalities of Innisfil, Georgina, and King. In three cases, the RLSC wrote to the municipality and Council and made a delegation to request clarification and/or to suggest changes on some staff reports. Both the municipal staff reports on the LSPP and the RLSC comments submitted to municipalities can be accessed here.
Some key themes emerge from our study of the publicly available municipal comments regarding the review of the LSPP:
- There is strong municipal support for protecting Lake Simcoe, and for strengthening policies of the LSPP by reflecting on what has been learned in the first 12 years implementation.
- The province did not provide adequate information and analysis of the effectiveness of LSPP policies for the policy review. Most municipalities emphasize that the province must continue monitoring and tracking the effectiveness of various remediation actions, and report on the lake’s health against the LSPP’s targets and objectives.
- Accommodating the watershed population ordered by the province’s Growth Plan (projected to at least double by 2051) while meeting the phosphorus (P) reduction target of the LSPP (which is to cut phosphorus loads in half by 2045) is a massive challenge.
- Municipal responses vary greatly when it comes to accommodating growth. At one end is the Town of Georgina standing strong with Georgina Island First Nation opposing the Upper York Sewage System, and at the other end, Innisfil’s staff report obliquely suggesting that some places be allowed to increase P loads to accommodate growth.
While most municipal responses highlight the importance of reducing phosphorus loads to Lake Simcoe by revising the Phosphorus Reduction Strategy, they also discuss the merits of various ways to reduce P loads. Should we continue to focus on P reductions from sewage treatment plants, or from other remedial actions that reduce erosion and runoff?
Sewage Treatment Plants and phosphorus offsets:
Most municipalities recognize that reducing phosphorus from sewage treatment plants (STPs) is effective but expensive. They suggest how the province can reduce phosphorus loads from other more “cost-effective” sources. The question is, if STP’s P load caps are eased, will the other P reduction techniques adequately mitigate the harm caused by urban growth?
The RLSC has concerns about the feasibility and timing of the offset approaches suggested. First, the Precautionary Principle is a “guiding principle” of the LSPP, and it would be fitting therefore to not assume that agricultural and landowner remediation and Best Management Practices will be successful at the scale required to bring down P loads without substantive evidence. If the province wants to reduce P loads in a cost-effective way, more research and monitoring is needed to demonstrate that other offsets will work over time and not degrade, fail, and add more phosphorus to the lake than presumed. Until such real-world evidence is provided, other sectors should not be allowed to increase their P loads.
Durham Region supports a future focus “…on more significant sources of phosphorus such as, stormwater and agricultural/rural runoff and invasive species, and that the existing phosphorus loading caps for water pollution control plants be maintained.” The RLSC is in support of this kind of approach.
York Region recommends that P offsets should be used to accommodate new P loads from STPs, and recommends focusing on agricultural and stormwater infrastructure improvements. There is little evidence, however, that offsets from agricultural projects can be relied on as long-term P offsets. And the reduction in family farms, and the related increase in corporate owned farms (mainly land speculators) also means that there are fewer farmers who are land stewards, and fewer farmers willing to undertake remediation on their farms at the scale required to offset the Upper York Sewage System (UYSS), a new STP. If the UYSS discharges into Lake Simcoe, more reliable and enduring offsets will be needed, namely the proposed Government of Canada and York Region – funded stormwater treatment / phosphorus reclamation centre on the East Holland River, which could remove 7 tonnes of P per year.
Although their submissions do not mention the UYSS discharging into Lake Simcoe, York and Durham Regions are advocating for it. York Region supports the UYSS, while Georgina, their lower tier municipality on the lake, opposes it, in harmony with Georgina Island First Nation.
Almost all of the staff reports refer in some way to the challenges of accommodating the province’s growth plan population minimums while meeting the requirements of the LSPP.
York Region asks point blank, “Clarify how municipalities can comply with both legislated growth targets and wastewater servicing restrictions under the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan.”
Georgina’s report says, “Increased pressure on the watershed ecosystem will materialize given the anticipated, significant future growth in the watershed planned in the next 30 years…. Despite the best of intentions and practices, phosphorus loading targets in the lake have not been met since the adoption of the LSPP in 2009. Clearly, better efforts and measures are required to address this condition in the face of increased population growth in the watershed.”
Innisfil advocates for the LSPP to accommodate growth: “phosphorus targets for Lake Simcoe may not be sufficiently in step with other recently updated Provincial policies. Changes to broader the provincial policy landscape, particularly changes to the growth forecasts and policies of A Place to Grow (“Growth Plan”) to be implemented through the County of Simcoe Municipal Comprehensive Review (“MCR”) process, need to be viewed and considered comprehensively with the LSPP…. The MECP’s 10-year review provides an opportunity to examine the growth pressures in the Lake Simcoe watershed and ensure that provincial plans offer a parallel consideration for sufficient servicing capacity to support growth forecasts.”
Innisfil went on to suggest sub-regional targets, presumably to accommodate local growth impacts. It is no secret that Innisfil and landowners and developers operating there have massive growth ambitions. They suggest that the province consider the following: “Could a sub-regionalized approach to the LSPP better achieve Provincial planning goals? …. The Town welcomes the opportunity to discuss with the MECP the introduction of sub-regionally focused amendments following the MECP’s 10-year review, where they are supported by data and provide specific controls related to the environmental threats, growth pressures, and presence of natural heritage resources within each sub-watershed area. The approach may resemble sub-regional policy variations introduced to the Growth Plan and could be informed by the MCR process.” This approach suggests that one part of the lake can pollute more than others. This is not going to work. Clean streams in Oro-Medonte will not make Innisfil’s frequently closed beaches any cleaner.
Ultimately, the province will have to decide if their growth agenda is more important than Lake Simcoe. We do not have the systems in place to accommodate a doubling of the watershed’s population by 2051. We may never have it all figured out. Until we do, the rate of growth is simply unsustainable, and it seems that Lake Simcoe municipalities are saying that, without saying that exactly.
Harmonizing provincial plans
Three of the five staff reports recommend policy harmonization with other provincial plans, referring to an opportunity to use the Greenbelt (GB) or Oak Ridges Moraine Plan’s (ORMCP) natural heritage feature definitions in the LSPP as one example. This suggestion is appealing for a number of reasons. One, planners and developers would find it easier to implement and to understand the applicable policies if they were the same across the ORMCP, GB and LSPP. Two, if this change could go some way towards achieving the LSPP’s “40% high quality natural cover” target, which so far has been a target without implementing policy.
But staff comments on policy harmonization also point out some of the gaps and mistakes made by the province in their haste to dismantle environmental policy. Municipalities question whether water, wastewater and stormwater policies are meant to accommodate growth, or to protect the quality and quantity of affected waters. Indeed, the Growth Plan says one thing on this topic and the Provincial Policy Statement says another. One assumes that the province will clarify the intent. We sure hope they come down on the side of water protection. If not, their Made in Ontario Environment Plan promises will have been as empty as Dear Henry’s bucket.
The province’s public consultation on the LSPP review has ended, but there are still many concerns and questions they will need to address before landing on solutions that will keep Lake Simcoe healthy. For this to happen, the province must accept that their Covid recovery plan (build build build) will have negative impacts on the places that Ontarians love, and change course.
Both the municipal staff reports on the LSPP and the RLSC comments submitted to municipalities can be accessed here.