The Ontario Wetland Evaluation System (OWES) was created forty years ago to identify wetlands in Ontario that had value on a provincial scale, i.e., wetlands that were Provincially Significant.
Bill 23, which our government is touting as a solution to Ontario’s housing crisis, is being sharply criticized for many reasons, including for its drastic changes to the OWES. One change that has been the focus of much attention is the removal of all the highest-scoring values from the OWES – specifically wetland breeding, feeding, migration and hibernation habitat for Threatened and Endangered species.
If Bill 23 is passed any Provincially Significant Wetland that received protection for one or more of these values can be reevaluated and stripped of protection. It’s important to realize however that the provincial government is not merely removing protection for many of Ontario’s Provincially Significant Wetlands and the Species at Risk that inhabit them.
Nor is it merely “updating” the OWES even if that’s all it’s claiming to be doing. The government clearly has a more nefarious agenda: to privatize the OWES. One need look no further than to the changes being proposed to see that this government is vacating its role of overseeing the OWES thereby opening the door to privatizing the evaluation system.
These changes include:
• Eliminating the role of the OWES in determining whether a wetland should be protected under the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS), thus relieving the government of its responsibility to uphold policies in the PPS for Provincially Significant Wetlands;
• Abdicating its role in administering the OWES e.g. coordinating and approving evaluations and ensuring that information about PSW designations is publicly accessible;
• Abdicating its responsibility to uphold high standards for wetland evaluations (e.g. no more training for wetland evaluators, no longer serving as the approval authority for wetland evaluations; no longer providing wetland evaluators with information and advice);
•Restraining Conservation Authorities (CAs)from performing their roles (e.g. CAs will no longer be permitted to regulate areas within 120 metres of PSWs thereby ensuring they never have an opportunity to actually see Threatened or Endangered Species or their habitat).
•Eliminating “wetland files” (open files that are kept for wetlands that have been evaluated under the OWES) and prohibiting access to existing wetland files.
It is well known that wetland protection is closely tied with the protection of Threatened and Endangered Species.
The OWES is the first to recognize this: “Wetlands that provide reproductive habitat for an endangered or threatened species automatically receive very high scores for this special feature. All endangered/threatened species of wildlife and plant-life, including fish and invertebrates can be scored under this section.”
The OWES also notes that: “The survival of endangered and threatened migratory species is vitally dependent on the presence of suitable habitat along the migration route where they can find food and shelter. Such traditional migration areas, traditional hibernation areas or traditional feeding areas (not necessarily breeding habitat) are critical to the species and are scored accordingly.”
Despite this, the government is choosing to abandon its role to protect Provincially Significant Wetlands and is putting in place of the OWES a privatized scheme that absolves it of all responsibility.
The approval of Bill 23 “as is” will cause irreparable damage to our Provincially Significant Wetlands and to the Threatened and Endangered Species that depend on them to survive.