What’s needed from Canada’s federal parties to help save Ontario’s Lake Simcoe

With the 2021 Canada election fast approaching, many of the country’s party leaders have announced plans to fight climate change and protect the environment — but will they be enough to save Ontario’s Lake Simcoe and the surrounding area?

The answer is complicated because land use and sewage are regulated under the province of Ontario’s jurisdiction, though local environmental experts say there are a number of actions that the federal government can take to help the situation.

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The case for protecting the Lake Simcoe region

Currently, Lake Simcoe is in “OK health,” according to Claire Malcolmson, the executive director of the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition, but more needs to be done to maintain its well-being.

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“The lake’s major problem is phosphorous pollution,” she told Global News.

“It’s in dirt, so when you strip a piece of land bare for agriculture or for urban development or suburban development, the wind whips that up and it becomes airborne.”

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About a third of that airborne phosphorous then eventually lands in the lake’s watershed, causing pollution, Malcolmson added.

Additionally, a very small piece of Simcoe County is part of Ontario’s Greenbelt, a portion of land that’s protected under provincial legislation. In order to fight the climate crisis, experts say there need to be more conservation efforts for natural areas in the region.

Environmental incentives

One way an incoming federal government could show it takes climate action seriously is by ensuring it’s not providing incentives or money that make climate targets more difficult to reach, according to Margaret Prophet, the executive director of the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition.

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“One of the things that we’re concerned about is how communities continue to sprawl and how we keep building new highways,” she said.

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“The federal government could easily incentivize more communities, could give more funding for transit with certain conditions with densities, and they could also increase the scrutiny for highways that we know are going to increase greenhouse gas emissions.”

If infrastructure dollars and incentives continue to go toward the destruction of natural spaces, it doesn’t matter how much money is spent for cleanup, Prophet said. “You’re still just assaulting it from different angles,” she added.

Land and water conservation

According to Malcolmson, there aren’t enough natural areas protected in the Lake Simcoe watershed to meet the targets of the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan or the globally-recognized objectives for keeping a watershed healthy.

For the 2021 election, Canada’s four main parties have committed to protecting land and water throughout the country.

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The Conservatives have promised to protect 17 per cent of terrestrial areas and to work toward conserving 25 per cent, though they did not provide a timeline, while the Liberals have pledged to protect 25 per cent of land and water by 2025, with the goal to conserve 30 per cent by 2030. Meanwhile, both the NDP and Green Party have committed to protecting 30 per cent of land and freshwater by 2030.

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While the conservation pledges are promising, Malcolmson said too much has been allocated to areas in northern Ontario, where it’s easy to protect land.

“I think it’s really critical that the federal government work harder at protecting 30 per cent of our land base in southern Ontario as well,” she added.

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Fewer highways and less urban sprawl

One big challenge local environmentalists are currently facing involves a new proposed highway in Simcoe County and York Region called the Bradford Bypass, a 16-kilometre freeway that would connect highways 400 and 404. The project is supported by Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation.

“The environmental assessment is 24 years old,” Malcolmson told Global News.

“The Bradford Bypass is something that’s being pushed by the province of Ontario, but they need some federal permits. They need a federal permit for fisheries impacts and they need a federal permit for endangered species.”

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Prophet and Malcolmson both told Global News that the federal government declined to conduct an impact assessment on the proposed freeway, though they believe that decision should be revisited by the incoming government.

“We would like them to also very strongly consider their role and their commitment to nature if and when they provide any permits for the Bradford Bypass,” Malcolmson added.

Infrastructure and climate dollars

One other important piece that an incoming Canadian government should focus on is ensuring federal infrastructure dollars are allocated to Ontario development projects in already existing communities where there’s a full range of services, Prophet said.

“We have to start thinking about building places where people can live at all different ages and stages,” she added.

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“That means we have to … build communities that people can be mobile in a variety of ways versus stringing them into far-flung places in the middle of farmers’ fields where they have to drive all the time.”

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Prophet also said municipalities are on the front lines of the climate crisis, meaning they’re going to be the ones that see roads washed out and the effects of ice storms and droughts.

“I haven’t heard a lot of talk about how any federal government is going to be supporting municipalities to deal with climate change,” she said.

The 2021 election

Malcolmson said her organization has been preparing a letter to distribute to the region’s local federal candidates.

In the letter, she said candidates will be asked to look at:

  • Achieving protection of 30 per cent of Canada’s land and water by 2030
  • Fully studying the impact of the Bradford Bypass
  • Investing in nature to fight climate change (incorporating the Lake Simcoe Cleanup Fund and utilizing green infrastructure)
  • Reducing phosphorous loads to Lake Simcoe
  • Advancing environmental justice and preventing environmental racism

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–With files from Global News’ Brian Hill

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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