Ford cuts could wash away conservation authority services

St. Clair Conservation Authority on Mill Pond Crescent in Strathroy. November 4, 2018. (Photo by Colin Gowdy, BlackburnNews)

Programs and services offered by the St. Clair Region Conservation Authority could be washed away by funding cuts from the Doug Ford government.

Last Friday evening, Minister of Environment Jeff Yurek sent a letter to all 36 Ontario conservation authorities (CAs) recommending they wind down programs not directly related to their “core mandate.”

St. Clair Region CA General Manager Brian McDougall said they were stunned by the letter because “there has been no communication from the province in any way shape or form relating to core or non-core programs being reduced.”

McDougall said if they were to withdraw some of these programs, we would have much less understanding of what’s going on in area watercourses.

“Those programs cut could include tree planting, conservation education for children, camping, we do a lot of collection of data, and although none of those are specifically itemized in our core mandate, those programs help us understand whether we’re doing a good job and whether there are issues out there in our environment,” he said. “Programs that are considered core by the province are those that are specific to natural hazards, in other words, erosion control, flood control, flood forecasting and warning, that type of thing.”

McDougall said changes being proposed by the government to the Conservation Authorities Act haven’t yet been proclaimed.

He said after mandatory programs and services are agreed upon by the province and conservation authorities, then CAs can begin to negotiate the remaining non-mandatory program with their member municipalities.

“That’s why I’m confused as to why the government would think they should be telling our board to stop doing these non-core programs considering A) they’re not the ones funding them anyways, and B) this is what the municipalities have asked us to be doing.”

McDougall said these cuts would put all Ontario watersheds at risk.

He said all of the watercourses within the St. Clair jurisdiction, including ones that directly enter the St. Clair River, would be affected.

“If you start to pull some of that funding away I just believe that leaves us more in the dark than we currently are. There’s certainly additional information that I’d like to see that would be of value to us, but certainly pulling back would be just the exact opposite of what I think would be appropriate for proper management of our watershed,” he said. “We are actually in the fields in these watercourses. In some cases we’re doing water sampling or assessments of the fisheries within the watercourse, in some case were collection information on mussels or assessing water levels, whatever it is there’s information out there that helps us with an understanding.”

Although the Upper Thames River reported they could lose upwards of 60 positions, McDougall said it’s still unclear if the St. Clair Region CA will see any job losses.

“It very much is going to depend on our board moving forward, but I also do believe that municipalities are looking to have these services continue,” McDougall said. “I don’t see [job losses] as being an alternative, but it will depend moving forward on how we deal with the situation.”

Despite the shock and outrage being expressed by conversation authorities, Yurek and the Ford tories stressed in a statement sent late Monday night that bringing the agencies back to their core mandate will allow municipalities to better manage budgets.