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News - All - 21 Aug 2019

News Item 70 of 4672 

Miscellaneous: 21 Aug 2019
Conservation authorities told to ‘wind down’ some programs, services

Jen Evans builds a sand castle with her son Andrew, 3, at Shades Mill in Cambridge, where their family bought a season’s pass. New provincial guidelines could see recreation programs, such as camping, swimming and skiing threatened. - David Bebee , Waterloo Region Record

The province has told conservation authorities to begin planning to wind down any programs and services that aren't related to their core mandate.

While it's not clear just which programs might be threatened, comments from Environment Minister Jeff Yurek suggest popular recreation programs, such as camping, swimming and skiing, might be threatened.

Yurek sent a one-page letter to all conservation authorities on Aug. 16, telling them that legislation passed in June requires conservation authorities "to refocus their efforts on the delivery of programs and services related to the core mandate," which includes managing natural hazard risks, conservation and management of authority-owned land, and drinking water source protection.

In comments to the Toronto Star, Yurek suggested recreation programs could be at risk.

"Over the years, conservation authorities have expanded past their core mandate into activities such as zip-lining, maple syrup festivals and photography and wedding permits," he said.

Yurek noted the Tories had signalled the changes in the More Homes, More Choice Act earlier this year, the legislation designed to make it easier to build new homes.

The letter "stunned" conservation authorities, said Conservation Ontario, which represents the province's 36 conservation authorities.

The Grand River Conservation Authority (GRCA) will be discussing the letter at its board meeting this Friday, said GRCA board chair Helen Jowett, who is a Region of Waterloo councillor representing Cambridge.

It's baffling that the province is targeting conservation authorities, said Geoff Lorentz, who represents Kitchener on Waterloo Region council, and who has sat on the GRCA board for eight years.

The GRCA "is one of the best-run organizations I've ever been involved with," he said. "The amount of work they do on a shoestring budget amazes me."

Cutting recreational programming doesn't make sense, Lorentz said. The GRCA provides recreational programming at reasonable rates, and the fees it collects from those programs help pay for operating and capital costs, Lorentz said.

"If you're in charge of a Canadian Heritage River, don't you think there should be opportunities for people to get out and enjoy the river, not only just look at it?"

It's not clear which of the conservation authority's many programs would fall within what the province considers its core mandate.

"Until we've had a chance to review this with our board and work with ministry staff, we won't have a full sense of the impact these changes may have on our organization," Jowett said.

The GRCA will be talking to the ministry to clarify which programs might be affected, said spokesperson Cam Linwood in an email.

"The ministry has yet to clearly define what programming will be considered core to the mandate of conservation authorities."

The GRCA's work falls into seven business areas: reducing flood damages; improving water quality; maintaining a reliable water supply; protecting natural areas and biodiversity; watershed planning; environmental education; and outdoor recreation. It's not clear if areas such as environmental protection and education, or recreation, would fall within the core mandate referred to in the letter.

The conservation authority has a budget of about $35 million. Recreational programs and services make up about 22 per cent of the GRCA's total operating budget, while education programs, including day camps attended by about 16,000 people, make up about four per cent of the budget. Provincial funding makes up about $2.9 million or 8.2 per cent of the total GRCA budget.

It has about 140 full-time employees, most of whom work out of the authority's head office in Cambridge. Others work at its 12 parks and six nature centres throughout the watershed.

Yurek's letter asks conservation authorities to review their activities and "begin preparations and planning to wind down those activities that fall outside the scope of your core mandate."

It also asks them not to develop new policies that fall outside of the mandate, or to raise any fees while the provincial review goes on.

The letter also says the minister will be reviewing all laws and regulations that govern conservation authorities "to explore even more opportunities to refocus their efforts and to ensure they are best serving the interests of the people of Ontario."

Conservation Ontario said in a news release that it was "stunned" by the letter, which it said caught conservation authorities "completely by surprise."

Conservation Ontario's general manager Kim Gavine said the announcement is "confusing and extremely disappointing."

Gavine said conservation authorities have been working in good faith with the province for months to streamline planning and development approvals.

The changes to the Conservation Authority Act have not yet been proclaimed into law, and "we are only starting discussions about the regulations that go with the legislation, which will specify which actual programs and services are mandatory," Gavine said in a release.

With files from the Toronto Star

Twitter: @ThompsonRecord

With files from the Toronto Star

Twitter: @ThompsonRecord

Catherine Thompson Waterloo Region Record/AA

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