Deadly Houston Floods Reveal Significance of Ontario Government’s Reaffirmation of Wetland Protection

‘Wetlands (like those in Niagara’s Thundering Waters Forest) are an excellent carbon sink and a way to reduce the impact of flooding caused by climate change.’

A Guest Column by John Bacher

Posted September 27th, 2017 on Niagara At Large

The recent devastating floods in Houston, Texas caused this past August by Hurricane Harvey reveal the significance of the Ontario’s government recent refusal to give into development lobbyists to undermine wetland protections.

Destructive flooding of Houston urban areas where wetlands used to be

These protections were upheld by public pressure, largely from the Niagara region, to defend Provincially Protected Wetlands (PSWs)  located on 483 acres of natural lands in Niagara Falls, known as Thundering Waters Forest.

The Texas disaster resulted in sixty deaths and an estimated $10 billion in property damage. Its impact was intensified by the earlier destruction of wetlands, which had served as natural sponges to absorb flood waters.  The economic damage may skyrocket to the global economy since the wreckage impacts 300,000 home mortgages.

The core of Ontario’s wetland policy is the strength of the provisions to restrict development.

Established in 1992, these provisions prohibit site alteration on designated provincially significant wetlands in southern Ontario away from the Canadian Shield. Unlike all others forms of zonings, these protections cannot be changed by municipal councils or their appeal body, the Ontario Municipal Board. (OMB)

There are around 300,000 hectares of what are termed Provincially Significant Wetlands (PSWs) in the Mixed Wood Plains Ecozone of southern Ontario. Most of these wetlands are forested swamps, many of them old growth Once designated by certified wetland evaluators such PSWs cannot be disrupted by what is termed “site alteration”, meaning ditches, and hardened surface development.

Ontario’s wetland protection system is basically similar to that of the United States developed through the result of judicial rulings following the Clean Water Act of 1972. These however, were later undermined with tragic consequences through changes in wetland policy developed by U.S.  President George H. W. Bush.

Wetlands are wrecked in Houston as sprawling development continues to encroach on them

Bush’s weakening of wetland protection was one of the most significant defeats for the environmental protection movement in the United States. It was achieved through a 1990 Memorandum of Agreement between the US Army Corps of Engineers (responsible for wetland mapping) and the Environmental Protection Agency. (EPA)

The pact between the U.S. Army and the EPA sponsored by Bush permitted what is termed wetland offsetting.  This is the notion that previously protected wetlands can be destroyed if they are replicated, or offset, elsewhere.

The Houston flooding fiasco was a particularly catastrophic   since the wetland mapping imposed by the U.S.  Army was the only type of land use planning controls over the greed of private developers existing in that region. (Houston is the largest metropolitan region in population without zoning controls)  As a result of offsetting some 25,000 acres of previously protected wetlands around Houston were paved over since 1990. The wetlands which could have absorbed some of Harvey’s torrents were stripped away.

Many of the supposed wetland offsets in the Houston area existed only on paper and were simple fraudulent. Failure however, only evident in even the minority of cases were offsetting plans were actually attempted. A June 2017 study of such projects in the Houston area by the Texas General Land Office found that 2 out of 13 studies examined in the region were a success.

US environmental groups with massive staffs could not defeat Bush’s weakening of wetland protections through offsetting. In Niagara however, a remarkable coalition emerged from diverse activist groups, including Youth for Wetlands, the Niagara Falls Nature Club, and surprisingly, the Niagara Property Owners Association.

Activists in the Niagara Property Owners Association were appalled by the notion of special treatment of a “pilot” project to permit offsetting for the provincially significant wetlands in Thundering Waters Forest. This 483 acre forest is a refuge for endangered species. These include three species of bats, the Chimney Swift, the Black Gum, the prairie wildflower, Dense Blazing Star,   Wood Thrush, Eastern Wood Pewee, Snapping Turtle, Nine Spotted Lady Beetle and the Acadian Flycatcher.

Less than 10 per cent of Niagara’s wetlands are left. Some of them are located in Thundering Waters Forest in Niagara Falls – an area now targeted for urban development.

Ontario’s refusal to buckle to pressure from developers is both a good technique for the reduction of contributions to greenhouse gasses and a good mitigation strategy.

Wetlands are an excellent carbon sink and a way to reduce the impact of flooding caused by climate change. Americans should roll back the gutting of wetland protection and follow Ontario’s lead in  closing down coal burning generating plants – both sensible strategies to avert disaster from human abuse of our environment.

(A Footnote to John Backer’s column – While John Bacher is applauding the Ontario government for appearing to be standing by provisions to protect wetlands, he says he remains concerned that other areas of the Thundering Waters Forest in Niagara Falls may still be destroyed for urban development.)

John Bacher is a veteran conservationist in Niagara, Ontario who has worked on the Greenbelt Review for the Sierra Club of Canada and for the Niagara-based citizens group, the Preservation of Agriculture Lands Society.

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 “A politician thinks of the next election. A leader thinks of the next generation.” – Bernie Sanders




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