Is relocating wetlands the way to save them?

Yet another conservation authority will consider permitting developers to displace some wetlands and build them elsewhere
By Justin Chandler - Published on May 03, 2021
Less than 30 per cent of southern Ontario’s original wetlands remain. (Ally Enrile)

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HAMILTON — Lynda Lukasik worries about the future of Hamilton’s natural wetlands.

At the heart of her concern is one developer’s proposal to relocate a wetland in Ancaster to make way for a 120,774-square-metre warehouse. “That feels like it’s a bit of a Pandora’s box if suddenly we’re opening the door to a developer being able to come in and shift over a wetland because they’ve got a massive warehouse,” says the executive director of the non-profit Environment Hamilton.

One Properties’ proposal is among the main reasons the Hamilton Conservation Authority board is looking into establishing an official “offsetting” policy to relocate natural features such as wetlands, floodplains, and rivers in some situations. A discussion paper will be shared for public consultation early this month and presented to the City of Hamilton and the Township of Puslinch for feedback before the board makes a decision in the fall. It defines offsetting as an agreement “to compensate for harm to biodiversity at one site by creating, restoring or enhancing biodiversity elsewhere, generally on a ‘like for like’ basis.” But while some see offsetting as a way of mitigating urban sprawl by creating more centrally located, developable land, others, including Lukasik, worry about the ecological impacts of tampering with the region’s marshes, bogs, and swamps.

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tall grasses under the sun
The Hamilton Conservation Authority board is looking into establishing an official “offsetting” policy to relocate natural features such as wetlands. (Ally Enrile)

“A wetland is where it is for a reason,” says Mike Waddington, a Canada research chair in ecohydrology for the School of Earth, Environment and Society at McMaster University, in an email. “I am not a fan of [offsetting] policies being adopted in regions like Hamilton where a large percentage of the natural wetlands in the region have already been destroyed.”

According to Ontario Nature, “wetlands are critical to water filtration, flood retention, erosion control, carbon storage, nutrient cycling and groundwater recharge.” Yet the organization notes that less than 30 per cent of southern Ontario’s original wetlands remain, and just 10 per cent survive in Niagara and the GTA.

If the HCA does adopt an offsetting policy (which would apply to the watershed it oversees but not to HCA-owned lands, such as conservation areas), Hamilton will become one of a number of places in the province that allow the practice in some form. Scott Peck, the HCA’s deputy chief administrative officer and director of watershed planning and engineering, says similar policies have been applied by the Toronto and Region, Credit Valley, and Lake Simcoe Region conservation authorities. Under some policies, he says, offsetting is considered a last resort: “first and foremost is the protection of a feature in its place, and you design your development around that feature.” Where this isn’t possible, attempts are made to mitigate impacts on a given water feature while still leaving it in place. “If you can’t do that,” he says, “the decision is made to lose the feature and then look to compensate it elsewhere.”

Before the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority adopted an offsetting policy in 2014, the GTA was losing some of its natural habitats to construction — “often with little or no compensation,” according to a statement from the TRCA in an email. Since then, the authority has entered into more than 90 ecosystem-compensation agreements.

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In Ancaster, landscape architect Le’ Ann Seely, a consultant on the development, believes it will be possible to take out the existing wetland, build a better one nearby, and “come up with a net ecological gain.” She explains that the wetland in question is full of the invasive plant phragmites and has little biodiversity. The developer hopes to dig it up and create a larger storm-water pond nearby that would be too deep for phragmites to grow and filled with more diverse, native plants.

For Lloyd Ferguson, chair of the HCA’s board of directors, supporting the discussion paper and consultation doesn’t constitute a policy endorsement. Ferguson says he won’t take a position until he has more information but wants to explore the idea. It’s an “‘if and only if’ policy,” he says. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to pick up a wetland and move it over 100 acres, but to move 20 per cent of it over by 20 feet? I’m less sure.”

water and dry grass
Roughly 10 per cent of the original wetlands remain in Niagara and the GTA. (Ally Enrile)

Ferguson, who notes that Hamilton’s population is expected to increase by 41 per cent over the next 30 years (and that residents are already concerned about urban sprawl), says offsetting may allow for more sustainable growth: “If you can get an enhanced wetland that protects the natural environment and get some proper plantings in there — while at the same time getting better land yield for development that creates jobs — I’m not sure we lose anything.”

Neither Lukasik nor Waddington sees it that way. Waddington worries that offsetting could be “the start of a slippery slope towards a green light on destroying more and more wetlands,” while Lukasik says it “could open the floodgates” to development. “I think if the conservation authority didn’t have a policy to consider, then we couldn’t go there,” she says. “If there is a policy, then it’s far more likely they’re going to end up going there at some point with a proponent who comes in and pushes.”

Ferguson says he expects developers to push — but that offsetting policies can help keep private interests in check. “Developers always want more. If we have a three-foot height restriction, they want four,” he says. “They’re motivated by profit. It’s our job to say no.” But Brad Clark, another Hamilton city councillor who sits on the HCA board, questions whether it should even be looking into policy that could compromise existing wetlands: “It just feels so inappropriate for a conservation authority.”

Clark, who opposed creating the discussion paper, says he’s at least glad that the public will have a say on the policy — but as an HCA board member, his priority is wetland preservation. “I’m very nervous about any policy that would enable the paving over of wetlands with the option of creating an engineered pond that we hope will become just as biodiverse as the pond that we have destroyed.”

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