Our ‘life support systems’ are under threat, say local experts. There’s still time to change that.

By Ginny Colling

Wetlands are our life support systems. Photo by Bre Ferguson.

As an eight-year-old boy, Josh Feltham couldn’t stay away from the pond in his yard or the streams, bogs and marshes nearby. They are a hub for species like turtles, snakes and salamanders, and magnets for kids.

Today Feltham continues to explore wetlands because they’re his happy place. “I feel that I’m at home.”

He’s also out there as a professor of environmental science at Fleming College exploring many wetlands, including McLaren’s Creek in Ken Reid Conservation Area, Fleetwood Creek and the Kawartha Highlands area. Some are cattail marshes, some are treed swamps, others are fens or bogs.

Wetlands are our life support systems. They filter contaminated water from farm fields and roads, recharge our wells and aquifers and help prevent flooding. Wetlands also store more carbon than any other ecosystem, thus helping us combat climate disruption.

“People want to turn on the tap and have access to clean water. (In part) they have wetlands to thank for that,” says Robert Pye, executive director of Watersheds Canada. No one likes a flooded basement, or washed-out roads.  Without our wetlands, some areas would see more flooding.  They act as sponges, soaking up excess rain and snow melt. And they release it slowly, helping maintain stream flows and aquifer levels during droughts.

But our wetlands are under threat – and that’s a problem.

“We continue to pave over landscapes, so there’s less absorption, while climate change brings more water. You can’t get insurance for some properties because of flood risk,” Feltham said.  According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, flooding is getting more frequent, with two in 10 Canadian homes at risk.

More than 70 per cent of Ontario’s wetlands have disappeared since European settlement began – mostly due to development and agriculture. It’s a global problem. And in Ontario, those threats to our remaining wetlands are accelerating.

In the Kawartha Conservation area, 15 per cent, or 383 square km, is wetland, said Rob Stavinga, watershed resources technician for Kawartha Conservation. It’s important to preserve the wetlands we have left.

Retired district biologist Barry Snider, who oversaw wetland evaluation in that role, continues to study wetland losses and looked at four townships – Ops, Emily, Mariposa and Eldon. Over the last decade, wetland coverage in those areas shrank by almost 500 hectares, primarily due to agricultural expansion.

“That’s a lot – 1,200-some acres. That’s (equivalent to) 12 100-acre farms.”

Referring to a report from the Ontario Biodiversity Council, he noted that the annual rate of wetland loss in the province almost tripled between 2010-2015 compared to the previous period. Recent changes to provincial legislation like the More Homes Built Faster Act have raised fears that the rate of wetland loss will not slow down anytime soon.

Our remaining wetlands are critical, says Pye, an avid hunter and lover of all things outdoors. “When we think of infrastructure, we tend to think of roads and subways. But we have a mother-nature-made infrastructure working for us. And there’s no municipal budget that could ever pay for that. The infrastructure value is worth mega-dollars. Once a wetland is gone, it’s gone.”

That would also hurt those who share his love of waterfowl hunting, canoeing and fishing. Birders flock to our wetlands to spy the many feathered species that pass through during migration, or call the wetlands home. Those areas provide spaces for recreational pursuits and attract tourist dollars.

Wetlands offer some of the last remaining large tracts of habitat for everything from bear and deer to chipmunks, squirrels, and some endangered or threatened species, including plants. “Without wetlands we’d lose a lot of species of birds,” Stavinga said. “And a lot of fish spawning areas are in wetlands. We would have a lot of disappointed people out there who wouldn’t be able to catch any fish.”

More than 100 organizations, from Birds Canada to affordable housing groups and even a building industry and land development association, have raised concerns about the legislative changes, most fearing the loss of natural heritage areas like forests and wetlands. In a written statement, Watersheds Canada points out that the More Homes Built Faster Act has severely limited the role of conservation authorities (CAs). They can no longer help municipalities review development applications, “leaving municipalities without the expertise conservation authorities have previously offered in understanding environmental impacts of proposed development, particularly near waterways and floodplains.”

The way wetlands are evaluated has also been changed. Small wetlands can no longer be evaluated as a group, making it harder to qualify for the protections afforded by Provincially Significant Wetland status.

One way to protect the wetlands that remain is to put valuable land in trust and set it aside permanently through organizations like Nature Conservancy Canada and Kawartha Land Trust, Stavinga said. Good regulations to protect wetlands are also important. They give the CA a chance to work with landowners to discuss the importance of natural features on their land.

“When people understand nature and its importance, they want to protect it,” he said, adding he understands the frustration when some feel they can’t do what they want with their own land.

Pye noted that the private property land ethic is strong, particularly in the agricultural community. “They’ve (the agricultural community) been so good to identify these wetland areas that provide these ecological services.  There’s been very good land stewardship over the years.” He points to the Alternative Land Use Services program (ALUS) as an example of farmers working on environmental concerns.

ALUS Peterborough covers an area that includes Kawartha Lakes and is now working with 31 farmers, 12 of them in this city. It provides funding and expertise to those who want to turn marginal farmland into an area that can provide ecological services like cleaner water, carbon storage and wildlife habitat.

“Farmers have created new wetlands in low lying wet areas, established grasslands within compacted nutrient-depleted soils and expanded hedgerows,” program coordinator Kate Powell said in an email. She sees Ontario losing natural wetlands, and farmland, primarily to development.

In November, First Nations chiefs in Ontario called the new provincial legislation that encourages development on natural areas a “blatant violation” of First Nations rights over their traditional territories. Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare said the legislation “will inevitably harm Ontario’s environmental heritage and weaken land and water environmental protection.”

Those who have evaluated the land already available for development say there is more than enough space to build the 1.5 million homes the government wants to add over the next 10 years.

By easing the way for more sprawl development in areas like the Greenbelt, the Oak Ridges Moraine, and beyond, with its new legislation, the province is encouraging paving over the sponges that protect us from flooding, wetlands advocates say. That will increase flood risks for homeowners and cottagers, while at the same time increasing commuter traffic from sprawl developments. It will also shrink local government revenues, and increase taxes.

Feltham said we need to get developers working with environmental groups on the issue.

“Many think we have to choose between economics and environment, but you can’t. If you do, you end up where we are now, which is a hell of a mess.”


  1. We need legislation to restrict the amount of living space any one person can occupy. I mean, who really needs some of the huge properties being built and huge lawns fenced to keep out intruders and wildlife?

    • Stan Lake says:

      A significant part of our population has been taught to rely on government largesse and legislation to the point that it has become hereditary. Canadians are tired of government overreach. I’m sure many individuals would like less not more government intervention in their lives.

  2. Bradley Sales says:

    Very interesting, and two thoughts come to mind – one being a question whether the 1200 acre wetland losses in the 4 townships prior to 2015 were legal, and the other is doubtful that the legislation will result in the building on or rezoning of any wetland. Opponents of the legislation would serve themselves better by arguing with more reason and less hype. It is good that experts are advising the province of areas that can be infilled. They say vertical farming will be one answer to future food security.

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