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Lake Simcoe could be the 'canary in a coalmine' to larger problems, environmental groups say

'The science behind Lake Simcoe is showing us it’s not doing well and with climate projections it’s predicted to do even worse if nothing changes,' says Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition executive director

The health of Lake Simcoe is deteriorating.

Two local environmental groups are trying to bring some attention to the impact that government decisions on several local projects  including the Bradford bypass, the Orbit development in Innisfil, Upper York Sewage “Solution” (UYSS), and growth planning  will have on the lake.

The Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition, the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition and their member groups are concerned that the cumulative effect of all of the projects will overwhelm Lake Simcoe. The say the province is not looking at these issues in their totality, and released a report today (March 29) called Lake Simcoe Under Pressure in 2021: Key Stressors and Solutions, outlining their concerns.

“The science behind Lake Simcoe is showing us it’s not doing well and with climate projections it’s predicted to do even worse if nothing changes,” said Margaret Prophet, executive director with the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition. “What we wanted to highlight is that beyond the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan (LSPP) there are issues the province is facilitating that would have grave impacts on the lake.

"We wanted to broaden the understanding of Lake Simcoe beyond how the province has defined it with the (LSPP) and realize there are decisions that need to be made that support that," Prophet added. "You can’t just hide behind the plan and then do other things that contradict it.”

That’s where the UYSS, Bradford bypass, Innisfil Orbit and growth plans in general come in, she said, noting sprawl such as what the province is pushing for serves to remove the natural systems in place to keep lakes healthy and clean. 

“When sprawl happens, it removes those natural systems and puts things in its place that exacerbate damage to the lake. We have to start focusing on growth that’s actually a net benefit to the community and sprawl is the exact opposite of that,” Prophet said. “When we can place people where there are already jobs and services (and) existing infrastructure it helps bring in more money for a municipality and can then be reinvested into the community.

"When you allow development to happen outside of that, it is very costly economically and environmentally," she added. 

It’s important to acknowledge there are different types of growth: some that’s good for the community and others that she said actually work against community health and financial sustainability of a municipality and the province in general.

“What we’d like to see is the growth plan changes that have been made reversed and strengthened. They should be having a climate lens on it, they should have more focus on making sure it’s a net benefit type of growth and not just the damaging kind.”

The Orbit would add 150,000 people to rural Innisfil on the shores of Lake Simcoe via a Minister’s Zoning Order (MZO). Instead of providing much-needed transit to nearby Alcona, the report noted the Obit would bring a new GO station to the middle of farm fields. The community wants transit, but they don’t want it attached to sprawl accelerated by a MZO, they stated. 

“Typically, a large development like the Orbit would go through a series of studies which would be pulled together in the end and decisions made about if development is a net benefit or not, or if there are certain considerations or concerns that can be mitigated or adapted,” explained Prophet.

But with an MZO, that’s not the case, she added.

“The principle of development is established first," Prophet said. "You get all your approvals and then if there are studies it’s kind of moot because you’ve already given permission. ... You’re putting the cart before the horse and it’s truncated the development approval process.”

The proposed Bradford bypass  a four-lane, approximately 16-kilometre highway to connect Highway 400 to Highway 404  is also of concern, said Prophet, noting it would cut through some of the most significant wetlands in the Greenbelt.

“It was already cancelled once because of the environmental impact and it was assumed to be a dead project,” she said. 

The problem with highways in general, Prophet added, is science shows there are a variety of health impacts related to living close to a highway.

“The environmental studies that were done on the highway clearly shows they were concerned about stormwater, groundwater and surface water contamination that would be flowing right into Cooks Bay, a small inlet of Lake Simcoe," she said. 

The provincial government, Prophet noted, announced in its budget last week that they planned to have shovels in the ground as early as this fall, despite not having any updated information on the environmental impact it would have.

“The (environmental assessment) is completely out of date and we haven’t seen any studies that demonstrate this is going to do what it’s supposed to do,” she said. “Highways are incompatible with climate change action… they increase greenhouse gas emissions (and) remove a large part of natural infrastructure that helps protect against flooding and helps purify water. 

"It’s a double assault. Not only are we removing more of the good stuff, we are putting more bad stuff in (and) these kinds of infrastructure projects bring more pollution to a lake that can’t afford it.”

All four of these issues, while seemingly different, ultimately go hand-in-hand and it’s important to keep an eye on the bigger picture if we want to ensure the long-term health of Lake Simcoe, she added. 

“All of these things flow together because our policies are very fragmented," Prophet said. "We think water policies are water policies and land-use policies are land-use policies, etc. … and never shall they meet, but with climate, water scarcity and food security concerns they do intersect at every one of these decisions.

“The root cause is there’s been little consideration to where development goes and how it’s going to be serviced. The sequencing on how we make our decisions and the totality of our decisions need to start being pulled together, which is what this report is trying to do," she added. 

Becoming more aware of what is happening close to home can go a long way in creating change. 

“People get lulled into this idea that climate action means we only have to worry about pipelines and polar bears. People forget the decisions we make in our backyard also have a huge impact,” Prophet said. “If we continue with highways everywhere, pipes wherever we want them to go, take out forests and wetlands and trash them for subdivisions, we are falling behind.

"We won’t fix everything focusing on a pipeline that’s not even in our backyard. We have way more control and influence here. Lake Simcoe happens to be that canary in a coalmine because we have a lot of science and attention paid to it. We have an ability to lead Ontario and show them this is an area that’s well studied and we know it’s not doing great.”

Unfortunately, decisions made in 2021 could ultimately be a tipping point for the health of Lake Simcoe, Prophet said. 

“From what we’ve heard, these three projects will have decisions made by the end of the year at the latest. On their own (they) are problematic for the lake but that combined with the growth plan proposals are definitely a tipping point.”

Prophet said the science is available to show climate change is already impacting the health of the lake and the economy. 

“Growth and climate are inextricably linked. You can’t talk about one without the other,” she said. “If we continue with the status quo, business-as-usual approach, this is not going to work out for us and it’s not a legacy we are going to be happy to leave.”