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Municipal councils coming together to find common ground on Lake Simcoe

'I see us as the Lake Simcoe 'Avengers' and our superpower is that we are non-partisan,' says area councillor
Oro Medonte Coun. Shawn Scott, Bradford West Gwillimbury Coun. Jonathan Scott, Brock Coun. Cria Pettingill, Newmarket Coun. Christina Bisanz and Innisfil Coun. Rob Nicol at Innisfil Beach Park

Over the past year, municipal councils in the Lake Simcoe watershed area have been working together to help protect Lake Simcoe, advocating for the building of the Lake Simcoe Phosphorus Recycling Facility in the Holland Marsh. 

Officials say the facility will reduce phosphorus runoff into the Holland River and Lake Simcoe by up to 40 per cent and thereby protect the lake’s watershed from algae growth, resulting in better protection for the region’s aquatic habitats, increased ecosystem biodiversity and protection of drinking water sources.

According to the Ontario government's Lake Simcoe Protection Plan, released in 2009, the goal is to have Lake Simcoe's phosphorus pollution reduced by 50 per cent to 44 tonnes a year, which is needed to protect the cold-water fishery and to prevent excessive weed growth and algae blooms.

Bradford West Gwillimbury Coun. Jonathan Scott and Georgina Coun. Dave Neeson put forward motions last year calling for the $40-million project — which is being proposed by York Region — to move forward, with support from surrounding municipalities such as East Gwillimbury, Innisfil, Barrie, and Orillia. 

"With Georgina having the largest shoreline in Lake Simcoe, we must continue to have a collaborative and outcomes-based approach that respects and protects our natural environment," Neeson said.

"With Lake Simcoe communities becoming overwhelmingly desirable places to live, work and play, it will continue to be incumbent on all of us — all levels of government, including citizens and stakeholders — to remain committed to these principles going forward," he added. "Thus far, we've managed to do that in ways that I'm hoping will not be so unprecedented as we continue to work together and move forward."

The feds have already announced $16 million toward the project and the province recently announced $24 million in funding over the next three years. 

Several local councillors have made significant contributions in helping to get the project off the ground by bringing motions forward to their respective councils, and working behind the scenes lobbying upper governments for their support. They include Bradford West Gwillimbury Couns. Jonathan Scott and Peter Ferragine; Georgina Mayor Margaret Quirk and Coun Dave Neeson; East Gwillimbury Couns. Loralea Carruthers and Scott Crone; Innisfil Coun. Rob Nicol; Orillia Couns. Pat Hehn and Jay Fallis; Barrie Coun. Sergio Morales; Oro-Medonte Coun. Shawn Scott; Brock Couns. Cria Pettingill and Mike Jubb; and Newmarket: Coun. Christina Bisanz. 

"I see us as the Lake Simcoe 'Avengers' and our superpower is that we are non-partisan," said Crone. "In a world where tribal politics is becoming prevalent, we can cut through that and work with all parties. Liberal at the federal level and conservative at the provincial, we don't care. We just want to make things happen."

Oro-Medonte Coun. Shawn Scott agreed, calling the teamwork on the project "an unprecedented united front."

"I think it's important the push is coming from the south end of the lake, but there are a lot of municipalities that surround the lake, and we are all part of this water system and watershed, so it's important that the rest of us get on board and to help with that push," he said. 

“Lake Simcoe flows into Lake Couchiching and, of course, we get our drinking water from Lake Couchiching. So, obviously, the health of Lake Simcoe is of paramount importance to our community," Coun. Pat Hehn said at a March meeting of Orillia council. 

Fallis agreed. “Although it’s not right next to Orillia or in the immediate vicinity, it does have a big impact on us. This watershed is part of our own,” he said. “It’s an easy ask to say that we need to be focused on protecting our environment.”

From offline Zoom meetings to long email threads, the group has been working collaboratively to ensure the project receives the support, funding and attention needed to move ahead. 

Coun. Pettingill from Brock who brought forward the motion supporting the recycling facility to her council said it was important to separate the project from the Upper York Sewage Solutions. "We kind of had to talk people into seeing it that way," she said.

"It's just as important for us to make sure that the lake is healthy... because it's essential to our water source as well," said Bisanz. 

When Environment Minister David Piccini was in the Holland Marsh recently to make the funding announcement for the project on behalf of the province, he confirmed the next steps for the project include a streamlined municipal class EA, which could take anywhere from six to 12 months. 

A recent report from the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition and Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition acknowledged the efforts of local governments working together on the project to help protect the lake. 

“Municipalities have demonstrated their ability to stand together in defence of Lake Simcoe, as evidenced by their unanimous support for a successful bid to have the province pay the balance of a phosphorus recycling facility on the Holland River,” said Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition executive director Claire Malcolmson, the report’s lead author. 

“But growth pressures, be they in the form of new highway plans or greenfield development, will have environmental impacts on Lake Simcoe that are not getting enough attention,” added Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition executive director Margaret Prophet.

The coalition report called out projects like the Bradford Bypass and Innisfil's Mobility Orbit as being threats to the lake. 

But Bradford's Coun. Scott noted that while there isn't a way to stop growth, there is a way to help balance infrastructure to include projects like the recycling facility to compensate. "Infrastructure can't just be highways and transit and sewers, it has to also be things that clean or protect the Lake," he said. 

Coun. Nicol agreed, noting projects like The Orbit in Innisfil are smart ways to accommodate growth in the area. 

And while the facility won't solve all the lake's issues, it's a start. 

"(The facility is) not the be-all and end-all for phosphorus going into the lake, but it is extremely helpful and important," said Pettingill. 

"The watershed environment doesn't care about politics or partisanship — it cares about protection and positive outcomes, as do we all," said Neeson. 

— With files from Nathan Taylor

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Natasha Philpott

About the Author: Natasha Philpott

Natasha is the Editor for BradfordToday and InnisfilToday. She graduated from the Media Studies program at The University of Guelph-Humber. She lives in Bradford with her husband, two boys and two cats.
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