Ontario’s Conservation Authorities: Our Mandate
As early as the 1880s, rural Ontario was facing a serious deforestation problem. By the late 1920s and 1930s, the combination of drought and deforestation was causing extensive soil loss and flooding across the province. Individuals and organizations united to call for a broad new initiative to deal with conservation, flood control and reforestation. The provincial government passed the Conservation Authorities Act in 1946 when several municipalities became involved.
Today, Ontario’s 36 Conservation Authorities are a model of conservation and resource management for other provinces and countries. Since 1946, the mandate of the Conservation Authorities has been defined in Section 20 of the Provincial Conservation Authorities Act: “to establish and undertake, in the area in which it has jurisdiction, a program designed to further the conservation, restoration, development and management of natural resources other than gas, oil, coal and minerals.” (View Conservation Authorities Act)
The mandate has focused on the management of renewable resources, but what has been significant in the design of the Conservation Authorities is the management of these resources on a watershed basis. Since its inception, the notion of watershed-based management has guided each Conservation Authority’s development and ongoing planning and operational activities. Flooding may have been the catalyst for some Conservation Authorities, but the overall concept of watershed-based management of renewable resources prevails as the pre-eminent organizational strategy.
The objectives of Ontario’s 36 Conservation Authorities are:
• to ensure that Ontario’s rivers, lakes and streams are properly safeguarded, managed and restored;
• to protect, manage and restore Ontario’s woodlands, wetlands and natural habitat;
• to develop and maintain programs that will protect life and property from natural hazards such as flooding and erosion;
• to provide opportunities for the public to enjoy, learn from and respect Ontario’s natural environment.
The Upper Thames River Conservation Authority
The Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (UTRCA) was the sixth Authority formed in Ontario, being created by Order in Council on September 18, 1947. The UTRCA covers the upper watershed of the Thames River, an area of 3,482 square kilometres. The watershed is mainly rural except for the larger urban centres of London, Stratford and Woodstock and has a total population of approximately 485,000. Agriculture is the main component of the landscape with approximately 3,600 farms, including over 2,000 livestock operations.
The watershed’s location in a highly developed part of southern Ontario results in pressures from urban and rural land uses. The water quality of the Thames and its tributaries is impacted by drainage practices, runoff, spills and bank alterations, among other activities. Much of the forest cover in the watershed has been cleared for agricultural fields or urban development.
The forests have also been affected by alien species and over-logging. Despite these pressures, the Thames remains one of the most biologically diverse rivers in Canada. The river is home to over 90 species of fish and many species at risk including the spiny softshell turtle and the queen snake. The entire Thames River system (including tributaries) has been designated a Canadian Heritage River based on its rich cultural heritage and diverse recreational opportunities.
The UTRCA’s mission statement is “Inspiring a healthy environment.” The 17 municipalities within the upper Thames watershed appoint representatives to the UTRCA’s Board of Directors. The directors represent the local urban and rural communities, deciding policies and programs that will lead to a healthy watershed.
The Conservation Authority employs approximately 80 permanent and contract staff, and an additional 70 seasonal staff.
Each Conservation Authority takes its priorities from the needs of their watershed environment and residents. The UTRCA has shifted from its initial focus on flood control and prevention through structural engineering solutions and land acquisition, to a more holistic, ecosystem approach. The UTRCA’s ends are:
• protect life and property from flood and erosion
• protect and improve water quality
• preserve and manage natural areas
• provide outdoor recreation opportunities
Our programs and services today include:
• flood/water control
• environmental planning & regulations
• watershed planning, monitoring & research
• soil conservation & forestry
• conservation areas
• lands & facilities
• environmentally significant areas
• community partnerships
• drinking water source protection