Toronto’s watersheds come under Greenbelt protection

Toronto’s major watersheds have become the focal point of fifth-anniversary celebrations for Ontario’s Greenbelt initiative.

On Feb. 24, 2010, Toronto City Council and Mayor David Miller unanimously supported the inclusion of the Humber and Don River valleys into Ontario’s Greenbelt. It’s an unprecedented level of protection for two of Toronto’s largest watersheds, according to Heather Harding of Environmental Defence.

“It protects these areas in perpetuity so that even when administrations change these lands will still be protected. That length and degree of protection is really important,” Harding said.

Although some measures already existed to protect the valleys, designation removes any ambiguities about development.

One of the driving forces behind the initial proposal, Toronto city councillor, Paula Fletcher, Ward 30, thought more could be done.

“The city has a pretty strong ravine protection law in place, but this gives an extra layer of protection to these very sensitive areas and the ecosystem.”

As for any visible changes to the management of the valleys, the city has no plans yet to build additional recreational infrastructure. Jamie Kirkpatrick of the Toronto Environmental Alliance looks ahead to the future for the benefits of greenbelt designation.

“It does ensure that any future planning has to be in the best interests of the river valleys,” Kirkpatrick said. “Anything that would cause harm to them needs to cease. Anything that can be done to improve these areas will be encouraged and nothing will be allowed to further degrade them.”

From the mouth of Lake Ontario north to the Oak Ridges Moraine, these valleys totaling over 80 kilometres of waterways, extend the Greenbelt through the largest urban centre in Canada. For Kirkpatrick, the designation also offers an opportunity on a more symbolic level.

“It’s more than just a line on a map. It’s meant to show that we as a large city region are all part of one watershed,” he said. “Hopefully, it’ll be part of an emotional connection that will see Torontonians connecting more to the existing greenbelt and understanding that we’re actually connected to where our food and water comes from.”

By being the first to expand the greenbelt’s 1.8 million acres into its borders, Toronto could be setting a precedent by paving the way for other municipalities.

In Mississauga, for example, their environmental advisory committee has considered extending the greenbelt from the source of the Credit River, in the Caledon Hills, to Lake Ontario. Harding says Toronto’s Don and Humber rivers could just be the beginning.

“It shows that it can be done and now it’s just a matter of other community groups being involved to leverage this precedent and get their municipality to do the same,” she said.

According to Fletcher, the designation should be official by this September. She also added that whether Greenbelt designation leads to more action by the city to address problems, such as raw sewage overflow in the Don River or barriers to fish migration on the Humber River, depends on Torontonians.

“The answer to getting added impetus to move forward with efforts to clean up the river valleys just comes from continued public pressure,” she said. “When we have these jewels, we need to polish them.”