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Uncertain Future of UTRCA With Potential Cuts Coming to Conservation Authorities

Massive cuts could be brewing for local Conservation Authorities in Ontario and the UTRCA is worried about job losses and more importantly a drastic cut in the services they provide.

The Upper Thames River Conservation Authority is worried about an uncertain future after a surprise letter late Friday night. 

Minister of Environment Jeff Yurek issued a paragraph statement to all conservation in the Province suggesting that they wind down all programs accept for flood control, drinking water source protection and management of authority owned lands. Speaking with Heart FM General Manager for the UTRCA Ian Wilcox says they were shocked by the letter. 

"We are still trying to decipher what it means. I will say it up front, it was a one page letter, and only one paragraph in that letter. All of us I think are hoping we are misinterpreting but collectively we are all coming to the same conclusion that the Province wants to drastically narrow the scope of the programs and services we offer and then offer even some budget constraints within those few programs and that is a very different message than anything we have heard before." 

Wilcox worries this could lead to massive job losses in the Conservation, but more importantly it would mean they will stop providing key services to the community. 

"We are one of the larger Conservation Authorities in Ontario and depending on how I interest this paragraph, on the very worst case scenario, I could see 2/3 of our staff, no longer being required if we are not allowed to that work." 

Without any clarification from the Province, the UTRCA is left wondering what Minister Yurek’s letter is actually saying. His directive potentially leaves these programs on the chopping block:

- All water quality monitoring programs, thereby eliminating decades of science that has guided protection and improvement efforts.

- All water quality improvement programs, including work with farmers and developers to provide technical assistance and financial incentives to reduce soil erosion, nutrients and toxins from being delivered to watercourses. This despite increasing public concerns about blue-green algae blooms, beach closures from high bacteria, and fish kills from degraded conditions. 

- All tree planting and woodlot management as the UTRCA combats the ongoing loss of 47 hectares (116 acres) of natural cover in the watershed, every year.

- Curriculum-based environmental education programs that arm youth with information to make smart decisions in the face of flooding and climate change impacts.

- Trail development and outdoor recreation opportunities, despite increasing demand and increasing awareness of the many physical and mental health benefits for watershed residents.

- Support for community organizations such as the Friends of Medway, Friends of Stoney Creek and the Upper Avon Conservation Club. These efforts were to simply help mobilize and organize local environmental interest in action and improvement.

Wilcox adds that they will try to fight any potential cuts coming to Conservation Authorities. 

"We question the Province’s authority to make this request, in light of the fact that they fund less than 1% of the UTRCA programs. The Province has not consulted with the watershed municipalities that oversee the Conservation Authority and provide 30% of our funding. Our municipal representatives bring the priorities of their watershed communities to the table, to ensure our programs are responsive to local needs."

UTRCA Chair Sandy Levin says they have been frustrated by the lack of communication from the Province.

"The CAs, along with their member municipalities, have made repeated requests for consultation. These provincial announcements have been without warning and, to be blunt, make no sense in terms of public interest and support from private businesses. They jeopardize Ontario’s environmental future and economic prosperity. Future costs to restore Ontario’s economic and environmental balance will far exceed the cost of the programs that the Ford Government seems intent on eliminating." 

Wilcox adds that it will be residents who suffer if these programs are lost. 
"We have to ask who these changes will benefit. Increasing the risk to lives and property is not the appropriate solution to solving the housing crisis. Is this another government that is going to ignore climate change and leave it for future generations to pick up the pieces? We hope that the Province, through Minister Yurek, will reconsider implementation of these changes pending further discussions with the Authority and our member municipalities, but we're concerned decisions have already been made that we know will be regretted in the future."

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