Integration is the Solution: Ontario’s Integrated Watershed-based Approach for Managing Natural Resources

By Kate Hayes, Credit Valley Conservation

Since Ontario passed the Conservation Authorities Act (CA Act) in 1946, the province has developed more than 70 years of experience in watershed-based natural resource management. Ontario’s 36 conservation authorities (CAs) protect and manage water and other natural resources on watershed-based units rather than political ones, mostly in southern Ontario. CAs are ideally suited to meet the needs of integrated approaches to managing natural resources.

36 conservation authorities ontario
A map showing the 36 Conservation Authorities in Ontario. Credit: Conservation Ontario

Ontario isn’t alone. Watershed management units have been endorsed in other jurisdictions including England, Wales, Australia and several U.S. states. In Ontario, municipalities are partners in conservation. CAs are formed through an agreement between all participating municipalities within a watershed, in accordance with the CA Act. These partnerships ensure successful adoption of shared responsibilities in a focused and targeted manner.

(See also: “A Land Trust Protects Lake Erie Through Conservation and Restoration”)

CAs and municipalities work in cooperation to approve development proposals or alterations within or near the floodplain. This fundamental principle has proven to be successful in safeguarding people, property and infrastructure by keeping development out of floodplains and consistently demonstrating dramatic reductions in flood-related damages and associated costs.

Within the watershed management framework, the planning process must be tailored to particular watersheds and subdivided into subwatersheds. Analysis and findings must be integrated from distinct but interconnected environmental disciplines for best results. It’s an approach that has evolved over decades.

Watershed-based resource management is most successful when subwatershed analysis is scaled further into communities and neighborhoods. Management approaches vary widely in scope and complexity at that level, but the environmental interconnectedness at the subwatershed and watershed levels must be understood throughout the decision making process. Other factors for success in the planning, implementing and monitoring phases include dedicated watershed managers.

The integrated watershed-based approach has influenced recent binational approaches for joint management of the Great Lakes, as outlined in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

For example, a white paper prepared during the development of the Nearshore Framework introduced littoralshed as a term to link watersheds with their adjacent shoreline cell boundaries along the Great Lakes coast.

The littoralshed concept has novel management applications.  For example, actions focused on reducing nutrient loads to the nearshore (or zone of impact) need to focus on the source and transport pathways of those nutrients, namely the watersheds (or zone of influence). By encompassing the boundaries of physical processes that influence terrestrial and nearshore environments, littoralsheds are the appropriate scale for management initiatives that involve stressors and pathways that extend from the headwaters of watersheds to the nearshore waters of lakes.

A recent example of stakeholders exploring collaborative arrangements to better coordinate planning, research, and implementation efforts on the land and within the nearshore of western Lake Ontario is the Western Lake Ontario: Land to Lake Initiative. Early input by 23 municipalities and seven CAs in the proposed study area for the initiative has demonstrated an interest in sharing data, knowledge, monitoring protocols and best practices. There is overall interest in improved coordination and collaboration in the project study area.

The initiative is being coordinated by Credit Valley Conservation and Toronto and Region Conservation. The vision is for future phases to be led by an independent body.

western lake ontario
The proposed study area for the Western Lake Ontario: Land to Lake Initiative. Credit: CVC 2018

Integrated watershed management is not without its challenges. Information sharing between distinct but interconnected environmental disciplines can be difficult. At present, few tools are available to simplify information sharing. Also, a lack of guaranteed long-term, multi-year funding can hinder effective and widespread watershed planning and implementation. Lastly, a lack of political and public understanding of the importance of watershed management is another barrier to uptake and the allocation of funds. These challenges are slowly being overcome, and simply can’t compare with the results of past approaches that were not integrated and yielded excessive flood-related damages and associated costs.

Integrated watershed management through Ontario’s CAs has proven to be an effective model for managing natural resources, including water and human activity. The model’s success is recognized by and has been adopted in other jurisdictions. Broader integrated watershed management models are being explored to meet the wider challenges of an increasingly urbanized, populated Great Lakes basin. Ontario has learned that partnerships, collaboration and integration are needed to tackle the land use challenges of the future.

Kate Hayes is manager of Aquatic and Wetland Restoration and Management for Credit Valley Conservation, based in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada.

One thought on “Integration is the Solution: Ontario’s Integrated Watershed-based Approach for Managing Natural Resources”

  1. Conservation authorities in Ontario continue to lead the way on both IWM and/or Adaptive Management, depending the CA. The challenge is that the provincial government won’t embrace IWM for its own silos, recently terminated its Water Director’s Committee, is running a Water Guardians Council with weak currents, is dragging its heels on funding key efforts on issues such as cumulative monitoring, and the provincial Growth Plan is resulting in many development approvals for which there is no available water – which will mean pipes. Hats off to the Credit Valley and Toronto and Region CAs, but IWM without provincial commitment is thin gruel.

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