Thought Leadership

Ontario’s Conservation Authorities Act is Now Clearer. Why Clarity on Associated Regulations Matters.

February 26, 2024

Watercourse in Ontario

By Olivia Robinson – Senior Ecologist and Project Manager

Ontario’s government has released new changes to the Conservation Authorities Act. This single minister’s regulation will replace all existing 36 conservation authority-specific regulations and the associated regulations governing their content.

This introductory blog will be the first in a series discussing these clarifying changes. These changes may affect anyone proposing a development activity within or adjacent to a natural hazard area.

Let’s start with the act itself. The Conservation Authorities Act was originally enacted in 1946 and has undergone several amendments since to provide further clarity and guidance related to natural hazards. The Conservation Authorities Act was created in response to concerns related to the unhealthy state of the land, water, and forestry practices during the 1930s and 1940s. The Conservation Authorities Act paved the way for the creation of Conservation Authorities (CAs), which have a very important role in protecting people and properties from potential effects related to natural hazards. Each CA works within their own watershed boundaries and can spread across several municipalities.

That takes us to the changes coming in 2024. These new changes will do the following:

  • strengthen the definition of watercourse
  • provide guidance on how select low-risk activities can occur within regulated areas without a permit
  • detail what conditions a CA can attach to a permit, and
  • streamline rules for development.

These changes will come into force on April 1, 2024.

Let’s start this conversation with an easy one: what exactly constitutes a “natural hazard”?

According to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, a natural hazard is “a natural occurrence that happens near or at the surface of the earth and can produce unexpected events of unusual magnitude of severity.” Flooding, slope failures, and erosion are examples of natural hazards. These natural hazards are “regulated” by the Conservation Authority, meaning that the CA governs what alteration is permitted within them.

Specifically, the CA regulates:

  • Hazardous lands adjacent to shorelines of the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence River System or inland lakes;
  • Hazardous lands adjacent to rivers and stream valleylands, whether or not they contain a watercourse;
  • Hazardous lands;
  • Wetlands; or
  • Other areas where development could interfere with the hydrologic function of a wetland.

By regulating these features, CAs are able to reduce the potential risk of a natural hazard resulting in the loss of life and/or damage of property. The CAs are one of the reviewing agencies providing commentary on new development applications. They will review applications where there is potential development or alteration near or within potential hazardous lands (and thus, within their regulated limit).

For example, if a trail is proposed along the edge of a valleyland, CAs will have an interest in where the trail is located, how it will be constructed, and how it will be managed over the long-term to determine if the activity could cause or increase the risk of potential impact (e.g. slope failure, erosion). If the trail is located within a hazard land they can either

  1. request that this trail be removed outside of the hazard if they think that it could cause a health and safety issue, or
  2. require a permit to be completed to allow alteration within the hazard if the CA is in agreement that it is unlikely that the alteration would result in loss of life and/or damage of property.

Most Conservation Authorities have online mapping tools to show the user where regulated hazards could be within their watershed. These mapping tools are typically a conservative estimate of where natural hazards may be present. The presence and extent of these natural hazards is typically assessed and refined using site-specific environmental, hydrologic, geotechnical, and fluvial geomorphic studies as needed, to support development applications.

We have just scratched the surface and will have a lot more to unpack about the definition changes arriving soon. Stay tuned for future blog posts as our team provides summaries of the key changes and how they may impact your projects where natural hazards may be present.