Something has been simmering beneath the City of Lakes’ political surface for some time now, and as the summer temperature has started to rise, the issue appears to be bubbling to the top of mind of our citizenry. It’s not the usual issue about roads, or about how tax dollars are spent and why – although both roads and taxes play a part in shaping and defining this issue. In short, Greater Sudburians are becoming increasingly fed up with the lack of attention we are collectively paying to water quality issues, especially those which impact drinking water sources, such as Ramsey Lake.
These water quality concerns are themselves part of a broader discussion having to do with the livability of our City. Frustration from many sides has really started to set in with the baby steps that our City has been making, versus the strides that citizens have really started to expect. Too often, when it comes to progressive measures to make our City a better place for residents, resistance is encountered, and every little effort ends up taking up far too much time and resources. It’s often two steps forward, one step back.
The health of our lakes, though, is really a bellwether issue, because it is an issue based both on logic and emotion. Logically, we know that it’s important to maintain and improve the health of our lakes, especially those which are sources of our drinking water. We know that as Sudburians, we must be good stewards of our natural resources. It’s because most everybody in the City seems to have some attachment to our lakes that the issue can take on an emotional aspect as well. We’re proud of our lakes, and we like to use them and show them off. In a City with 330 lakes, it’s hard not to form a positive attachment to them!
Yet every summer, the notices from the Health Unit start to come out. This beach or that beach is closed, thanks to blue-green algae. Right now, a number of beaches on Ramsey Lake are closed, and it’s not clear when they may be reopened again. So much for taking the kids swimming at Bell Park, Sudbury’s emerald jewel in the heart of our City.
Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, is toxic – you can get very sick just by swimming in water which has been contaminated by it. It forms at this time of year due to a number of factors, but the presence of high nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the water is a primary culprit. These nutrients naturally occur in our lakes, but urban development contributes additional inputs, thanks in part to a lot of additional hard surfaces which hurry stormwater runoff into receiving water bodies before it can be absorbed naturally.
For more information on blue-green algae, visit Health Canada’s website.
Now, after that public service announcement, back to my blog.
Provisions requiring watershed studies have been in the City’s Official Plan at least since 2005 (the year that the Official Plan was updated to incorporate all area of the amalgamated City). While watershed studies for major lakes have been required for almost a decade, none have been done. In 2013, Council voted to make watershed studies a priority (see: “Greater Sudbury city council unanimously passes motion in support of watershed studies”, Naomi Grant, Grassoots Media Co-Op, May 16, 2013), but we’ve heard little more about them since that time. Now, with the City’s Official Plan being updated again, it seems likely that watershed studies are going to remain sidelined for the foreseeable future.
These watershed studies are important, as they would provide a level of baseline data regarding the health of lakes and rivers in a watershed. Ideally, watershed studies would be used to help direct development to appropriate locations – those areas where it will have a minimal impact on the health of our waterbodies. At the very least, they’ll provide direction for mitigating development impacts on the watershed. But instead of doing these studies upfront, Greater Sudbury has continued to put the development cart before the precautionary principle horse. Incredibly, large areas of the City have been set aside for as-of-right urban development through the Official Plan and zoning without knowing whether these locations make any sense from a water quality perspective. A great example of this is the abundant land within identified floodplains designated “Living Area” in the Official Plan.
Our City isn’t alone in operating like this, but with our massive geography and the sheer number of lakes and rivers within our boundaries, we feel this issue more acutely than elsewhere. Development decisions in this City may look at mitigating and minimizing impacts on certain environmental features (such as establishing setbacks from shorelines for buildings and septic systems), but these one-off decisions fail to assess the real culprit with lake water quality issues: cumulative impacts. The watershed study would be the appropriate vehicle to start looking towards cumulative impacts, and shaping the direction of future development as a result.
Yet we’ve not prioritized the development of these studies.
In light of this reality, is it really any surprise that citizens are now starting to get a little hot under the collar where new development is proposed and the long-term impacts on the health of our lakes, rivers and streams aren’t known, and aren’t being assessed?
Citizens have started banding together, demanding that a higher level of practice be used by our City when it comes to new development. A few years ago, urban lake stewardship groups came together under the banner of the Greater Sudbury Watershed Alliance, in part over concerns that individual voices were being dismissed by City Hall. The Coalition for a Livable Sudbury has brought a number of citizens groups together to advocate for watershed studies, and the implementation of healthier and pre-emptive responses to water quality management, such as naturalization instead of expensive retrofits (like what we see on Lady Ashley Court a few years back).
Together, these groups have experienced only limited success – they’ve at least brought the issue forward onto the Council table agenda. Generally speaking, however, they’ve failed to change the culture at City Hall in any meaningful way. Development decisions in absence of water quality impact information continue to be made. New homes are being built in sensitive flood plains. Stormwater management standards remain mired at the level of provincial minimums.
The Camel’s Back Breaks – Second Avenue
Yet, even though their successes have been very limited, these groups are starting to experience push-back from the City, developers and other citizens who may have different agendas. Recently, when a major road widening of Second Avenue was presented as a fait accompli to Minnow Lake residents, the Minnow Lake Restoration Group and Minnow Lake Community Action Network decided to write a letter to the Ministry of the Environment requesting a “bump up” to the municipal environmental assessment process used to determine the level of consultation and assessment of alternatives. By breaking the project down into multiple parts over a number of years, rather than treating the project as a whole, it was very clear from the outset that the City was doing what it could to avoid going through a more comprehensive level of environmental assessment – one which would look at cumulative impacts and assess other options.
The fiasco and finger-pointing which have resulted from Second Avenue could easily have gone down quite differently had the City better prioritized watershed planning. Again, these plans are a requirement of the Official Plan, and in almost 10 years our City of Lakes hasn’t managed to prepare a single one. The Minnow Lake Restoration Group has argued that the five-laning of Second Avenue will create additional stormwater inputs which will flow directly into Ramsey Lake. The City says that those inputs are manageable – but really, the City doesn’t know, because the background work has never been done. Right now, all the City can really do is offer its best guess. And while that may have been good enough in the past, as Bob Dylan sang, “the times they are a-changing”.
If the redesign of Second Avenue were the only project which was being considered within the Ramsey Lake watershed, chances are that the City’s “best guess” might just be fine. But it’s not. There is significant development which has been approved for the Minnow Lake area (which is in the Ramsey Lake watershed), including the massive residential subdivision south of the Silver Hills big box stores. Still in the Ramsey Lake watershed, three multi-storey apartment towers have been greenlighted for lands overlooking the Brady Mall, and the former St. Joseph’s hospital site is being redeveloped into multiple condominium units. Another big subdivision just west of the Sudbury Curling Club and just off of Howey Drive is currently at the Ontario Municipal Board, where it will likely be approved. Ramsey Lake’s watershed has not enjoyed a comprehensive assessment of how these and other developments will impact it.
Adapting to a Changing Climate
And the blue-green algae continues to bloom, earlier every year it seems. Studies prepared for the Nickel District Conservation Authority show that Sudbury can expect hotter and longer summers over the coming decades, thanks to climate change. Temperatures here are expected to increase slightly more than average global temperatures (generally, the further north one goes, the more extreme the temperature change is likely to be – Sudbury’s mid-latitude position means we won’t be impacts as much as some regions, but we’ll receive more than our fair share of warming). Since we can’t change the weather patterns, if we’re going to get lake water quality issues under control, we’ve got to figure out a way to address other inputs, such as nutrients from stormwater runoff.
The argument has gone that watershed studies are simply too expensive to undertake, even for priority waterbodies like Ramsey Lake, a drinking water source. I can’t buy this any longer, as the cost of not doing these studies and continuing to approve development in absence of data and direction will end up costing this City more in the long run than doing things right, up-front, and prior to decisions being made. We can’t afford (literally afford) to ignore this any longer.
Deligitimizing Public Discourse
Yet, the intransigence at City Hall remains real. And the push-back on citizens who dare speak out against development in absence of information is starting to get a little nasty. A column written by Northern Life reporter Darren MacDonald recently took to task two individuals who have been in the forefront of wanting to make our City more livable (see: “Did activists hijack the Second Avenue consultation process?”, Northern Life, July 21, 2014). I have to admit, I have become used to seeing MacDonald’s arguments made by anonymous posters in the comments section of his paper and other local media, but it surprised me that a journalist would attack the good work being done by John Lindsay, Dot Klein and the Minnow Lake CAN and Minnow Lake Restoration Group - particularly through implying that somehow they've gone outside of the system to achieve their ends. The headline used the term "hijack", which implies illegal action and evokes images of terrorism. Was this just to be provocative, or was there a not-so subtle insinuation that Lindsay and Klein are acting in a immoral manner? Either way, the term is clearly an attempt to delegitimize their participation in a public process.
This kind of delegitimizing attack from our local media on individual citizens will no doubt cast a shadow on those who otherwise might desire to speak up in favour of making our communities better places to live. Lindsay and Klein have been following the rules. For the Northern Life to compare them to "hijackers" is both incorrect and frankly, beyond the pale. In the column itself, MacDonald goes only so far as to suggest that they are "taking advantage" of the system - I would suggest that even that frame is incorrect, and assert rather that they are participating within the public system, legitimately.
Either we have democratic, transparent public processes for development activities, or we say that even the mirage of citizen participation in decisions affecting our communities is something we shouldn't tolerate as a society. For the media to denigrate legitimate and legal expressions of public discourse is extremely troubling.
Changing the Culture at City Hall
MacDonald’s angst appears to be motivated by the notion that somehow John Lindsay and Dot Klein are to blame for costs associated with holding up construction for another season. MacDonald also creates a straw-man argument that those who stand in the way of intensification and redevelopment within urban areas are proving a detriment to a City keen on implementing smart growth principles. MacDonald also completely misses the point that the public consultation process for Second Avenue was designed to be anything but real consultation, and although the City chose to address some of the concerns raised by cyclists and decided to include off-street cycling infrastructure on paved boulevards (likely simply because they could), this last-minute inclusion actually demonstrates the failure of the process. Why weren’t groups like the Coalition for a Livable Sudbury, the Minnow Lake CAN and the Sudbury Cyclists Union invited to provide input into the project prior to the creation of plans in the first place? Did the City really not expect the Minnow Lake CAN not to show up and voice its concerns over the redesign of a major arterial which, once again, failed to consider the inclusion of cycling infrastructure, despite the direction provided to the City through the Sustainable Mobility Plan, accepted by the City in 2010? This is the same Minnow Lake CAN which was instrumental in getting bike lanes on the Howey-Bellevue-Bancroft corridor.
Rather than approach the public for real input and a desire to assess alternatives, which would have promoted public buy-in to the project, the City instead said “Here’s what we’re going to do. Now tell us what you think.” Again, in the past, that might have been enough, but the camel’s back has been broken. The approach that citizens are now telling our City to engage in is to come to the public first, as a starting point, and ask “Given that we have this challenge, what do you think we can do to address it to achieve the outcomes we need to achieve?”
Change the Starting Point
Our decision-making processes are public for a reason: they have been designed with citizen engagement in mind. And although it’s often true that our public bodies choose to do the very minimum when it comes to engagement, those minimum requirements processes are nevertheless there to engage the public. Although some in our City have started to bemoan what’s happened with Second Avenue, the fact is that our Environmental Assessment process is a public one, and real concerns raised by citizens are often legitimate, and can lead to improved outcomes. The really unfortunate part is that our City hasn’t followed through on the promises that it made in the Official Plan to undertake watershed studies which could otherwise guide development (and lead to less friction and better decision-making). And as an addendum, although permitted by EA rules, coming to the public so late in the process with a fait accompli really isn’t the best way to engage in meaningful consultation.
The City can’t have it both ways, though. If it wants to play around with development projects in order to get away with doing as little as possible with public participation, all within the rules, it can’t then take issue with citizens who are themselves following the same rules in order to have their voices heard. This isn’t NIMBY. This isn’t about opposing intensification in neighbourhoods. It’s about ensuring that good decisions are made which have minimal impacts on communities. It’s really about changing the starting point of the development process by relocating it to a place which is truly consultative. In the long run, it’s about minimizing potential conflicts and doing things right the first time.
21st Century Solutions
Moving ahead into the 21st Century, our lakes will continue to face challenges to their long-term health, especially those which are impacted by development. For too long we’ve ignored water quality issues, and those issues have now started coming to a head. There aren’t any easy answers to address these issues, given the current physical state of the City, but we can do a much better job of minimizing impacts on a go-forward basis. To do so, however, requires data and direction – the very sort of data and direction which could be provided through the creation of watershed plans which assess the cumulative impacts from development.
Comprehensive planning which leads to better decision making isn’t focused narrowly on costs. Frankly, it’s not all about money. But for those who are concerned about the bottom line above all else, comprehensive planning can, and does, save money over the long term by getting things right the first time. Although our leaders have said for many years that we can’t afford to do the watershed studies required by our Official Plan, we are already paying far too high a price for a lack of understanding of the impacts that our past, and current, development decisions are having on our lakes.
Had lake water quality impacts been assessed upfront by the City for Second Avenue, it’s doubtful that this construction season would have been lost. Blaming private citizens for the costs of delay is completely wrong-headed, given the City’s broken promises to the public with regards to watershed planning. Second Avenue, blue-green algae and the stronger voices of citizens groups ought to be a wake-up call to our City to finally get moving and deal with these important issues in a transparent and accessible manner.
(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)