Systems Approach to Water Protection
The real world is complex. Trying to manage water within this complexity is a significant challenge. Recognizing systems helps to highlight key relationships, and to take a broader view on issues like water protection. Across the Four Plans in the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH) region, several systems have been identified, including an Agricultural System, a Natural Heritage System, and Water Resource Systems. The Four Plans call for implementation that better recognizes the integrated nature of these systems such as the connection between farmland and the economic vitality of farmers working that land.
A systems approach means looking at how different pieces interact within the broader landscape. One of the sessions at the recent Latornell Symposium focused on “Integrated Watershed Management.” In this case, the addition of the term “integrated” means that watershed planning is being integrated with land use planning to ensure the best protection of water in balance with development. This recognizes that protection for key areas like headwaters and coastal areas result in multiple benefits to water quality and quantity. It also considers the need to plan for water impacts of development such as management of wastewater, and the impacts of increased hard surfaces on storm water infrastructure.
This emphasis on integration comes in part from one of the 87 recommendations from the Advisory Panel led by David Crombie. Many of the recommendations found in their report, entitled “Planning for Health, Prosperity and Growth,” have been implemented in the revised plans.
In rural areas, part of protecting water resources means protecting the natural and hydrological features that do the work of allowing ground water to recharge, improving water quality by taking up nutrients and settling sediments, and preventing flooding and erosion by slowing the flow of water in heavy storms.
Farmers may not realize the significant positive impact that their stewardship of a wetland or woodlot is having for water management. The Advisory Panel report recognized that farmers have a key role to play in the stewardship of these natural and hydrological features and systems, while also recommending balance between the need for the “integrity of ecological features and functions” with the need for “agricultural viability.” Farmers still need to have the flexibility to make a living from their land.
The presenters at Latornell pointed out that balancing environmental protection with development pressures is always a political question, not a technical question. Furthermore, while in Ontario we have strong institutions and policies, it is in implementation that we encounter the greatest costs, and where the rubber hits the road in terms of meaningful results.
As key stakeholders in the water resource system, farmers need to be involved in the conversations that take place around integrated watershed planning as it is implemented at the local level. Agricultural Advisory Committees are an excellent way to ensure farmers’ local knowledge and concerns are being integrated into decision-making. Where these are not yet established, farmers need to be actively engaged in local consultations to ensure this systems approach takes farmers’ perspectives fairly into account.