Executive Summary
Scientific Information & Its Application
Linking Science With Land Use Policy
Case Study: The Oak Ridges Moraine

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Additional information on urban nonpoint source pollution is available online from IAGLR, including scientific articles in the Journal of Great Lakes Research and contact information for experts.


V. Case Study: The Oak Ridges Moraine

Understanding how science can be communicated and applied effectively in controlling nonpoint source pollution requires close attention to the local context. Accordingly, a case study of the use of science in such a context is presented. The Oak Ridges Moraine case highlights several important issues relating to accelerated urbanization in the Great Lakes region and the role of science in land use decisions.

The Oak Ridges Moraine: Human and environmental context

The Oak Ridges Moraine is a still largely undeveloped belt of hills, fields, forests and streams, extending 160 kilometers across the northern edge of Toronto. Bulldozed into position by glaciers about 12,000 years ago, the moraine's gravel and sand collect rainwater and snow melt, which is then slowly filtered and transferred to over 65 rivers and streams draining into Lake Ontario and Lake Simcoe (Figure 2).

Location of the Oak Ridges Moraine

Figure 2: Location of the Oak Ridges Moraine (Source: Save the Oak Ridges Moraine Coalition)

Preservation of the moraine was first urged sixty years ago - a suggestion repeated at intervals and in vain ever since. Nevertheless, the moraine has generally remained free of urban development. But over the past decade, as Toronto has expanded northwards, it has become exposed to increasing development pressures. Over the next twenty years the population of the Greater Toronto Area is expected to increase by about two million people, many of whom are expected to settle north of Toronto, where much of the moraine is located. The impending collision between this rural area and urban development, although shaped by local circumstances, is similar to processes occurring on the outskirts of many other cities in the Great Lakes region.

In June 1991 Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources, Ministry of Environment and Minister of Municipal Affairs formed a technical committee to aid in creating a long-term development strategy for the moraine (Oak Ridges Moraine Technical Working Committee 1994). This strategy was intended to provide the basis for a regional approach to land use planning, coordinating the three regional governments and over a dozen municipalities on the moraine. The strategy was completed in 1994, but was then shelved, leaving land use decisions in the hands of local governments. These governments, in turn, welcomed developers' proposals for housing projects. From their perspective, these developments presented significant economic opportunities. The plans emphasized detached, single family homes, requiring substantial infrastructure, including an extensive road network and water and sewer facilities. As such, the communities would be typical of suburban development across North America.

But, beginning in 1999, moraine development became a highly politicized issue. Citing the ecological sensitivity of the region, and calling the moraine the "rain barrel of Ontario," environmental groups raised public awareness, eliciting mass opposition to development. Perhaps the fiercest battle occurred in Richmond Hill, where there were plans to house 100,000 people in subdivisions extending right across the moraine. The City of Toronto, although not on the moraine, also became involved. In 2000 the controversy moved to the Ontario Municipal Board. Developers appealed to the board to approve their plans, often over the opposition of local governments. In May 2001, with no resolution yet apparent, the Ontario government intervened, announcing a six-month moratorium on development, and the creation of a panel to prepare a land-use plan that would adhere to "smart growth" principles. The plan, released in October 2001, was welcomed by some as effective protection, but condemned by others as inadequate. It divides the moraine into four zones, with progressively tighter regulations on development in each. Most development would be restricted to "settlement areas," occupying eight percent of the moraine. The plan has now become the basis for provincial legislation, the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act.

Science and the Oak Ridges Moraine

Research on the hydrology of the Oak Ridges Moraine had begun by 1970, with efforts to understand the significance of the aquifer as a recharge source for Lake Simcoe and Lake Ontario (Haefeli 1970). Only in the last decade, however, has there been a focus on the potential impact of urban development on the moraine, and ultimately on Great Lakes water quality. Much of the research on the moraine has taken place at two centers: the Geological Survey of Canada, and the University of Toronto Groundwater Research Group. Several consulting firms have also made significant contributions, including work for the Oak Ridges Moraine Technical Working Committee, or for private developers.

The basic facts regarding the moraine's geology and aquifer are well known (Figure 3), including the role of the moraine in recharging streams and rivers in the region (Desbarets et al. 2000). Despite a decade's research, however, many uncertainties remain in our knowledge of its hydrology, and its role in the regional ecosystem. For instance, lack of quantitative data on shallow local flow systems hinders estimation of flow from the aquifer into surface waterways (Grannemann 2000).

Geological structure of the Oak Ridges Moraine

Figure 3: Geological structure of the Oak Ridges Moraine (Source: Desbarets et al. 2000)

Even less is known about the potential impact of urban development on the moraine. There are several hypotheses regarding the relation of land use to moraine hydrology. Impervious surfaces such as roads and housing can reduce the amount of water available to the moraine for recharge, diverting it to urban storm systems, creating the potential for flooding (Grannemann 2000). Road salting in winter may lead to increased salinity in the moraine aquifer, and subsequently in downstream waterbodies, affecting fish habitat and even human health (Howard et al. 1993, Hunter et al. 1997). Other aspects of urban development, such as the effects of septic systems on well supplies, large-scale withdrawal of groundwater for consumption, and the effects of agrochemicals have been described as potentially affecting the moraine aquifer (Howard et al. 1995). However, no scientific study has determined conclusively whether urban land use will affect the aquifer. One reason is that because the aquifers release groundwater slowly, the effects of land use practices may not be noticed for years. It is likely that conclusive evidence of damage will only become available once the damage has been present for several years.

More generally, the Oak Ridges Moraine provides, inadvertently, a case study in the inaccessibility of scientific and monitoring information within a fragmented jurisdictional environment. As Hunter et al. (1997) summarized:

"Environmental databases related to the Moraine are often not adequately maintained, integrated and cross referenced by source agencies. At present, historical long-term environmental monitoring data at best is virtually inaccessible and at worst has been lost by the administrative processes of the multi-jurisdictional agencies which operate within the Moraine. Many old monitoring records appear to have been lost, destroyed, redistributed with administrative mergers, lost on key employee retirement, or buried in archives. Often the only source of continuous long term monitoring information are the production wells and the existing large landfill sites. Comprehensive integrated environmental information management systems should continue to be implemented."

Science in the Oak Ridges Moraine Controversy

An especially significant feature of the controversy over development on the moraine was the extent to which both sides-environmentalists and developers-defined the issue in terms of science.

For environmentalists, science was a welcome ally. Geological accounts of its origins as an interlobate moraine (formed between two glaciers) reinforced its image as a distinctive landscape feature. Biologists noted the presence of more than 900 species (including several rare species), and the need to protect its ecological integrity. Most crucial was hydrogeologists' portrayal of the moraine as an essential aquifer. Studies had identified the risks of development: as Ken Howard, a University of Toronto hydrologist, explained in 1997, the moraine is a "nationally significant groundwater resource that has become increasingly threatened by urban growth. The results of the hydrochemical and hydrogeological studies confirm that urbanization represents a serious threat to local groundwater quality" (Swainson 2000). This account became the basis for describing the moraine as the "rain barrel" of southern Ontario, damage to which might be catastrophic for the drinking water of thousands. As a result, the issue became no longer about nature, but about something considered more urgent, especially in the aftermath of Walkerton: human health. As one activist noted: "We need to preserve this for our own health, not just the flora and fauna. It is so beneficial to us, our drinking water, our quality of life" (Hudson 1999).

Activists also set out to demonstrate a scientific consensus behind their position. Presenting a petition signed by 450 scientists, Gregor Beck of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists commented: "It's easy for politicians to say 'oh yeah it's just a bunch of environmentalists,' but now to get scientific specialists on board carries a lot more weight" (Immen 2000). Geological Survey of Canada scientists added their weight, pointing out that because of the moraine's many folds and cracks there was a great deal of uncertainty regarding the impact of development on the aquifer, and that therefore caution was needed.

Developers also saw the issue as a matter of science, particularly in presenting their case to the Ontario Municipal Board. Board hearings became seminars in geology, hydrology, soil studies and wildlife science, as experts piled up thousands of pages of testimony and exhibits. The purpose was to determine, using science, whether development posed unacceptable risks to the moraine environment. Developers spent millions on scientific studies to support their applications, and on lawyers to help present this information. Activists and local councils could not match these resources (although they received some help from the City of Toronto). As one environmentalist complained: "As of today, we have no lawyer, no planner and no expert witnesses, which means we will just be blown away… The public has virtually no place there… The decisions that will affect millions of people over 200 years are being made in a room where the admission ticket is $1-million" (Barber 2000).

Most crucially, the Board hearings gave developers a chance to present their own view of the moraine. They saw it not as a sensitive landform requiring protection, but as a resource that could, with appropriate management, be developed safely. This view also implied a different understanding of how decisions should be made in situations of uncertainty. While environmentalists argued for a precautionary approach, citing the possibility of aquifer contamination as reason enough to prohibit development, developers saw the lack of proof that such contamination would occur as reason enough to proceed.

This argument was supported by the developers' scientific consultants. As Ken Howard (the most prominent scientist hired by the developers) noted: "I've been working on groundwater for 25 years, and I believe development can take place in ways that minimize the impact on water quantity and quality. And I find that developers are actually listening". Lloyd Cherniak, a developer, and chair of the Urban Development Institute, echoed Howard's words: "The science is here to protect the moraine… And we have done extensive research. We believe we can build without hurting the environment" (Stein 1999).

Corporations active in fields that attract public concern, such as chemicals or biotechnology, often insist that regulatory decisions should be based on science. They do so both because they can outgun their opponents in the scientific arena, and because it places boundaries around an issue: by defining it as scientific, it avoids the need to consider difficult ethical or political issues. This pattern was perpetuated in the Oak Ridges Moraine controversy.

Oak Ridges Moraine Case Study: Conclusions

Several conclusions can be drawn regarding the contribution of science to this land use controversy, and to decisions relating to the environmental impacts of urban development, including nonpoint source pollution.

First, was the importance of science in placing the issue of suburban development on the political agenda, and in structuring the debate. In particular, knowledge of the hydrology of the moraine, including its importance as a regional aquifer, served as an essential resource in communicating the issue widely (although the description of the Moraine as the "rain barrel" of Ontario was also thought by at least one scientist to overstate its importance). This scientific characterization of the moraine also served to link this issue with more general concerns about water quality, especially prevalent in the aftermath of the Walkerton contaminated water tragedy. The uncertainty of the science, paradoxically, enhanced its political weight, by encouraging many citizens and environmental groups to adopt a precautionary approach to urban development.

However, science was not able to resolve the issue. In part this was because of the uncertainties inherent in the moraine's complex geology, that prevented definitive conclusions regarding the impact of development. Thus, while all parties tended to define the issue in terms of science, science could not provide a clear policy direction regarding whether development should be permitted. But beyond these uncertainties, science could not resolve the issue because there were basic differences between the parties not only regarding whether development should proceed, but regarding how science should be used in making such decisions. While environmentalists argued, as I have noted, for a precautionary approach, the developers expressed confidence in managerial and technological strategies to limit the potential impact of development.

This episode also demonstrated how local governments can lack the scientific capabilities to make effective decisions regarding development within a complex environment. Much of the information was provided by research conducted by senior governments-both federal and provincial-thereby illustrating the essential role of those levels of government in supporting local decisions. However, while the information provided by senior levels of government was produced through high quality, peer-reviewed science, it was not necessarily immediately relevant to decisions at the local level, in terms of providing, for example, answers regarding the likely effect of actual developments.

Instead, much of the most relevant information was provided by scientists employed by developers. But this raised an additional problem, of access to results: private interests, having greater resources, also had better access to the relevant science, and were thus better able to participate in the decision-making process. The ultimate outcome was a hindering of equitable participation by all interests in the land use policy decisions.

The need for equitable participation in these decisions, and in the land use process generally, is evident if we consider how the issue of "smart growth" emerged on the political agenda in the first place. While several studies of the moraine had been completed by the mid-1990s, it was only through citizen initiatives, shaped and focused by environmental groups, that serious debate, and eventual formation of a land use plan, took place. To put it another way, only significant political pressure was able to overcome the obstacles to sustainable land use planning: a development industry unaccustomed to controls, municipalities eager to encourage growth, a province reluctant to intervene. Science also played an essential role in creating this political environment for action, underlining thereby the importance of broad, equitable access to science. Thus, it demonstrates how science can contribute to broadening the basis for environmental protection, beyond managerial and technical approaches, by empowering communities to understand, and to protect their local environment, fostering a civic environmentalism.

Finally, this case study illustrates how science, far from encouraging agreement, can drive opposing parties further apart. There are, however, readily available alternative models for linking science and policy. In the broader Great Lakes regime, the International Joint Commission, through its binational advisory boards and reference studies, has evolved a mechanism for joint fact-finding on contentious issues, allowing agreement on science, which can then form the basis for eventual agreement on action. Reference studies, for example, are guided by a study board with equal numbers of technical experts from each country to study the issues and recommend options for action (Valiante et al. 1997). This is a model that could well be adopted at the local level, with the parties within a watershed joining in developing a shared understanding of the watershed ecosystem.

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