Over the past year, local councils in the Lake Simcoe watershed area have been working together to help protect Lake Simcoe, advocating for the building of the Lake Simcoe Phosphorus Recycling Facility in the Holland Marsh.
Officials say the facility will reduce phosphorus runoff into the Holland River and Lake Simcoe by up to 40 per cent and thereby protect the lake’s watershed from algae growth, resulting in better protection for the region’s aquatic habitats, increased ecosystem biodiversity and protection of drinking water sources.
According to the Ontario Government's Lake Simcoe Protection Plan, released in 2009, the goal is to have Lake Simcoe's phosphorus pollution reduced by 50 per cent to 44 tonnes a year, which is needed to protect the cold-water fishery and to prevent excessive weed growth and algae blooms.
Bradford West Gwillimbury Coun. Jonathan Scott and Georgina Coun. Dave Neeson put forward motions last year calling for the $40 million project — being proposed by York Region — to move forward, with support from surrounding municipalities like East Gwillimbury, Innisfil, Barrie and Orillia.
"With Georgina having the largest shoreline in Lake Simcoe, we must continue to have a collaborative and outcomes-based approach that respects and protects our natural environment," said Neeson.
"With Lake Simcoe communities becoming overwhelmingly desirable places to live, work, and play, it will continue to be incumbent on all of us—all levels of government, including citizens and stakeholders—to remain committed to these principles going forward. Thus far, we've managed to do that in ways that I'm hoping will not be so unprecedented as we continue to work together and move forward."
The feds have already announced $16 million toward the project and the province recently announced $24 million in funding over the next three years.
The following local councillors have made significant contributions in helping to get the project off the ground by bringing motions forward to their respective councils, and working behind the scenes lobbying upper governments for their support:
From Bradford West Gwillimbury: Councillors Jonathan Scott and Peter Ferragine; from The Town of Georgina: Mayor Margaret Quirk and Coun Dave Neeson; from The Town of East Gwillimbury: Councillors Loralea Carruthers and Scott Crone; from The Town of Innisfil: Coun. Rob Nicol; from Orillia: Councillors Pat Hehn and Jay Fallis; from The City of Barrie: Coun. Sergio Morales; from Oro Medonte: Coun. Shawn Scott; from Brock Councillors Cria Pettingill and Mike Jubb; and from the Town of Newmarket: Coun. Christina Bisanz.
"I see us as the Lake Simcoe Avengers, and our superpower is that we are non-partisan," said Coun. Crone. "In a world where tribal politics is becoming prevalent, we can cut through that and work with all parties. Liberal at the federal level and Conservative at the provincial, we don't care, we just want to make things happen."
Coun. Scott from Oro-Medonte agreed, calling the teamwork on the project, "an unprecedented united front."
"I think it's important the push is coming from the south end of the Lake, but there are a lot of municipalities that surround the Lake, and we are all part of this water system and watershed, so it's important that the rest of us get on board and to help with that push."
“Lake Simcoe flows into Lake Couchiching and, of course, we get our drinking water from Lake Couchiching. So, obviously, the health of Lake Simcoe is of paramount importance to our community," said Coun. Pat Hehn at a March meeting of Orillia Council.
Coun. Fallis agreed.
“Although it’s not right next to Orillia or in the immediate vicinity, it does have a big impact on us. This watershed is part of our own,” he said. “It’s an easy ask to say that we need to be focused on protecting our environment.”
“Lake Simcoe is Barrie’s jewel, but we share that jewel with many municipalities, and that’s why teamwork on an issue like this is so important," said Coun. Morales in a press release late last year. “I’m happy to see Barrie’s general committee add our city’s name to supporting this initiative that will reaffirm our strong track record of being environmental champions for our water ecosystem."
From offline Zoom meetings to long email threads, the group has been working collaboratively to ensure the project receives the support, funding and attention needed to move ahead.
Coun. Pettingill from Brock who brought forward the motion supporting the recycling facility to her council said it was important to separate the project from the Upper York Sewage Solutions.
"We kind of had to talk people into seeing it that way," she said.
"It's just as important for us to make sure that the Lake is healthy...because it's essential to our water source as well," said Coun. Bisanz.
When Environment Minister David Piccini was in the Holland Marsh the other week to make the funding announcement for the project on behalf of the province, he confirmed the next steps for the project include a streamlined municipal class EA, which could take anywhere from six to 12 months.
A recent report from the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition and Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition acknowledged the efforts of local governments working together on the project to help protect the Lake.
“Municipalities have demonstrated their ability to stand together in defence of Lake Simcoe, as evidenced by their unanimous support for a successful bid to have the province pay the balance of a phosphorus recycling facility on the Holland River,” says Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition Executive Director, Claire Malcolmson, the report’s lead author.
“But growth pressures, be they in the form of new highway plans or greenfield development, will have environmental impacts on Lake Simcoe that are not getting enough attention,” adds the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition’s Executive Director, Margaret Prophet.
The coalition report called out projects like the Bradford Bypass and Innisfil's Mobility Orbit as being threats to the Lake.
But Bradford's Scott noted that while there isn't a way to stop growth, there is a way to help balance infrastructure to include projects like the recycling facility to compensate.
"Infrastructure can't just be highways and transit and sewers, it has to also be things that clean or protect the Lake," he said.
Coun. Nicol agreed, noting transit-oriented communities are smart ways to accommodate growth in the area.
And while the facility won't solve all the Lake's issues, it is a start.
"It's (the facility) not the be-all and end-all for phosphorus going into the Lake but it is extremely helpful and important," said Pettingill.
"The watershed environment doesn't care about politics or partisanship—it cares about protection and positive outcomes, as do we all," said Neeson.
"We are a growing region but we have to take care of the lake first and foremost," added Bradford's Scott.
-with files from Nathan Taylor