“A Response Will Be Forthcoming”: Tracking the Boundaries of Ontario’s Provincially Significant Wetlands and the Fight to Protect Them 

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This is the fifth post in the Wetland Wednesday series, edited by Gabrielle McLaren

We begin by honouring two acronyms important for our story: PSW and OWES. Okay, maybe three: WTF. 

A PSW (Provincially Significant Wetland) is a wetland that the province considers most valuable using a science-based ranking system called the Ontario Wetland Evaluation System (OWES). A PSW designation has meant that the wetland is protected from development. WTF is just that: since the passing of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s Bill 23 and the vast overhaul of the OWES, which came into effect in January 2023, it has become increasingly difficult to protect any wetlands in Ontario as significant.

We write from the frontlines of an Ontario Land Tribunal (OLT) case about the development of Orchard Street Marsh. A five-week OLT hearing on the subject ended March 8, and will decide the fate of this section of the Greater Cataraqui Marsh PSW. We write to describe the frustrating experience of seeking, as concerned citizens, key information needed to follow this case. Our story underlines the critical importance of repositories of geospatial information, libraries and librarians in the fight to protect wetlands in Ontario.

Photo: City of Kingston Official Plan Schedule 7-A, 2022. The Greater Cataraqui Marsh PSW, which includes the Orchard Street Marsh, is the largest PSW (in green) visible.

How We Got Interested in PSWs

Our route to learning more about PSWs was hardly straightforward; rather, we—human geographer and historian LJ and geospatial librarian Francine—got pulled in through our lively meanders in the Belle Park Project (BPP). Based at Queen’s University, BPP is a research-creation collaboration exploring Belle Park: a local riparian marsh that became the city dump from 1952 to 1972 and then a golf course that was closed in 2017. The place is full of life these days serving as both a recreational space (for walkers, cyclists and birdwatchers) and a home (for unhoused people as well as rebounding vegetation and wildlife). The Belle Park Project has endeavored to encounter this site in all its complexity. 

One of Belle Park’s neighbours to the South within the Greater Cataraqui Marsh PSW is the Orchard Street Marsh, in the former Davis Tannery lands. Orchard Street Marsh is at the center of ongoing concern as a developer seeks to remove its PSW status and cap the site for a proposed riverside condo complex. The proposal also involves the destruction of a Significant Woodland (designated as such in Kingston’s Official Plan) and a grand old oak which has graced this place for over 200 years. The City Council of Kingston denied the application, and the developer appealed the Council’s decision to the Ontario Land Tribunal—hence the hearing. 

Like Belle Park, the Orchard Street Marsh is a complicated site with a living history of contamination. It also has a history of life fighting back and re-establishing itself. You can listen to what this place sounds like here, thanks to Matt Rogalsky’s sonic records of birds, frogs, insects, and other wildlife.  

Muskrat swimming in Orchard Street Marsh
Photo: Orchard Street Marsh. While the photographer was sitting listening to the marsh full of red-winged blackbirds, a muskrat swam up and climbed the bank a few feet away without noticing him. Photo by Matt Rogalsky, May 2023.

LJ wanted to get her facts right about the PSW boundaries for a BPP blog series and noticed that the local paper had quoted the land developer who launched the appeal in a December 2023 piece. Specifically, LJ noted his claim that “most of the area we are arguing about isn’t even a wetland as deemed by the ministry and accepted by the ministry,” based on changes in the wetland’s status as provincially significant in the past year. 

It was a shock to learn that the boundaries had been so recently changed, just as the tribunal was about to begin. Was the Orchard Street Marsh even still part of the PSW?  When and how did this change happen? What exactly was changed? And how would it impact the Tribunal’s decision?

A Runaround Navigating Ontario Provincial Government Records 

To answer her questions, LJ contacted the Cataraqui Region Conservation Authority and the Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks. Although the Conservation Authority never responded to her phone message, she received a call the same day from a Ministry Environmental Compliance Officer (ECO) who sent a link to Ontario Geohub, an interactive map highlighting wetland designations across the province. In his interpretation, this marsh was still listed as a PSW.  

LJ alerted the ECO to the developer’s statement in the newspaper and the ECO responded that “by no means am I qualified to speak on this particular site.” If she wanted to know if a change was in the works, the correct contact was Land Information Ontario (LIO), at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. 

A Support Officer there put her in touch with the “custodians of the Wetland data, Provincial Mapping,” represented by a Mapping and Geomatics Data Analyst. The analyst informed her that they were unaware of any wetland updates needed for that area of the province but if a re-evaluation was completed by a trained OWES evaluator, they may receive updates in the future.  

This was a relief, but on closer inspection of the updated wetland polygons in  Make a Map, another GIS tool that the analyst recommended, LJ found that – hold on, yes – there had been recent changes to the PSW boundaries in the Orchard Street Marsh! And, if one knew where to look, this was also visible on GeoHub, whose records indicated: “Geometry changes based on OWES v4 evaluation submitted November 24, 2023.” The record appears to have been updated January 2, 2024. 

Photo: Screenshot of an interactive wetland map on the LIO portal, showing competing date stamps for final updates in 2019 and 2024.

The Mapping and Geomatics Data Analyst confirmed this finding and said the “request to change the boundary was accepted and was implemented.” 

So, okay, there had been recent changes – but LJ asked follow up questions. What in fact had been changed? Is there a way to access the ‘before’ (historic) data so one can research how boundaries have changed? And who submitted the re-evaluation – was it the City or the developer? 

In reply, the analyst referred LJ back to Land Information Ontario who had responsibility for distributing geospatial data and reminded her of the significant changes to the OWES. These changes meant that: “As of January 1, 2023, [the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry] no longer reviews and confirms wetland evaluations.” What used to be the job of the Ministry is now left to private OWES-trained contractors. As a result, they couldn’t tell LJ who submitted requests for PSW boundary changes but noted that “The wetland evaluator must send the final evaluation, including associated wetland boundary mapping to the appropriate planning authority (such as a municipality).” With that in mind, he suggested that LJ “reach out to the local planning authority (such as the municipality) for information about the wetland evaluation/boundary changes, however, it is at their discretion to share this information.”

“As of January 1, 2023, [the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry] no longer reviews and confirms wetland evaluations.” What used to be the job of the Ministry is now left to private OWES-trained contractors.

Libraries and Geospatial Information Repositories Save the Day

While LJ waited to hear back from Land Information Ontario, she followed the analyst’s advice and reached out to Planning Services for the City of Kingston. She received a same-day reply to “Ms Camerson” simply stating: “Acknowledging receipt of your email. A response will be forthcoming.” 

LJ’s email to Planning Services for the City of Kingston.

LJ also got in touch with her Belle Park Project colleague Francine Berish, the geospatial data librarian and liaison librarian for the Department of Geography and Planning at Queen’s University. Libraries have long acted as stewards of government information, making it accessible to the research community. Historically, it was the standard practice in the map library community to receive deposits of federally government-produced information like topographic maps through depository programs. Libraries would mark the old editions superseded to reduce liability, keeping the past editions available for historical reference. Federal governments, on the other hand, usually provide access to the most current materials. 

While libraries have stopped receiving these materials in print, they continue to play a prominent role in making accessible through digitization by way of collaborations such as the OCUL Historical Topographic Map Digitization project and Canadiana’s collection of digitized National Topographic Series maps. They are also active in preserving born-digital collections. For example, the Canadian Government Information Digital Preservation Network (CGI-DPN), a collaboration between multiple academic libraries and government partners, has a mission of “ensuring the long-term viability of digital materials through geographically dispersed servers, protective measures against data loss, and forward format migration.”

Francine quickly pulled together a map by overlaying the GeoHub data from the OWES boundary changes (most recent 2024 data reflecting approved November 2023 OWES submission) on top of the most recent “old” wetland data licensed to Queen’s through the Ontario Council of University and College Libraries accessible in the Scholars GeoPortal from a 2011 Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources product. In this map, portrayed below, the wetland features were limited to Provincially Significant Wetland: the green sections show recognized PSWs in 2011. Here, we could clearly see a green area we called the “big toe” that had been severed by the recent OWES submission, as well as the “thumb and forefinger” near the shoreline. The map had changed, and provincial changes in how wetlands are protected and managed made it harder to tell how or why.

Map by Francine showing differences in PSW boundaries between 2024 and 2011, using LIO and Scholars Geoportal data respectively. Green sections have recently lost PSW status and have already been removed from the PSW map available through Land Information Ontario.

Aftermath of the Ontario Land Tribunal Hearing

At the time of publishing, we await the final decision of the OLT hearing. 

On Day 12 of the hearing, a witness for the appellant confirmed in cross-examination that it was in fact the developer who had paid for the 2023 boundary work remapping the PSW.      

On Day 17, an ecologist speaking as a witness on behalf of the City did not object to the new PSW boundaries but shared that his own on-site investigations revealed that there were unevaluated wetlands that should be evaluated and possibly added to the PSW. As he put it, “An unevaluated wetland may become a PSW if scoring shows PSW status.” Could it be possible for PSWs to be so seamlessly augmented if warranted, just as parts were removed? While it is up to individual property owners to allow or disallow OWES re-evaluations, the City apparently still has a say in the process. We remain both wary and hopeful. 

On February 26, Land Information Ontario finally wrote back to LJ to say that to distribute a copy of an archived data set, they required the information owner’s approval to release the data. The Coordinator of Provincial Mapping (MNRF) was copied and asked to approve of the release of Wetlands data from 2023 in the same email. 

LJ heard nothing more until her previous contact, the Mapping and Geomatics Data Analyst, contacted her on March 6 to say that her request to Land Information Ontario for a historical copy of the Greater Cataraqui Marsh wetland polygons had been passed on to them. The attached zip file contained basically the same data that Francine had sourced with a different timestamp.      

On March 27, just moments after we sent our NiCHE editor what we thought was this blog post’s final draft, the municipality’s response to LJ’s emails stopped being “forthcoming” and landed in her inbox. The city planner’s email thanked LJ for her patience and contained a map from the OLT hearing documents showing earlier PSW boundaries overlaid with the updated ones. He also wrote “I do not have an OWES evaluation provided by the consultant”. So who does? That we still don’t know.

If we step back, this is all fascinating. Up close, WTF? It’s frustrating that so much research has yielded such convoluted results, while still leaving so many questions of the who-knew-what-when variety. If the process of simply finding out what PSW boundaries have been changed — and by how much and by whom — is as difficult for any concerned citizen as it was for LJ, this is a very bad time to be a wetland in Ontario. At the same time, the existence of repositories of geospatial information and specialists like Francine to navigate them is something to be celebrated and advertised publicly and widely. 

It’s a bad time to be a wetland in Ontario, but librarians can help. 

Featured image: Cormorant and turtles sunning along the shoreline of Orchard Street Marsh. Photo by Matt Rogalsky, May 2023.

Notes and Resources

For background on changes to OWES: https://ontarionature.org/bad-news-for-wetlands-owes-blog/

For background on Bill 23 and changes to OWES:  https://www.mannlawyers.com/resources/ontario-proceeds-with-changes-to-wetland-evaluation/

You can read Vicki Schmolka’s excellent daily summaries of the Ontario Land Tribunal hearing at Vicki Schmolka’s Substack : https://vickischmolka.substack.com/?utm_source=substack&utm_medium=email 

The City of Kingston’s Department of Planning Services receives emails at: planning@cityofkingston.ca

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Francine Berish (she/her) works as the geospatial data librarian and liaison librarian for geography and planning at Queen’s University in Kingston / Katarohkwi, where the St. Lawrence and Cataraqui Rivers meet Lake Ontario on the territories of the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee. She is co-president of the Association of Canadian Map Libraries and Archives (ACMLA). She contributes her knowledge of contemporary geospatial data and archival cartographic resources as a member of the SSHRCC-funded Belle Park Project. || Laura Jean Cameron (she/her) is a professor of historical geography at Queen’s University in Kingston / Katarohkwi. She is the author of Friend Beloved (2021), Openings: A Meditation on History, Method and Sumas Lake (1997), co-author with John Forrester of Freud in Cambridge (2017) as well as the co-editor of Emotion, Place and Culture (2009) and Rethinking the Great White North (2011). She is a collaborator on the SSHRCC-funded Belle Park Project where her field practice has involved hanging out with cattails.

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