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NPCA assailed for Niagara River stance

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St. Catharines Standard Apr 10, 2018 by Bill Sawchuk

It's been called an international treasure. Flowing for 56 kilometres between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, the Niagara River separates Canada and the United States and includes one of the wonders of the world, Niagara Falls.

With that in mind, a volunteer group of citizens — with representatives on both sides of the border — is working toward having the river corridor nominated for designation as a wetland of international importance.

The group has collected endorsements from cities and towns and various agencies, but one organization is conspicuous by its absence — the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority.

In a letter dated March 20, the volunteer group informed the NPCA it was no longer being asked to endorse the project. The Niagara River Ramsar Site Steering Committee had run out of patience.

It’s unfortunate that it has come to this. Sandy Annunziata NPCA chair "The volunteer committee respects that the request of the NPCA to endorse the Ramsar designation causes apparent apprehension for the NPCA," the letter said.

"In recognition of that, and in order to relieve the NPCA Board of this apparent discomfort, we are hereby withdrawing our request for the NPCA's endorsement and thank you for your consideration."

The Ramsar Treaty, signed in Iran in 1971 by 168 countries, provides honourary endorsements of the global importance and ecological significance of rivers. It promotes the conservation and wise use of wetlands through local, national and international collaboration. Canada has 37 sites designated as Wetlands of International Importance. Eight of them are in Ontario.

A river must fulfil at least one of nine criteria to qualify for the designation. The Niagara River meets all nine.

NPCA chair Sandy Annunziata, addressed the issue at a recent board meeting. He said a communications breakdown was the reason for the disconnect with the steering committee.

The NPCA had been trying to get more information to board members so they could make an informed decision but had been ignored, he said.

"We have sent correspondence to both the American and Canadian co-chair and the American co-chair and forwarded our questions and comments to the Canadian co-chair," he said "We haven't heard anything back. It's unfortunate that it has come to this."

Requests for additional comment from the agency went unanswered.

Patrick Robson, an instructor at Niagara College and the Canadian co-chair of the steering committee, was one of the signers of the letter to the NPCA.

He took issue with Annunziata's statment.

He said the steering committee consulted NPCA "at length" and went so far as to obtain assurance from Environment Canada that the designation would not prompt any new regulatory oversight, which the committee understood as the NPCA's main concern.

He said relations were rocky from the start.

He said the NPCA's attempt to get more information left steering committee members scratching their heads.

He said the NPCA demanded all the minutes of previous meetings and wanted to five of representatives appointed to the committee.

"We found that curious, to say the least," Robson said. "We gave them everything they needed to be satisfied so they could provide us some support — and in return we were treated with a level of contempt."

Bruce Timms, a member of the NPCA board and a former chairman, told the board the agency discovered that in some places, the designation had been used to influence planning hearings. While not an official constraint, it impacted the process through what he called "moral suasion."

"That's a concern, especially with the agricultural community in Niagara-on-the-Lake."

Austin Kirkby is a former Niagara-on-the-Lake town councillor and longtime advocate for the agriculture industry.

She said farmers in her area draw water from the Niagara River to irrigate their fields, especially in the height of the summer dry season. Without the water, the crops would wither and die.

She said experience had led the farmers to view pledges with a healthy degree of scepticism.

"Along the Niagara River, up at Queenston, is our major irrigation control structure," she explained. "It's a pump house that was built years ago. It brings water into the municipality, and it flows gradually north to provide irrigation water.

"We were assured the Ramsar designation wouldn't affect us, but, from our perspective, we would need something more, out of an abundance of caution. We would need something that exempts our irrigation structure."

Natalie Green, a project manager with the Niagara River Remediation Action Plan, spoke at the NPCA board meeting and tried to smooth the rough waters.

"It would be a really wonderful celebration for the Niagara River and a vibrant ecosystem that can support fish and wildlife and provide beneficial uses to humans like recreation, tourism."

Those sentiments did not carry much weight with the board.

Robson summed up his reaction by saying he was disappointed.

"What I would like to know is where they got their authorization to change their mandate and become pro-development," he said. "That's what it comes down to. They will say they are following their strategic plan, but you can't strategically plan your way out of your legislative obligations. It doesn't work that way."
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