A broader complaint about the current plan is that it focuses on land use rather than resource management. One consequence is that water from the aquifers can be drained for consumption in the burgeoning communities outside the moraine boundary. Underground water also seeps into water and sewer pipes. Losses caused by both types of water removal are estimated to total more than 100 million litres per day. In addition, vast quantities – in the billions of litres – have been drained away during construction of a major sewer system to serve York Region. The depletion of the underground water reduces the amount supplied to the streams that flow off the moraine. As a result, fish species disappear when the waterways get too warm or even dry up.

The infrastructure and water issues demonstrate that considering the moraine on its own is not enough; it has to be viewed as part of the larger region. Water use off the moraine affects the supplies on it, and that, in turn, has an impact on waterways that flow from it. Restricting subdivisions and other developments on the moraine pushes them elsewhere, in most cases to the north. That increases the demand for roads, electricity lines and water and sewer pipes through the moraine.

“It’s the overall fragmentation of the moraine that’s the biggest issue,” Schultz says. “It’s sort of insidious. The more people we put north of the moraine, the more pressure to widen the road infrastructure to move people and goods around.”

To reduce this pressure, we should consider putting more housing and employment locations to the south, she argues. “We need to look at all of the land south of the moraine and the Greenbelt and within them. Is there any latitude to do things differently? The answer might be no, but it’s not being looked at as systematically as it ought to be.”

A limited view of the moraine was, to some extent, built into the plan. When the Niagara Escarpment, an equally important geological and natural feature, was protected in the 1970s, the Province established a powerful commission to oversee it. The moraine plan includes nothing similar, because municipalities did not want to relinquish power to such a body. Instead, they got responsibility for planning, implementation and enforcement chores, and they vary in their drive and resources available for those tasks. What is needed, says Beck, is “ecosystem-based planning across a very broad landscape.” That seemed to become more likely six years ago when the current Liberal government, which succeeded the Conservatives in 2003, created the Greater Toronto Area Greenbelt, a much larger swath that includes the moraine, and later instituted a Provincial Planning Strategy intended to require that environmental concerns be included in all planning decisions. But no such broader perspective has materialized.

In contrast, the moraine legislation is among the Ontario laws that “reflect a disturbing trend to protect notable natural heritage features on an individual basis rather than implement broader-based safeguards,” wrote Ontario Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller in his 2009 report. “This tendency to protect by exception … is both reactionary and problematic.”

The Oak Ridges Moraine Foundation got no funding in the recent provincial budget, meaning that unless it’s supported in the 2012 budget it will likely cease operations at the end of next year, just as the moraine plan review is to start in earnest. Meanwhile, the government allocated $20 million to the Greenbelt Foundation. With the province running a $16.3 billion budget deficit, “a lot of tough decisions were made, including not being able this year to meet the ORMF’s request for additional funding,” says Jim Bradley, the province’s minister of community safety and correctional services, who retains responsibility for the foundation. “As the economy grows and the province’s finances improve, requests for funding from the ORMF and other constructive groups will be considered.”

As well, the Province appears to have lost interest in the moraine, which has been barely mentioned on the government website since 2006. Instead, it focuses on the Greenbelt. “The Greenbelt is the Liberals’ baby,” Schultz says. “I think that’s why you’re not seeing very much about the moraine. It’s seen as either/or, rather than both/and. The investment has been fairly minimal.

“It’s a mistake for them to downplay the moraine,” she adds, especially in the run-up to a provincial election in the fall. The moraine is simply undervalued. “If it was properly appreciated, they’d put a premium on protection and invest in it,” she says. “There’s political capital to be gained.”

But that capital will be valuable, and persuasive, only if politicians are convinced the strong public interest that led to the moraine’s protection a decade ago still exists. So, as much as an occasion for celebration, the anniversary is a crucial call to action.

Peter Gorrie is a Toronto-based freelance writer specializing in environment and renewable energy issues. He writes a weekly column for the Toronto Star on cars and the environment.

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Peter Gorrie is a Toronto-based freelance writer specializing in environment and renewable energy issues. He writes a weekly column for the Toronto Star on cars and the environment.