Mayor David Miller keeps a bottle of ancient water in his office as a symbolic reminder that the Oak Ridges Moraine is Toronto's life source. While the idea of clean water is something the mayor and most councillors can get behind, a proposal by Scarborough Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker to buy source water lands in the Oak Ridges Moraine to ensure clean water trickles down to Smog Town for future generations, had to pass through more chutes than the Don to get to its current watered-down state.
Councillors voted to establish a $2- million fund for source-water protection instead of the more ambitious water-tax-funded plan De Baeremaeker was pumping. Given that the city will spend $340 million on water infrastructure alone next year, $2 million seems like a drop in the ocean.
But council pooh-poohed De Baeremaeker's initial proposal to peg the source-water funding to half a per cent of the water tax rate.
De Baeremaeker's opponents like the idea of saving source water from urban sprawl - they just don't want to pay for it.
Even Miller, who calls De Baeremaeker's plan "ingenious," voted against tying the fund to the water rate. Instead, he wants a reserve fund for land acquisition within the city's larger water reserve.
The city predicts that it will not spend $41 million of next year's $340-million water budget. But works committee chair Jane Pitfield (Don Valley West) objects to buying land with water tax money for fear of a backlash from high-volume industrial users who want every penny of the water tax to go toward fixing Toronto's decrepit pipe infrastructure.
"But if we don't protect the source waters," says De Baeremaker, "we could waste $10 billion south of Steeles on these man-conquers-nature solutions, and our children will still be covered in green slime on our beaches."
Councillor Howard Moscoe (Eglinton-Lawrence) agrees. "The money we spend on the source we'll more than save at the other end of the pipes."
Moscoe also wants to put an end to discount rates for high-volume industrial users. He wants to charge them more. "Our message on water must be: this is a valuable resource, treat it as such."
Other councillors, budget chief David Soknacki (Scarborough East) among them, wonder what the city is doing buying up land in other regions.
"It's cute, wonderful and adorable but if you're going to buy headwaters in another region, for heaven's sake, get the region to pony up, too!"
The province's greenbelt protection plan includes the Oak Ridges Moraine. But while the greenbelt plan governs many of the rivers that connect the Oak Ridges Moraine to Lake Ontario, protection ends abruptly when tributaries cross into settled areas.
Last week, Municipal Leaders for the Greenbelt told Dalton McGuinty there were so many loopholes in his greenbelt that 72,850 hectares of green space and rivers will be paved or contaminated. The greenbelt proposal's great weakness is that it's reversible. The Oak Ridges Moraine Act, for instance, will be up for review in less than seven years.
According to the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), the region loses 24 hectares of land to developers every day. Just paying lip service to protecting our natural resources could prove disastrous in the next 20 years, when the city's population will near the 7 million mark.
TRCA property manager Ron Dewell says the only way to secure land long-term is to buy it. The TRCA has also identified strategically important land plots south of Steeles that are significant because they remove sediment and pollutants from source water all the way down to the lake.
The province, for its part, has no plans to purchase moraine land, says Municipal Affairs Minister Brad Duguid. Even bulldozer-friendly Ernie Eves forked over $817,000 to protect 1,200 hectares of Alfred Bog wetlands east of Ottawa two years ago.
Says Duguid of the city's puchase plan, "I don't discourage it, but as a former city councillor and someone who's trying to assist the city with its financial difficulties, I can't help but question if this is a priority, given that it can't seem to balance its budget."
De Baeremaeker, meanwhile, favours securing city valleys but cautions against pouring all source-water money into those sites just because they're in our backyard. "Any councillor who says, 'We're fixing south of Steeles; let them fix north of it,' is saying, 'I'm cleaning the shallow end of the pool, so who cares if they're peeing in the deep end.' We should care. It's the same pool."