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Date: March 2008
Publication: Environmental Science and Engineering, Long Range Planning
Author: George Zukovs, XCG and H. Hatami, Region of York

How can increasing demands be imposed on the environment without reducing the environment’s capacity to support future generations? This is a central issue confronting the Regional Municipality of York, one of the fastest growing areas in Canada. York Region’s answer: adopt strategies that emphasize sustainability as the hallmark for managing growth.

Located in south central Ontario, York Region covers 1,776 square kilometres, and includes farmlands, wetlands and kettle lakes, the Oak Ridges Moraine and over 2,070 hectares of forest. The Region is a mix of urban and rural communities, and is currently home to over 950,000 residents. By the year 2026, estimates suggest there will be 1.3 million people in York Region, an increase of almost 40%. Right now 29,000 businesses provide more than 465,000 jobs in the Region, and employment is increasing at a rate of 15,000 – 20,000 jobs annually. Forecasters predict that employment will double to almost 700,000 jobs in the Region by 2026.

The human and economic growth that York is experiencing has and will continue to put enormous pressure on the Region’s environment and its infrastructure. The issues the Region is grappling with range from ways and means to achieve a balance between intensification and greenfield development, matching employment to population growth, maintaining and enhancing the quality of life residents enjoy, to ensuring that the timing, costs and approvals for infrastructure delivery, including sufficient fiscal resources, closely mirror the forecast demand.

Recognizing these challenges, the Region has initiated a multi-faceted approach to managing its growth. The first element is articulated in the York Region Sustainability Strategy “Towards a Sustainable Region”, endorsed by Regional Council in 2007. This document contains a corporation wide, long-term framework for making smarter decisions about growth management and municipal responsibilities that better integrate the economy, environment and community. The Region refers to this integration of economy, environment and community as its “triple bottom line”.

Taking the United Nations Brundtland Commission’s definition of sustainable development as a starting point, that is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” , York Region’s Strategy sets out eight guiding principles that are intended to inform and improve all Regional policies, initiatives and operations:

Provide a long-term perspective on sustainability.

  1. Evaluate using the triple bottom line elements of environment, economy and community.
  2. Create a culture of continuous improvement, minimizing impact and maximizing innovation.
  3. Identify specific short-term achievable actions that contribute towards a sustainability legacy.
  4. Set targets, monitor and report progress.
  5. Foster partnerships and public engagement.
  6. Raise the level of sustainability awareness through education, dialogue and reassessment.
  7. Promote sustainable lifestyles and re-evaluation of our consumption and expectations.

The second element of the Region’s approach deals directly with the infrastructure needs of the expected growth, and includes the development of specific “sustainability strategies” for major infrastructure master plans.

Master planning for water and wastewater services in York Region presents unique challenges, and not just due to the high rate of growth. Water and wastewater servicing is a multi-jurisdictional undertaking, based on the Region’s location and municipal governance structure. York Region comprises nine area municipalities, with the result that it acts as a water “wholesaler” supporting supply, treatment, storage, pumping and transmission mains. In turn, the area municipalities are responsible for distributing the water to local customers.

Potable water is provided from a number of surface and groundwater sources. Through partnership agreements with the City of Toronto and the Region of Peel, water is supplied from Lake Ontario to area municipalities in the southern part of the Region. The northern portion of the Region takes water from Lake Simcoe and several communities rely, in whole or in part, on groundwater supplies.

A large area of York Region is taken up by the Oak Ridges Moraine. The moraine’s underlying geology makes it an important source of groundwater recharge and it is the source for headwaters for 65 river systems. Given its importance, the Ontario Provincial Government has enacted legislation and planning directives aimed at protecting the ecological and hydrological integrity of the Moraine area. York Region must abide by these as part of the water and wastewater master planning effort.

Responsibility for wastewater servicing is similarly divided between the area municipalities, (wastewater collection and local pumping) and the Region (major pumping stations, trunk sewers and treatment facilities).

Wastewater treatment in the northern part of the Region is provided by facilities that are located either on Lake Simcoe or on one of Lake Simcoe’s tributaries. Lake Simcoe and its tributaries presently exceed Ontario water quality standards for nutrients, principally nitrogen and phosphorus, limiting their assimilative capacity. In December, 2007, the provincial government announced its intent to develop legislation and programs for Lake Simcoe that will protect the health of the lake and address all sources of phosphorus.

In the southern part of the Region wastewater is primarily treated in facilities discharging directly to Lake Ontario or its tributaries. York Region’s main wastewater treatment facility, jointly owned with the Regional Municipality of Durham, discharges directly into Lake Ontario and has a rated capacity of 630 ML/d.

Two-tier ownership and operation of water and wastewater systems, along with inter-regional supply and treatment arrangements are two of the features that present challenges to sustainable water and wastewater servicing in York Region. Other aspects include the limited nature of some receiving waters and area municipality jurisdiction over stormwater runoff. These factors must all be accounted for as the Region strives toward a goal of “total water management”.

Early in the water and wastewater master plan development process, York Region determined the need to investigate practices and experiences of other jurisdictions. The purpose of this investigation was to (1) take advantage of lessons learned elsewhere about sustainable water and wastewater servicing; and (2) identify those best practices that would benefit its unique features and circumstances.

The investigation considered experiences from Canada (Edmonton, Hamilton, Vancouver), the United States (Chicago, Phoenix), the United Kingdom, and Australia. A number of common themes were identified, including:

  • Treatment and operations of water and wastewater systems that meet or exceed regulatory requirements;
  • Preventive water resource protection strategies and multi-source pollution control strategies on a watershed basis;
  • Resource conservation through demand management, coupled with water reuse and recycling;
  • Integrated land use planning that emphasizes the natural environment and identifies specific natural resource goals; and,
  • Collaboration with neighbouring jurisdictions, open communications, and public involvement.

Armed with lessons learned from other jurisdictions, a raft of well defined existing Regional policies and programs, and using the York Region Sustainability Strategy “Towards a Sustainable Region” as the overall guide, the Region began taking the first steps in development of a master plan for sustainable water and wastewater servicing.

At its core, sustainable water and wastewater facilities planning in York Region is integrated with growth management and other planning activities to ensure well-coordinated future development that will respect the natural environment, protect public health, and ensure ongoing economic vitality in the Region. Partnerships with adjacent municipalities are being actively sought to provide cost-effective services and to enhance security and reliability of water and wastewater services.

The master planning strategy itself, titled Water and Wastewater Sustainability Strategy, is comprised of ten themes. The themes, shown in Figure 1, address a wide range of issues dealing with public health, the environment, economy and finance, as well as communications, performance measurement, and adaptation. Some issues are addressed by a number of the themes; for example, public health is covered by the themes of Safe and Clean Drinking Water, Healthy Watersheds, and to a lesser degree in other themes, such as Climate Change and Energy Efficiency.

Guiding principles have been developed for each theme. These provide the Region’s “mission statement” for each theme and describe the commitments the Region is making toward sustainable water and wastewater servicing.

The ability to define, measure and evaluate each theme against objective criteria is crucial to the success of York’s sustainability strategy. Accordingly, objectives, performance indicators and targets have or are being developed for each theme. For example, under the Maintain Healthy Watersheds theme, York Region has proposed the objective that wastewater effluents will be treated to reduce where possible the release of emerging pollutants such as endocrine disrupting compounds. Similarly, under the theme of Protect Community Well-Being, the Region has proposed the objective of designing and operating its water and wastewater systems so that service interruptions are minimized and the risks of surface and basement flooding are limited.

The objectives for each theme have, in turn, been assigned measurable performance indicators for which targets are being developed. For example, for the Wise Use of Water theme, the Region is proposing indicators that focus on parameters associated with wastewater volume and the measurement of wastewater reuse and recycle:

Per capita residential water use;

  • Per capita employment water use;
  • Per capita wastewater generation;
  • Fraction I/I remaining;
  • Volume wastewater reuse;
  • Mass or volume of wastewater by-products recycled.

Development of specific targets for each indicator is well underway. Targets for some indicators, such as drinking water quality, wastewater effluent requirements, water use and service levels, have already been developed. In other instances the approach at this point in the sustainability program is to apply adaptive approaches developing monitoring programs based on present indicators, examining trends over a period and setting targets or adjusting indicators, or both. In yet other cases, programs are being developed to address a particular theme and, once complete, will be added to the sustainability framework.

All of these activities illustrate the evolutionary nature of York Region’s sustainability efforts. Throughout the master planning process, it has actively engaged the many stakeholders who have an interest in water and wastewater servicing within the Region. Extensive internal and external consultation is a hallmark of its master planning exercise. And it will continue to be so as the Region moves forward with development of the plan, which is expected to be completed in mid-2008.