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'Lake Simcoe Avengers' unite to get phosphorus facility built

Councillors across the watershed, including Newmarket, are working together in support of a recycling facility to reduce runoff into Lake Simcoe, Holland River
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Oro Medonte Councillor Shawn Scott, Bradford West Gwillimbury Councillor Jonathan Scott, Brock Councillor Cria Pettingill, Newmarket Councillor Christina Bisanz and Innisfil Councillor Rob Nicol at Innisfil Beach Park.

Over the past year, local councils in the Lake Simcoe watershed area have been working together to help protect Lake Simcoe, advocating for the building of the Lake Simcoe phosphorus recycling facility in the Holland Marsh. 

Officials say the facility will reduce phosphorus runoff in the Holland River and Lake Simcoe by up to 40 per cent and protect the lake’s watershed from algae growth, resulting in better protection of aquatic habitats, ecosystem biodiversity and drinking water sources.

According to the Ontario government's Lake Simcoe Protection Plan, released in 2009, the goal is to have Lake Simcoe's phosphorus pollution reduced by 50 per cent to 44 tonnes a year, which is needed to protect the cold water fishery and prevent excessive weed growth and algae blooms.

Bradford West Gwillimbury Councillor Jonathan Scott and Georgina Councillor Dave Neeson put forward motions last year calling for the $40-million project — being proposed by York Region — to move forward, with support from East Gwillimbury, Innisfil, Barrie and Orillia. 

"With Georgina having the largest shoreline in Lake Simcoe, we must continue to have a collaborative and outcomes-based approach that respects and protects our natural environment," said Neeson.

"With Lake Simcoe communities becoming overwhelmingly desirable places to live, work, and play, it will continue to be incumbent on all of us — all levels of government, including citizens and stakeholders — to remain committed to these principles going forward. Thus far, we've managed to do that in ways that I'm hoping will not be so unprecedented as we continue to work together and move forward."

The federal government has already announced $16 million toward the project and the province is providing $24 million in funding over the next three years. 

The following local councillors have made significant contributions in helping to get the project off the ground by bringing motions forward to their respective councils, and working behind the scenes lobbying upper governments for their support: Bradford West Gwillimbury's Jonathan Scott and Peter Ferragine; Georgina's Mayor Margaret Quirk and Dave Neeson; East Gwillimbury's Loralea Carruthers and Scott Crone; Innisfil's Rob Nicol; Orillia's Pat Hehn and Jay Fallis; Barrie's Sergio Morales; Oro Medonte's Shawn Scott; Brock's Cria Pettingill and Mike Jubb; and Newmarket's Christina Bisanz. 

"I see us as the Lake Simcoe Avengers, and our superpower is that we are non-partisan," said Crone. "In a world where tribal politics is becoming prevalent, we can cut through that and work with all parties. Liberal at the federal level and Conservative at the provincial, we don't care, we just want to make things happen.

From Zoom meetings to long email threads, the group has been working collaboratively to ensure the project receives the support, funding and attention needed to move ahead. 

"It's just as important for us to make sure that the lake is healthy...because it's essential to our water source, as well," said Bisanz. 

When Environment Minister David Piccini was in the Holland Marsh recently to announce funding for the project on behalf of the province, he confirmed the next steps include a streamlined municipal class EA, which could take anywhere from six to 12 months. 

A recent report from the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition and Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition acknowledged the efforts of local governments working together on the project to help protect the Lake. 

“Municipalities have demonstrated their ability to stand together in defence of Lake Simcoe, as evidenced by their unanimous support for a successful bid to have the province pay the balance of a phosphorus recycling facility on the Holland River,” says Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition executive director Claire Malcolmson, the report’s lead author. 

“But growth pressures, be they in the form of new highway plans or greenfield development, will have environmental impacts on Lake Simcoe that are not getting enough attention,” adds the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition executive director Margaret Prophet.

The coalition report called out projects like the Bradford Bypass and Innisfil's Mobility Orbit as being threats to the Lake. 

But Bradford's Scott noted that while there isn't a way to stop growth, there is a way to help balance infrastructure to include projects like the recycling facility to compensate. 

"Infrastructure can't just be highways and transit and sewers, it has to also be things that clean or protect the Lake," he said. 

"It's (the facility) not the be-all and end-all for phosphorus going into the Lake but it is extremely helpful and important," said Pettingill.