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Improving the Great Lakes

Target 3.1: Freshwater quality – Complete federal actions to restore beneficial uses in Canadian Areas of Concern in the Great Lakes by 2020.

Target 3.2: Freshwater quality – Contribute to the restoration and protection of the Great Lakes by developing and gaining binational acceptance of objectives and strategies for the management of nutrients in the Great Lakes by 2015.

Environmental quality in Canada's Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs) has improved since the restoration program began in 1987. Between 1987 and 2010, 3 out of 17 Canadian AOCs had their environmental conditions fully restored (Collingwood Harbour, Severn Sound, Wheatley Harbour) and 2 more areas are in recovery (Spanish Harbour and Jackfish Bay).

 

Phosphorus levels remain an issue in the open waters of three of the four Canadian Great Lakes.

Phosphorus levels in lakes Huron and Ontario and in Georgian Bay have declined below their water quality objectives, and the western and central basins of Lake Erie remain above their objectives.

Phosphorus levels in the middle of Lake Superior and in the eastern basin of Lake Erie currently meet their water quality objectives.

The Great Lakes provide the foundation for billions of dollars in economic activity and are a direct source of drinking water for millions of Canadians. However, the sustainability of the Great Lakes ecosystem is threatened from ongoing biological, physical and chemical stresses, as well as new and emerging challenges like invasive alien species, new chemical contaminants and the impacts of climate change.

In 1987, the Canada-United States Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) identified 43 Areas of Concern (AOC) across the Great Lakes. An Area of Concern is a region that has experienced environmental degradation. Twenty-six of these AOCs are entirely in U.S. waters, 12 entirely in Canadian waters and 5 are in the channels connecting the lakes and are shared by both countries; thus, Canada has 17 AOCs to address.

In 2012, the governments of Canada and the United States amended the GLWQA and committed to a shared vision of a healthy and prosperous Great Lakes region in which the waters of the Great Lakes, through their sound management, use and enjoyment, provide benefits to present and future generations. This amended agreement reaffirms the commitment of Canada and the U.S. to addressing harmful algae, toxic chemicals, discharges from vessels and the clean-up of AOCs while also containing new provisions dealing with the nearshore environment, aquatic invasive species, habitat degradation and the effects of climate change.

The amended GLWQA also contains several key commitments to address the issue of phosphorus in the Great Lakes, which is of particular concern in Lake Erie. The agreement commits to develop binational substance objectives for phosphorus concentrations, loadings and targets for Lake Erie by 2015, and to have reduction strategies and actions plans in place to meet those objectives by 2017.

Additionally, in 2012 the Government of Canada committed $16 million over four years to the Great Lakes Nutrient Initiative to address nearshore water quality and aquatic ecosystem health, and toxic and nuisance algae growth in the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Nutrient Initiative is determining the current nutrient loadings from selected Canadian tributaries, setting out binational lake ecosystem objectives, phosphorus objectives and load reduction targets, developing policy options and strategies to meet those targets, and developing a nearshore assessment and management framework.

The government continues to implement its Comprehensive Approach to Clean Water through a number of concrete actions, including investments to clean up Canadian water bodies and a commitment of $48.9 million to clean-up contaminated sediment, a key source of toxics in AOCs. In addition, the government provides annual funding of $8 million a year to support the remediation of other AOCs. These investments have supported partner projects to clean up contaminated sediment, restore fish and wildlife habitats, and improve wastewater treatment systems, along with scientific research, monitoring and provision of expertise to these projects.

As well, in 2007, the government of Canada and Ontario signed a Memorandum of Understanding to establish a national marine conservation area in Lake Superior. Spanning more than 10 000 km2, it will become the largest freshwater marine protected area in the world. Final steps are being taken to designate the area under the Canada National Marine Conservation Areas Act.

In addition, the government of Canada is collaborating with the Government of Ontario and other stakeholders to set standards and complete mapping and assessment requirements for the Great Lakes region.

For additional information on the implementation strategies and initiatives that support this target, please consult the following websites: Environment Canada, Natural Resources Canada and Parks Canada.

Progress Towards Target 3.1: Environmental quality in Canada's Great Lakes Areas of Concern

Environmental quality in Canada's Great Lakes AOCs has improved since the restoration program began in 1987. Between 1987 and 2012, 3 out of 17 Canadian AOCs had their environmental conditions fully restored (Collingwood Harbour, Severn Sound, Wheatley Harbour) and 2 more areas are in recovery (Spanish Harbour and Jackfish Bay). An AOC may be designated an Area in Recovery when all remedial actions for the AOC have been implemented and environmental monitoring confirms that recovery is progressing in accordance with the remedial action plan.

The governments of Canada and Ontario have made significant achievements towards restoring beneficial uses in Canadian AOCs. As a result, many AOCs have improved to a degree that they no longer require significant attention. In May 2011, the Jackfish Bay AOC was designated an Area in Recovery. For Jackfish Bay, improvements in the local pulp and paper mill's effluent treatment and changes in industrial processes have achieved noted improvements in water and sediment quality. In 2012, the governments of Canada and Ontario announced their intention to support improvements to Hamilton Harbour.

Figure 3.5 shows the Great Lakes Area of Concern Indicator, noting the progress made towards restoring Canada's 17 AOCs. The indicator displays the number of beneficial uses that are either listed as "impaired" or "requires further assessment," and indicates whether the area is restored or in recovery. For each AOC, the decrease in the number of impaired beneficial uses shows progress toward restoration. For the most up-to-date information on this indicator, please visit CESI.

Figure 3.5: Progress on Great Lakes Areas of Concern 1987–2012

Progress on Great Lakes Areas of Concern 1987 - 2012

Long description

The figure shows the number of beneficial uses listed as “impaired” and as “requires further assessment” for the 17 Canadian Great Lakes Areas of Concern between 1988 and 2012. During that period, 3 Areas of Concern were considered fully restored, and 2 were considered Areas in Recovery.

Progress towards Target 3.2: Phosphorus levels in the Great Lakes

Phosphorus levels remain an issue in the open waters of three of the four Canadian Great Lakes.

Phosphorus levels in lakes Huron and Ontario and in Georgian Bay have declined below their water quality objectives, and the western and central bases of Lake Erie remain above objectives. Phosphorus levels in the middle of Lake Superior and in the eastern basin of Lake Erie currently meet their water quality objectives.

Phosphorus trends show that levels have not changed in Lake Superior or in the central basin of Lake Erie but are declining in other areas of the Great Lakes. An oversupply of phosphorus can cause nuisance plants and algae growth that can impair fish. Too little phosphorus can result in not enough plant growth to sustain fish.

Figure 3.6 shows the status and trends of phosphorus levels in the open water of the Canadian Great Lakes from 1970 to 2010. For the most up-to-date information on this indicator, please visit CESI.

Figure 3.6: Status and trends of phosphorus levels in the open waters of the Canadian Great Lakes, 1970 to 2010

Status and trends of phosphorus levels in the open waters of the Canadian Great Lakes, 1970 to 2010

Long description

The map presents the results of the comparison of average spring total phosphorus concentrations in the Canadian Great Lakes (Superior, Huron and Georgian Bay Ontario and the western, central and eastern basins of Erie) to their phosphorus water quality objectives to determine the status of phosphorus concentrations in offshore waters in each lake. Phosphorus levels in the middle of Lake Superior and the eastern basin of Lake Erie currently meet target levels and are classified as good. In Lakes Huron and Ontario and Georgian Bay, phosphorus levels are below target concentrations and are given a caution classification. Levels are above water quality objectives in the western and central basins of Lake Erie. Since 1970, phosphorus levels have declined in all the lakes, except Lake Superior and the central basin of Lake Erie, where they have remained stable.

 


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