A Public Dialogue on the Future of the Great Lakes

Proceedings from the ECO-Pollution Probe Great Lakes Roundtables and Public Forums

Nov 28, 2006 – Jan 31, 2007

Executive Summary

From November 2006-January 2007, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO) and Pollution Probe held a series of public events on the future of the Great Lakes in Kingston, Windsor, Hamilton, Thunder Bay, and Toronto. This proceedings document has been prepared to record the comments, concerns and vision of about 500 Great Lakes stakeholders and citizens in Ontario who participated in the ECO-Pollution Probe roundtables and public forums.

During the events, the Environmental Commissioner, Gord Miller suggested that we are at an interesting and critical time for the Great Lakes. Despite good progress in some areas, there is increasing apprehension, on both sides of border, over the future of the Great Lakes. There are new challenges that need our urgent attention, including invasive species, climate change, and the threat of water withdrawals from the Great Lakes.

Rick Findlay from Pollution Probe highlighted the enormous ecological and economic value of the Great Lakes, and suggested that we needed a new, more action-oriented approach to protecting and enhancing the Great Lakes.

The roundtables were organized along five themes: Water Quality and Ecological Processes; Water Levels and Water Use and Consumption; Government and Institutional Support; Business and Economic Development; and Community Health and Wellbeing. Under each of these themes, various concerns and suggestions were made. Members of the public also raised their own comments and concerns around similar issues.

Broad themes: A number of broad themes emerged from the discussions of the roundtables and comments at the public forums. An overarching theme that was raised throughout the roundtables and public forums was the need for more public information on the Great Lakes, and greater public engagement. There were also calls for greater accountability and changes to the complex bi-national institutional structure of the Great Lakes. Other issues that were raised include recognition of the Great Lakes as a global and regional treasure, general support for watershed-based approach to Great Lakes protection, the need for increased investment in the science, research, monitoring and reporting on Great Lakes issues, and the enormous challenge of reducing the cumulative impact of human activity on the Lakes.

Water Quality and Ecological Processes: There was relatively little detailed information about the ecological stresses being experienced in the Great Lakes, which may be an indication of the lack of information available outside of the scientific community. There was acknowledgement of good progress in some areas related to water quality since the original Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was signed in 1972. However, there remains a feeling that the changing nature of existing threats, and new and emerging threats could overwhelm the progress made over the last 3 decades. There were many comments and suggestions for improvements on the way sewage treatment plants are regulated in Ontario. There continues to be great apprehension about industrial discharges and spills, and the need for more comprehensive monitoring in areas of intensive industrial activity. There is tremendous concern over invasive species and the perceived lack of government attention to the issue on the Canadian side. Chemical loadings in the lakes continue to be a concern, and a number of participants called for an outright ban of some chemicals. The issue of near-shore health was highlighted, with some research suggesting that we may be close to a tipping point. The need for progress on the long-standing issues of nutrient run-off and the clean up of Areas of Concern (AOCs) were raised. The responsibility of municipalities in protecting the shoreline was a common theme in both upper and lower lakes.

Water Levels and Water Use and Consumption
: At both the roundtables and the public forums, there was extreme concern expressed over the impact of climate change on lake water levels. There was praise for the Great Lakes Charter Annex, but worry and scepticism over whether jurisdictions would ratify the agreement. Other issues raised were the correlation between water consumption and the cost of water, the trend towards drinking bottled water, and innovative approaches to water conservation.

Government and Institutional Support:
Roundtable participants recognized the need for changes in governance and accountability related to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the Canada-Ontario Agreement, given the perceived lack of clear and direct accountability in the current complex bi-national structure. There was particular concern with what was seen as a weakening of Canada’s influence on Great Lakes matters. There is also a perception that the current Great Lakes institutional structure has failed to harness the public enthusiasm for the lakes and to engage the public in tackling some of the problems facing the lakes. There was a feeling of optimism regarding the opportunity presented by the renegotiation of the Canada-Ontario Agreement (COA) and the review of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) to address some of these issues. A number of comments were made in favour of an enhanced role of municipalities and First Nations in the negotiation of these agreements.

There was general consensus that current levels of government funding are inadequate to address the challenges facing the Lakes, and support for an increase in financial commitments from senior governments towards the implementation of the Great Lakes agreements. Some participants felt that the public had an important role to play to set the future Great Lakes agenda and push governments to adopt it.

Business and Economic Development: There was considerable discussion about different approaches to regulating industries that discharge or emit pollutants into the Lakes, including an incentive system, and applying the “polluter pays” principle. There were lengthy discussions about supporting more sustainable resource development, and the lack of integrated decision-making within government to promote sustainable resource extraction and development. Concerns were expressed over the effects of climate change and declining water levels on a number of industries, particularly the shipping industry.

Community Health and Wellbeing: There was recognition of the importance of a healthy ecosystem and shoreline to attract residents and businesses to Great Lakes communities. There was considerable support for citizen’s based science to engage the public and voluntary sector in testing, monitoring and reporting on Great Lakes water quality and quantity. Individual issues raised included the importance of recognizing the impacts of water quality and quantity on a range of recreational activities on the Lake, the value of engaging First Nations youth in Great Lakes educational programs, and questions regarding the future of the proposed Great Lakes Heritage Coast.

Collectively, these comments and concerns point to an emerging vision for the Great Lakes in Ontario, one that is based on the recognition of the multiple, cumulative and changing stresses on the Lakes, one that is based on government commitment, accountability and sufficient financial resources, one that promotes citizen engagement and education, and ultimately one that is based on everyone- individuals, businesses, municipalities, senior governments and First Nations- doing their part to protect an awesome global asset for which we have responsibility, the Great Lakes.

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