Ontario reintroducing legislation to protect Great Lakes ecosystem

TORONTO—The provincial government has introduced legislation they say will help to protect the Great Lakes by helping to fight climate change, reduce harmful algal blooms and protect wetlands and other coastal areas. The government hopes the third time is the charm as the legislation failed to get through twice in the past five years.

The Great Lakes Protection Act will put in place systems to “monitor and report on the health of the lakes; bring people together to take action on priority issues and build on Ontario’s leadership in protecting the Great Lakes, including our Great Lakes Strategy and partnerships with Canada, Quebec, US and the Great Lakes states,” according to a press release from the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change.”

“Today we celebrate the Great Lakes that are vitally important to the people of Ontario for our drinking water, quality of life, and prosperity,” said Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Glen Murray in the release. “We need to restore them now to continue to enjoy their benefits for this and future generations.”

Minister Murray said that protecting the Great Lakes “supports the government’s economic plan for Ontario.” That protection will come about through a four-part plan which will “build Ontario up by investing in people’s talents and skills, building new public infrastructure like roads and transit, creating a dynamic, supportive environment where business thrives and building a secure savings plan so everyone can afford to retire.”

The release notes that the Great Lakes provide more than 80 percent of Ontario’s drinking water and are important for the province’s economic prosperity. Minister Murray points out that over 95 percent of Ontario’s agricultural lands are in the Great Lakes basin and that since 2007, Ontario has committed more than $125 million to over 1,000 Great Lakes projects.

“The Great Lakes are an integral part of our province. They are critical for the health of our economy and communities, and are a source of drinking water for 80 percent of Ontarians,” agreed Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, one of the many environmental groups that issued press releases supporting the government’s re-introduction of the bill. “With the re-introduction of the Great Lakes Protection Act, the government is giving the lakes the attention they deserve by making sure they are protected for current and future generations.”

“We’re encouraged by the proposed law’s focus on grassroots solutions,” noted Ted Cheskey of Nature Canada. “It creates new tools that can bring local groups together to address specific problems and protect what’s important to them like significant bird habitat and wildlife areas.”

“The government’s proposed bottom-up approach to identifying problems and solutions based on local input and involvement is efficient and inclusive,” said Theresa McClenaghan, executive director and counsel to the Canadian Environmental Law Association. “I am pleased to see that this proposed law will set new targets to improve action on issues such as toxic pollutants.”

According to Minister Murray, the Great Lakes Protection Act would set targets for nutrients that end up in the water due to industry and agriculture runoff, a major cause of blue-green algae such as the bloom.

The Act would also create guardian council that, according to the minister, “will actually bring people together to actually start to integrate things like the Source Water Protection Act and the conservation authorities.”

The ministry’s Environmental Registry (EBR) is open for public comment on the proposed bill until April 19, 2015 and can be accessed at www.ebr.gov.on.ca, registry number 012-3523.

According to the preamble of the EBR listing loaded on February 18, “the proposed legislation will also provide funding for supporting the constant monitoring of things like biodiversity, climate change, invasive species, and acidity levels; establish a Great Lakes Guardians’ Council to provide a forum for Great Lakes Ministers, municipal representatives, representatives of First Nations and Métis communities and representatives from conservation authorities, environmental organizations, the scientific community, industrial, agricultural, recreational and tourism sectors and others, to identify Great Lakes priorities for action, propose projects, discuss potential financial measures and partnerships, and help to facilitate information sharing and discuss matters related to setting targets, development of initiatives and inter-jurisdictional agreements.”

The act will also “require that Ontario’s Great Lakes Strategy be maintained, reviewed at least every six years and reported on every three years to the legislature. Ontario’s Great Lakes Strategy sets out environmental conditions, goals, a summary of actions taken, a description of new or emerging threats and priorities for future action on the Great Lakes. Also require that the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change ensure that monitoring and reporting programs are established or maintained, and publicly report on these programs or actions.”

Through the act, the province will “enable the setting of Great Lakes targets, including a commitment to set a target within two years to support the reduction of algal blooms. Providing authority to the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry to establish a target in respect of preventing the net loss of wetlands. These targets could be accompanied with a plan that would help achieve the purposes of the proposed Act and would support implementation of Ontario’s Great Lakes Strategy.”

After local discussion and the building upon existing work, the act will “enable targeted action on priority areas through geographically-focused initiatives. These initiatives could address priority issues such as harmful algae, protection of important Great Lakes habitat, or coordination of efforts to improve beaches. Initiatives could build on existing plans and work, potentially combining and aligning resources and coordinating efforts from different partners in Great Lakes protection.”

“Great Lakes wetlands not only provide continentally significant habitat for large numbers and species of migratory waterfowl, they are critically important to the health, economy and climate change resiliency of Great Lakes communities,” continues Lynette Mader, manager of provincial operations for Ontario, Ducks Unlimited Canada. “Ducks Unlimited Canada commends the Province on its commitment to the proposed Great Lakes Protection Act and the goal of reversing the trend of wetland loss.”

According to the EBR listing, the proposed Act “would allow flexibility regarding what priority issues are addressed, where to target action, and how to address priority issues. These initiatives would be developed through a collaborative process and consultation would be required.”

An important provision of the reintroduced Act is that nothing in the Act should be construed so as to abrogate or derogate from the protection provided for the existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada by Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. The Act, notes the EBR listing, “recognizes that aboriginal communities within the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin have important connections to the basin: First Nations maintain a spiritual and cultural relationship with water and the basin is an historic location where Métis identity emerged in Ontario. It also recognizes that First Nations and Métis communities may contribute traditional ecological knowledge to support Great Lakes protection and provides that decision makers would have to consider that knowledge “to help inform the best decision making.”