The five Great Lakes provide drinking water for 30 million people—10 percent of the population of the United States and 30 percent of Canada—and form the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem.
Because of its role in the wellbeing of American and Canadian residents both nations prioritize the protection of these five majestic lakes.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Great Lakes Forum. In 1972, Canada and the United States signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA). It identifies ways the two nations can work to protect and restore the Great Lakes. The purpose of the agreement is to commit both countries to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Great Lakes System.” The agreement was modernized in 2012 to update all of the issues affecting the Great Lakes.
“The 2022 Great Lakes Public Forum will provide an opportunity for the Governments of Canada and the United States to discuss and receive public comments on the state of the lakes and binational priorities for science and action,” the Great Lakes Commission website highlights.
One of the topics of discussion at this year’s forum is how the Great Lakes are impacted by climate change and ongoing work to understand how a warmer world will impact five large bodies of freshwater which are already stressed by extensive urban development along their coastlines.
“Watershed stressors such as population growth, habitat loss and degradation, land-use activities, as well as climate change, can impair Great Lakes water quality and ecosystem health,” the 2022 State of the Great Lakes report warns.
A crucial part of the Great Lakes system is the Niagara River. Water from Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan and Lake Erie flows through the Niagara River to Lake Ontario. In fact, the Niagara River accounts for 83 percent of the water flowing into Lake Ontario.
In the early 19th century, the Niagara River was considered to be one of the most degraded waterways in North America. By the 1970s, there were approximately 700 steel mills, chemical plants, oil refineries and other industries discharging 950 million litres of wastewater per day into its watershed.
In 1987, under the GLWQA, the Niagara River was named a binational area of concern (AOC). The AOC designation is used to denote a degraded environment as a result of shoreline alterations and industrial and municipal pollutants. It is meant as a red flag for policy makers to prioritize its clean-up and consider remediation efforts to reduce the impact on an already degraded area.
During the same period, Canada and Ontario committed to fulfilling Canada’s obligations under the GLWQA by the Canada-Ontario Agreement (COA). The COA was most recently updated in 2014.
The designation of the Niagara River as an AOC gives it a remedial action plan (RAP). The ultimate goal of the RAP is to “identify and complete restoration actions in order to remove an AOC from the list”.
Implementation of the RAP involves all levels of government, NGOs, academics, businesses and industries, and the public. When something interferes with the enjoyment of a water use—whether that be drinking water, recreation or other uses—it is called a beneficial use impairment (BUI). There are 14 potential BUIs identified in the GLWQA which when taken together, tell the overall condition of the body of water.
On the Ontario side of the Niagara River five BUIs are impared and nine are not impaired. The five that are impared include restrictions on fish consumption, degradation of fish and wildlife populations, degradation of benthos, beach closings and loss of fish and wildlife habitat. In May 2021, a Niagara River Delisting Strategy was created to “guide restoration, monitoring, and/or assessment of the remaining BUIs”. The Delisting strategy sets out criteria for when each BUI will no longer be considered impaired. For example, degradation of fish and wildlife populations will no longer be considered impaired when “multiple lines of evidence indicate similarity between the Niagara River fish community and expectations based on the adjoining Great Lakes”.
But one of the challenges facing the Niagara River and the Great Lakes more broadly is climate change.
One of the most significant ways our warming planet is impacting both the Great Lakes and the Niagara River is through decreasing water levels.
Levels in the lakes have fluctuated as much as two metres in the past century and have been in a steady decline since 1986.
Environment Canada scientists David Fay and Yin Fan calculated that Lake Ontario’s water levels could decrease between five and 25 percent or between 0.08 and 0.47 metres by 2050. Similarly, Lake Erie's water levels could decrease between five and 26 percent or between 0.15 and 0.81 metres in the same time frame. This will also impact the water levels of the Niagara River which connects the two lakes.
According to a report titled From Impacts to Adaptation: Canada in a Changing Climate, flows on the Niagara River have decreased seven percent between 1970 and 2000.
“While it is clear that temperature and precipitation greatly influence lake levels, the exact relationship is not well understood, in part because neither precipitation nor evaporation are measured over the lakes,” the report explains.
However, it is estimated that increased evaporation due to warmer temperatures is likely to outpace increased precipitation leading to further decline in water levels.
This is particularly concerning because as water levels are decreasing, the projectd demand for water will continue to increase with a growing population.
More than 80 percent of Niagara’s population is supplied with drinking water from six treatment plants across Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, the Welland Canal and the Niagara River. Lake Ontario and Lake Erie combined provide drinking water for approximately 20 million people living on both the Canadian and American sides of the lakes.
Waters from the Niagara River as well as the Great Lakes are also used for recreation, fishing, industrial cooling, and for dumping effluents. This adds a range of chemical contaminants into the waters.
Seventy percent of Niagara’s 69 surface water stations have poor or impared water quality. The main causes of impairment are phosphorus, E.coli, sediments from septic systems, manure storage and urban stormwater.
As water levels decrease, there will be a higher concentration of these contaminants in the waters making it more difficult to access clean and safe drinking water. The increase in chemical contaminants also affects fish populations.
According to the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA)’s Watershed Report Card for 2018, surface water quality was given a D score meaning it is overall quite poor.
“Nutrient and bacteria contamination from non-point sources (agricultural/livestock runoff and faulty septic systems) and point sources (combined sewer overflow and urban stormwater) continue to be the major causes of water quality impairment in the NPCA watershed,” the report card states.
Water levels are not only decreasing, they are also warming. Warming temperatures and agricultural runoff are causing algae blooms making the water toxic for both humans and aquatic species.
This has been a particular concern for Lake Erie. In 2019, the bloom was among the most severe and toxic since records began, coating approximately 1,600 square kilometers of Lake Erie’s surface water.
The danger of algae blooms is apparent across all great lakes, but is most concerning in Lake Erie, the shallowest of the lakes.
“Nutrients and algae levels are influenced by the timing and magnitude of nutrient inputs, effects of invasive species on nutrient cycling, weather, and climate change,” the 2022 State of the Great Lakes report points out.
In 2014, 400,000 people in Toledo on the American side of Lake Erie were left without drinking water for three days after algae toxins infiltrated the drinking water system.
Low water levels can also impact electricity generation. The Adam Beck Power Stations receive water from Lake Erie and the Niagara and Welland Rivers. The complex has a total output of 12,300 gigawatt hours, which is approximately 40 percent of Ontario Power Generation’s hydroelectricity output or nine percent of Ontario’s total energy needs.
As water levels decrease in Lake Erie and the rivers, it will reduce the flow to the power stations decreasing the amount of electricity output. If hydroelectricity output decreases, it is not known how Ontario will make up this lost power. The provincial government wants to use natural gas to replace nuclear output from the closing of the Pickering nuclear plant in 2025. If natural gas is also used to make up for a decreasing output of hydroelectricity, it will seriously impact climate goals.
More information about the Great Lakes Forum, and the topics of discussion over the next three days can be found here.
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Rachel Morgan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer