The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin is one of the greatest freshwater ecosystems on Earth, and one of Ontario’s most valuable natural features. Last week, after two failed attempts at similar legislation in the past four years, the Ontario government re-introduced the proposed Great Lakes Protection Act.

Why the Great Lakes need a new law

The Great Lakes Basin is critical for the health of Ontario’s economy and communities. Although the Great Lakes are a source of drinking water for 80 per cent of Ontarians, three of the province’s four Great Lakes are in a state of decline. Exacerbating the situation is the fact that the tools currently in place to protect the Basin — the lakes and surrounding wetlands — are not up to the task.

Wetlands, for example, provide habitat for wildlife, filter our drinking water, and protect communities from floods. They are also critically important to the health, economy and climate change resiliency of Great Lakes communities. However, pollution, loss of green space, and agricultural, industrial and residential development have destroyed almost three-quarters of southern Ontario’s large historic wetlands.

Climate change is also leading to an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, which wash more pollutants into the Great Lakes. Nutrients, toxic substances, and chemicals of concern continue to accumulate in the Lakes and negatively impact both human health and wildlife. The cumulative effects of these pollutants lead to an increased frequency and intensity of nutrient loadings — the total nutrient amount entering the water at a given time— and can lead to toxic algal blooms, fish kills, and beach closures. People are increasingly unable to use and enjoy the waters that are fundamental to daily life in so many Ontario communities.

The Great Lakes are a valuable public treasure and every decision that will affect the Great Lakes Basin must prioritize its protection and stewardship.  Since 2007, Ecojustice has supported proposed legislation that would better protect the Great Lakes Basin. We are co-leads of the Great Lakes Protection Act Alliance, a coalition of groups who have asked the Ontario government to improve legal protections for this crucial resource.

How the proposed Act could protect the Great Lakes

The proposed Great Lakes Protection Act aims to address pollution, wetland loss, and algal blooms that threaten the Great Lakes by providing for new tools, including target-setting and community-driven watershed initiatives. If passed, the new law would allow the Ontario government, in consultation with Great Lakes communities, to set science-based targets to address the most severe threats to the Lakes.  Such targets could include:  Improving action on toxic pollutants, reversing wetland loss, and limiting nutrients that end up in the water due to industry and agriculture runoff —the major cause of toxic algae blooms.

It would also encourage local groups to develop solutions to protect their community’s water, by giving citizens and stakeholder groups the ability to track and measure efforts to improve the Great Lakes’ health, and empower Ontarians to hold responsible authorities accountable for their actions.

Next steps

Ecojustice, as part of the Great Lakes Protection Act Alliance, is pleased to see the re-introduction of the proposed law, and is ready to work with government officials and Great Lakes communities to engage in discussions about the future of the Lakes. We are committed to seeking strong legal protections that will ensure the health of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin for present and future generations.