The Great Lakes Basin, one of the most important freshwater ecosystems on Earth, just received a whole lot more legal protection as Ontario’s legislature passed the Great Lakes Protection Act this week. The Great Lakes, which are the source of drinking water for 80 per cent of Ontarians, now has a legislative safeguard that will help protect and restore watersheds, wetlands, beaches, shorelines and coastal areas of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin.
Three of Ontario’s four Great Lakes are currently in a state of decline; underlying causes include increased stress on this ecosystem from rapid population growth, industrial and residential development, and climate change. Three-quarters of southern Ontario’s wetlands have also been lost because the tools that were in place to protect our waters were not up to the task.
The passage of this urgently needed legislation gives us hope that the provincial government is serious about putting an end to an era of neglect, and is ready to get on with the important task of protecting our Great Lakes.
This new Act will require the Ontario government to set science-based targets and develop action plans to address the most severe threats to the Great Lakes, such as habitat loss, the influx of invasive species, and mounting toxic pollutants. The Act will also empower local groups to develop solutions to protect their community’s water. An action plan will be mandatory for all targets, and the action plans themselves will contain activities that must be undertaken, specifying mandatory actions to protect regions of the Great Lakes.
The Act also establishes the Great Lakes Guardians Council, a collaborative forum for provincial ministers to discuss priorities, financial measures, and share information. The Environment Minister will convene one or more meetings of the Council each year for the purpose of focusing on one of the Great Lakes watersheds, or on a particular geographic area of the Great Lakes Basin.
The waters of the Great Lakes are an incredibly valuable public resource and every decision that will affect the Great Lakes Basin must also include considerations for safeguarding it. Ecojustice has been working for many years to advocate for legislation that would better protect the Great Lakes Basin. We have co-led the Great Lakes Protection Act Alliance, a coalition of groups who have urged the provincial government to improve legal protections for this precious resource. With the Great lakes Protection Act we have achieved this goal!