Occasional articles - 2006. Reprint of letter published in The Toronto Star, Oct 24, 2006

Cleanup not on Canada's agenda

While scientists sound the alarm over the declining health of the Great Lakes, neither Canada nor the United States has proposed a binational agenda for action. Both countries are mired in a sluggish review of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) and will meet today in Toronto to discuss how the agreement, which has in the past proven effective in responding to threats, can be used to address current challenges.

Canada, in particular, needs to establish a Great Lakes agenda in keeping with the global importance of these waters.

Each year, more than 5 million kilograms of pollutants are released to Great Lakes waters, and 100 million kilograms to the air in the Great Lakes basin.

The Asian carp, an aggressive species that could virtually destroy the existing aquatic food chain, has made its way to just a few kilometres from the Great Lakes watershed. It is just one of dozens of exotic invaders.

The effect of unprecedented shoreline and upland land use changes, loss of biodiversity, the present and predicted future impacts of climate change, and the uncertain hazards presented by the release of pharmaceuticals into water, have raised concerns reminiscent of the late 1960s when there were fears that the Lakes were dying.

In light of these and other threats, more than 60 eminent scientists from both the United States and Canada have concluded that the health of the Great Lakes is "in jeopardy." Their conclusion is that the Great Lakes are at a "tipping point," at which fundamental and irreversible changes occur rapidly and unexpectedly.

They point to early symptoms of breakdown, like the "dead zones" in parts of Lake Erie and the collapse of certain fishery and plant populations in other lakes.

While scientists warn of the tipping point, neither the U.S. nor the Canadian government is taking the review of the agreement seriously, allowing this once effective pact to languish into a hollow vessel marked by inaction.

In fact, participating environmental groups have already declared the government review process a failure.

The United States has decided to "go it alone." Two major bills are being debated in Congress, calling for the development of a sophisticated plan to protect and restore the Great Lakes.

The plan was proposed by a 2004 Executive Order, issued by President George W. Bush, that begins with the words "the Great Lakes are a national treasure ..."

Although passage of the bills is by no means guaranteed, they could bring billions of dollars in appropriations for Great Lakes cleanup.

Meanwhile, there is no Great Lakes protection and restoration agenda in Canada. The Lakes are nowhere on the political landscape of either the Ontario or federal governments. The federal budget for the entire Great Lakes effort has remained stagnant for 10 years.

Not only does it have no excuse to ignore the agreement and the review, but Canada stands to be the big loser if it continues on this path.

One of the unique attributes of the agreement is that it makes Canada an equal partner with the U.S. in Great Lakes protection.

Canada has historically used this equality to leverage U.S. action — leverage that is being lost, partly through the atrophy of the agreement.

Instead, it seems that Canada is willing to let the U.S. set the agenda, act according to its own priorities, and set the desired levels of action.

Canada will become a silent observer in the management of our greatest freshwater resource.

How can Canada catch up?

It can begin by tabling a mandatory legal plan for achieving Great Lakes water quality targets and restoring Canadian research and monitoring budgets so that the extent of problems, as well as progress in reaching the targets, can be tracked. This, in turn, would help in establishing the desired outcome of the current review.

It is time for both federal governments, but particularly Canada's, to stand up and take a leadership role in protecting the Great Lakes.

The governments must renew their commitment to a binational approach, set a short, clear time frame for changing the agreement if needed, and set common priorities for action. Without such a commitment and agenda, the current review is just an exercise in bureaucracy for its own sake.

If the Great Lakes are a national treasure in the U.S., then surely they are a binational treasure that deserves the dedication of resources and attention that will protect them.

It's time that the two countries move from ambivalence to ambition, and chart a course for Great Lakes protection.

Hugh Benevides is staff counsel and Fe de Leon is researcher at the Canadian Environmental Law Association. Together with other CELA staff members, they are participating in the official review of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.