Blog

Can Words Protect Lakes?

My summer of 2015 included numerous fishing trips with family and friends on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. While we were often rewarded with fishing success, I constantly saw reminders of the diverse threats to aquatic ecosystem health.

For example, invasive species were omnipresent, from round gobies nibbling on bait, to spiny water fleas clogging up fishing line, to zebra mussels covering the lakebed, to the lamprey still attached to a salmon that I reeled to the boat.

Similarly, I observed various onshore and offshore conditions that clearly posed risks to water quality: fuel spills; sediment-laden runoff; algal blooms; extensive shoreline alterations; and contaminated soils stockpiled beside the water’s edge.

In light of these and other well-documented threats, most Ontarians were delighted by the recent passage and proclamation of the Great Lakes Protection Act, 2015 (GLPA). The preamble of the GLPA correctly states that “Ontarians are fortunate to live in a province that benefits from one of the largest freshwater ecosystems on earth,” and that “the health of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin is critical to present and future generations” since it “provides drinking water and supports a variety of fish and other wildlife.”

The stated purposes of the GLPA include: protecting ecological health, hydrologic functions, natural habitat and biodiversity; eliminating or reducing harmful pollutants; and restoring watersheds, wetlands, beaches, shorelines and coastal areas.

The passage of the GLPA was duly praised by many non-governmental organizations, including CELA, which noted that the new law “will allow for targeted efforts at protecting the Great Lakes from some of their most pressing current problems.”

Ontario has also recently enacted the Invasive Species Act, 2015 (ISA). While it lacks a preamble or purpose statement, the ISA empowers the province to make regulations or undertake measures to designate, prohibit, restrict or eradicate invasive species. This new law was also warmly welcomed by non-governmental organizations across the province.

But are well-intended legislative words sufficient to safeguard and restore the Great Lakes?

There can be no doubt that a strong statutory framework for Great Lakes protection is absolutely necessary if Ontario is serious about protecting water quality/quantity and overall ecosystem health. However, the lofty goals of the GLPA and ISA can only be achieved if the laws are implemented in a timely manner through comprehensive regulations, protective policies, and effective operational programs developed with input from municipalities, First Nations, stakeholders and the public at large.

In addition, the successful implementation of the GLPA and ISA will greatly depend upon Ontario’s political willingness to allocate adequate funding to sustain new or expanded Great Lakes plans, studies, strategies or initiatives, particularly those involving environmental monitoring and reporting. Success will also depend upon Ontario’s institutional capacity to set tough standards, issue stringent approvals or orders, perform inspections, undertake enforcement, and facilitate long-overdue upgrades to water and sewage infrastructure.

In the Great Lakes context, Ontario has spoken loudly through its two new laws. Now it is time to follow up those bold words with swift and coordinated action at the provincial, regional and local levels.