(*UPDATE*. December 19, 2014. Canada and Ontario signed the Agreement with only minor changes, pledging to make other changes in the coming years. Click here to read the decision.)
Remember that time the Cuyahoga River caught on fire? I don’t. It happened in 1969, and I wasn’t born yet.
I’ve heard of the Cuyahoga River fire, of course. It was such an important era that even people born years afterwards know the story - the Great Lakes were on the verge of collapse. Citizens and governments rallied in the name of the Great Lakes. Historic agreements were signed.
Canada and the United States share the “sweetwater seas”. Both countries polluted, filled in, and rearranged the ecosystem leading up to the first binational agreement to protect the lakes in 1972. They have both been working to restore the lakes ever since.
With the exception of some of the St. Lawrence River, Canada’s entire Great Lakes coastline is in Ontario. Canada can’t live up to its international commitments without Ontario’s assistance. Ontarians can’t have clean water without the federal government.
That’s why the province and the federal government have signed 7 consecutive agreements to implement programs that will help the Great Lakes. The 8th is on the table now, and Lake Ontario Waterkeeper just finished drafting our formal comments on the proposal.
Spoiler alert: we don’t think the Agreement is very good. The agreement contains a lot of pledges, promises to set new targets, and new program or report proposals. These are important government activities, but they are no substitute for actual action.
The most glaring issue is the lack of government interest in putting an end to pollution from wastewater treatment plants. Sewage bypasses deliver billions of litres of contaminated water into the Great Lakes every year. It’s contrary to every law and policy on the books. The solution is infrastructure repairs, not more policy.
The draft agreement is also missing deadlines for action. Funding for infrastructure. Penalties for non-compliance. It’s lacking the urgency and accountability that the Great Lakes desperately need.
Consider this: There are 6,000 beach advisories on the Great Lakes every summer (about 66 advisories every day). Half of those advisories are here on Lake Ontario. Up to 70% of our coastal wetlands have been filled in on Lake Ontario. Across the entire Great Lakes, fish harvests will decline by another 25% over the next 25 years. Meanwhile, there are people living in our watershed who cannot drink the water in their taps because it is too contaminated.
It feels like we told ourselves the Cuyahoga story so many times that it’s been shuffled off to the history books. It’s as if Great Lakes devastation was a moment in history, not something to worry about today.
Waterkeeper thinks that Canada and Ontario can do more. We think the Great Lakes need more. And so that’s what we said.