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Can a Cash Injection Save Lake Simcoe?

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On January 7, the federal government announced $29 million for Ontario's Lake Simcoe and south eastern Georgian Bay. We, along with others concerned about Lake Simcoe's health, welcome this news. Conservation authorities and environmental restoration groups often have projects planned, waiting for funding. And thanks to Ottawa's announcement, many of them can now move forward. But is this enough to improve water quality for Lake Simcoe?

In Lake Simcoe, excessive phosphorus leads to algae and weed explosions, which reduce oxygen levels in water. This is bad news for fish. For coldwater fish health, we need to lower the amount of phosphorus that enters the lake each year.

In 2008, Ontario's Lake Simcoe Protection Plan set a goal to lower the amount of phosphorus that enters the lake each year by about 40 per cent over the next 35 years. Lowering phosphorous levels in the lake will enable lake trout and whitefish populations to survive.

It's true that federal dollars have helped to reduce the phosphorous levels in the lake. Between 2007 and 2012, $60 million was spent (half from the federal Lake Simcoe Clean-up Fund) to remove three tonnes of phosphorus from Lake Simcoe. But at that rate, it would take about 10 years to cut the lake's phosphorous levels to the target set by the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan. And that's if new phosphorus loads weren't anticipated. But they are expected, due to planned urban growth.

How do we lower phosphorus loads more quickly, without relying on massive cash infusions?
Natural restoration and protection projects, like the last round of federal funding was used for, are useful, but they're only part of the answer. We need stronger rules for development to ensure new urban areas have the least impact possible on lake health.

Greener development regulations could have a large impact on how much phosphorous gets into Lake Simcoe. New development could add 18 to 25 per cent more phosphorus over the next 20 years. Urban and suburban stormwater and runoff now make up 31 per cent of the phosphorus pollution to the lake, the biggest slice of the pie. And it could get higher: By 2031, high intensity urban development will increase from nine per cent to 14 per cent of the watershed area. That's why it's crucial that new development projects implement better stormwater and runoff management systems.

It's heartening that the last round of dollars from the Lake Simcoe Clean-up Fund helped fund stormwater pond retrofits in several municipalities. We also need better stormwater management at the outset. The Lake Simcoe Protection Act and Plan have strengthened some rules, which address some of the pollution. But there's more work ahead - especially when it comes to implementing better stronger, greener development standards.

Greener building techniques exist, like allowing water to be absorbed into the ground instead of being carried away in a pipe. Sending rainwater into a pipe brings the water straight into a lake or river, unfiltered by soils. In contrast, allowing water to soak into the ground is more natural, allows for the cleaning properties of soils, and helps fill underground water reserves, which are a source of drinking water. It's time to make these techniques the new normal, through improved standards.

What we do at Lake Simcoe matters to the rest of Ontario, and wherever urban growth is planned. And that means we need stronger regulations and greener practices to prevent pollution at the outset, instead of waiting for a handout to clean up pollution that we could have prevented.