07/08/2012 11:04 EDT | Updated 09/07/2012 05:12 EDT

Going to the Lake This Weekend? Ontario's Great Lakes Protection Act Affects You

If you are among the throngs of people heading to Ontario's cottage country, you will have hours stuck in traffic to crave a cool swim and also ponder the importance of our Great Lakes.


If you are among the throngs of people heading to Ontario's cottage country, you will have hours stuck in traffic to crave a cool swim and also ponder the importance of our Great Lakes. We count on clean water when we go swimming, sailing, and have a drink. And we trust that the forests and wetlands in the Great Lakes watershed will continue to support the wildlife we love and do their part to keep the water clean, too.

Muskoka, the Kawarthas, Georgian Bay, Lake Simcoe -- they are all part of the gigantic Great Lakes watershed. And they are all potentially affected by the Ontario government's Great Lakes Protection Act, introduced this month.

What changes have you have noticed in your lake? The answers differ from lake to lake. In Georgian Bay people are worried about water levels, and lower water levels' effects on navigation, cotter pins, skegs, wetland habitat, and fishing. On lakes Simcoe, Ontario, and Erie people are worried about the impacts of zebra mussels, algae, and weeds (they are all related). On Lake Superior, mining impacts are top of mind.

Until Aug. 7, the province wants to hear what we all think about the Great Lakes Protection Act. This is the best opportunity to affect the direction the province is taking, and to influence what makes the cut this fall when the Act will be debated by all parties in the Ontario legislature.

If reading legislation isn't your thing, I'll give you a quick summary of the most important things about the Act, and what you can do. Or you can sign up for Green News, where we will keep you posted about our response to the Act, and actions you can take.

The Act

The broad purposes of the Act, we like. They are, generally, to protect and restore the ecological health of the Great Lakes and to encourage individual and community engagement in support of that goal. Its focus is on empowering people and restoring Great Lakes water, wetlands, beaches and coastlines.

In the long run, the best outcome could be aligning the work of ministries whose activities affect the Great Lakes. For example, the ministries responsible for housing, development, roads, and pipelines, should be helping, not hurting, the Great Lakes. I think we would all like to see greater efficiency and alignment of purposes across ministries, so we stop creating problems that are expensive to fix. The Act's proposed Great Lakes Guardians Council might help break down these silos and improve co-ordination.

Almost all the changes we will see on the ground will be done through what are called Geographically Focussed Initiatives. These action plans can deal with a range of locally-identified and relevant issues, including, improving wetlands, forests, shoreline, coastal areas, sewage treatment, land use planning, monitoring and other issues. This is probably a good thing because it will give a range of smaller, cheaper projects to pursue, as well as resolving some of the tensions we've seen around local control and decision-making in Ontario.

The Strategy

In addition to the Act, the government has also unveiled a strategy that sets the direction for Ontario's work on the Great Lakes, which is helpful for Canada-U.S. agreements, and Canada-Ontario agreements. It describes what the province will do to achieve its Great Lakes goals and will be reviewed every nine years.

Through a new local community action program, groups can apply for funds to do things like shoreline remediation work, improve beaches, or build trails, all of which will help with making better habitats for animals, and improving people's quality of life.

While these are all steps in the right direction, public involvement, at all levels, will be the key to success. Let's hope it does succeed -- whether we use the Great Lakes to drink, for work, or for play. They provide drinking water to 80 per cent of Ontarians; $234 million is injected into the Ontario economy from the fishing industry alone, and recreational fishing adds another $600 million. Tourists spent $12.3 billion in 2010 around the Great Lakes.

So, take a look, stay in the loop, and make a comment -- after you've had a swim.