05/02/2012 02:42 EDT | Updated 07/02/2012 05:12 EDT

The Great Lakes Aren't So Great Anymore


Environmental NGOs in Ontario are hoping to make a promised new provincial law to protect the Great Lakes as strong as possible. The Great Lakes Protection Act, promised in the Premier's 2011 Throne Speech, is a big deal. And why not? The drinking water of 37 million people depends on healthy Great Lakes.

Sadly, Canada is behind the United States in protecting this essential, shared resource that affects fishing, recreation, and tourism along with drinking water. But environmental groups hope all parties can agree -- as they did in protecting Lake Simcoe -- that now is a very good time to catch up.

Indeed, there is no time to waste because the Great Lakes are showing signs of strain.

Andy Buchsbaum, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation in the U.S. goes so far as to say ( the Great Lakes are suffering from "massive ecosystem breakdowns" and are "heading for trouble." The following grim trends support his view:

-The Ontario government acknowledges that "Climate change has the potential to lower water levels in the Great Lakes by as much as one meter by 2030"

-Great Lakes cities representing just 30 per cent of the region's population dump more than 100 Olympic swimming pools full of raw sewage directly into the Great Lakes every day.

-People and animals are exposed to an increasing number and quantity of chemicals in the Great Lakes fish they eat.

-70% of the Great Lakes' original wetlands, the nurseries of countless creatures, have already been lost.

-Populations of native plant and animal species are on the decline.

-Water levels are dropping, resulting in further loss of wetlands and exposure of contaminated sites on the lake bed.

-Shorter periods of ice cover allow aquatic weeds and algae to grow more, which can lead to oxygen-deprived "dead zones" in the water, and beach closures.

With facts like these, it's no wonder environmental groups have banded together to write a "statement of expectations" for the Great Lakes Protection Act. They want it to:

- Engage citizens, and support vibrant waterfront communities and economies.

- Protect and restore Great Lakes' biodiversity.

- Improve water quality and quantity.

Specifically, they hope a new Great Lakes Protection Act can help the millions of Ontarians who live by the lakes better connect with them. They are asking for measures in the new legislation that will improve the protection of wetlands, clean up shorelines and beaches, reduce pollution from air and land, attack destructive invasive species, and make use of Ontario's high tech innovations, and natural services (like wetlands) to reduce cities' impacts on water quality and quantity.

The problems affecting the Great Lakes also affect lakes in most inhabited parts of Canada. So the solutions the Ontario government comes up with could be shared with other provincial governments dealing with similar problems.

How Ontario handles this legislation will reflect on Canada's ability to keep up an important binational agreement with the United States. Under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, both countries must meet basin wide targets (for example, basin wide habitat gain). Because almost all of Canada's Great Lakes' territory is in Ontario, the muscle Ontario puts behind its provincial Great Lakes Act will decide how well 20 per cent of the world's available freshwater is protected from further harm. More than environmental groups are counting on it. Did I mention 37 million people get their drinking water from this vital national resource?