When the Ontario government returns following the election, Premier Kathleen Wynne needs to move to protect the Great Lakes.
There are a number of simple actions her government can take to address the challenges facing the Great Lakes, particularly declining water levels and invasive species.
Declining water levels across the Great Lakes basin represent a massive ecological and economic threat.
The ecological harm caused by low water levels is well documented: increased algal growth, loss of habitat and destruction of coastline. The economic harms are perhaps less clear.
But this week, the Council of the Great Lakes Region and the Mowat Centre will release a report that seeks to quantify the economic impacts low water levels will have on sectors ranging from the shipping industry, hydropower and tourism. The bill for adaptation to lower water levels is likely astronomical. These costs will hit marinas, shippers, municipalities, cottagers, hydroelectric systems and many other key economic drivers across the region.
There is a sense, particularly supported by Georgian Bay-area mayors, that the province is too singularly focused on addressing the ecological harms through the Ministry of Natural Resources, and that it does not fully appreciate the economic impacts.
However, the Premier disputes this characterization, saying, "I see [declining water levels] as an economic issue...I am so concerned about the quality of water and the water levels. The MNR is engaged as an agent of problem solving, but that does not mean it's not an economic issue. We need to grapple with this."
Her statement actually suggests one way she can act quickly to prioritize the issue as an economic concern.
Indeed, the first practical step the Premier can take to grapple with the economic harms of declining water levels is quite simple: she can direct the Minister of Economic Development, Trade and Employment -- along with his colleagues in Natural Resources and the Environment -- to meet with local mayors and representatives from affected industries to discuss the problem and create an action plan that would work to mitigate the adaptation costs for marinas, hydro, shipping, tourism and other industries that are affected by declining water levels.
In terms of legislation, the government should heed the call from opposition MPPs to add language about declining water levels into the Liberals' landmark Great Lakes Protection Act.
When the election was called, the Invasive Species Act died on the order paper. It should be reintroduced. It was a good bill that seeks to provide the legislative framework necessary to coordinate inter-ministerial and inter-jurisdictional responses. It will better help governments respond to and prevent invasive species.
The Great Lakes basin defines Ontario, from Cornwall to Kenora, Windsor to Wasaga Beach. Premier Wynne's government has made some very positive moves to protect our environment, especially funding to keep the Experimental Lakes Area open.
But with a majority government, there is more to be done, and these are some simple but vital steps Wynne must take to protect the Great Lakes.
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