August 20-27, 2007

Drinking water source protection, climate change, sustainable resource use included under renewed COA

New areas of co-operation have been added to the renewed Canada-Ontario Agreement Respecting the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem (COA), signed August 16 by federal Environment Minister John Baird and Ontario Environment Minister Laurel Broten. These include protection of drinking water sources, understanding the impacts of climate change and encouraging sustainable use of land, water and other natural resources.

Guided by the vision of a "healthy, prosperous and sustainable Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem for present and future generations," The COA focuses on cleaning up 15 severely degraded ecosystems in the Great Lakes (Areas of Concern), reducing harmful pollutants, improving water quality, conserving fish and wildlife species and habitats, lessening the threat of aquatic invasive species and improving land management practices within the Great Lakes basin. It ensures that scientific information is available to support remediation and protection efforts and to measure the success of these activities.

The format of the three-year agreement, whose term runs from June 25, 2007 through March 31, 2010, comprises overarching principles and management accountabilities, along with four annexes detailing the specific commitments to be met by Canada and Ontario.

Annex 1 addresses the cleanup of 15 Areas of Concern (AOCs) to reduce harmful pollutants and improve water quality. The new COA will focus on efforts to complete the actions necessary to restore the degraded ecosystems in four of these Areas of Concern: Nipigon Bay, Jackfish Bay, Wheatley Harbour and the St Lawrence River (Cornwall); and on making significant progress towards recovery in the remaining 11 AOCs.

Key actions will include:

* reducing municipal wastewater and stormwater pollution;

* encouraging improved management practices on urban, industrial and rural lands that are linked to aquatic habitats and water quality;

* developing contaminated sediment management strategies for nine of the AOCs;

* restoring and protecting fish and wildlife habitats and populations;

* fostering community stewardship and participation in restoration activities; and

* increasing knowledge through research, monitoring and reporting.

Under Annex 2, dealing with harmful pollutants, work will continue on reducing current, persistent pollutants such as PCB, dioxins, furans and mercury, with the goal of their virtual elimination. A revised list of substances will be developed as part of a new initiative to create and initiate a program for the sound management of chemical substances in the Great Lakes basin.

Key actions will include:

* creating a list of chemicals requiring action through consultation with industry, environmental organizations and other groups, including municipalities and conservation authorities;

* evaluating strategies for reducing emissions of smog-forming chemicals;

* investigating the optimization of existing sewage treatment facilities and evaluating the potential of new technologies to help municipalities and other sectors reduce pollutant releases;

* raising awareness among health practitioners of environmentally-related illness; and

* carrying out research on sources, fate and impacts of harmful pollutants in the Great Lakes basin.

Annex 3, dealing with lake and basin sustainability, focuses attention on stewardship of aquatic resources and encourages the integration of these practices into daily activities. It includes commitments to promote sustainable lifestyles and uses, reduce pollutants, restore and protect fish and wildlife species and habitat, address issues of aquatic invasive species, understand climate change and protect the Great Lakes as sources of drinking water.

Key actions will include:

* stewardship work with landowners, community groups and non-government organizations to protect, restore and promote sustainable use of land, water and aquatic resources throughout the Great Lakes Basin;

* improving water quality through the virtual elimination of persistent bioaccumulative toxic substances and reducing other pollutants;

* protecting and rehabilitating habitats, including coastal wetlands and Great Lakes rivers;

* protecting and restoring heritage fish species such as Atlantic salmon, coaster brook trout, lake sturgeon and American eel;

* lessening the threat of aquatic invasive species;

* monitoring, researching and reporting on new science about the state of the Great Lakes;

* applying the new science to understanding the expected impact of climate change on Great Lakes waters, ecosystems and benefits; and

* making progress on collaborative, watershed-based action to protect the waters of the Great Lakes basin as safe, reliable sources of drinking water.

Annex 4 on monitoring, research and information ensures that scientific information is co-ordinated and available to support remediation and protection efforts and to measure their success. The Annex also ensures that information be readily available to the Great Lakes community.

The COA will also contribute to meeting Canada's obligations under the Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) which is currently under review by both countries. The two governments have committed to completing a review of the COA by November 27, 2009. Public consultation will be part of this review, with its findings and outcomes to be made public before the COA expires. A new COA beyond 2010 would consider the recommendations and results of the GLWQA review.

Successful implementation of the COA will require continued involvement of the Great Lakes community, including municipalities, conservation authorities, Aboriginal communities and organizations, non-government organizations, academic institutions and industrial, agricultural and other business sectors. With the renewed agreement now in place, the federal and Ontario governments are initiating a broader dialogue to develop a common direction and actions to achieve Great Lakes sustainability beyond 2010. Beginning this fall, a forum will be launched with the aim of engaging all sectors and interests within the Great Lakes community.

The full text of the COA may be viewed on-line at www.ec.gc.ca/CEPARegistry/ and www.ene.gov.on.ca/publications/6263e.pdf.

The signing of the new COA, coming five months after the last agreement expired, has raised concerns among leading Great Lakes-based organizations. The Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA), Environmental Defence and Great Lakes United say it will do too little, too slowly to clean up and protect the Great Lakes in the long term. Their concerns focus on whether the work plans and commitments will keep pace with the challenges to the health and well-being of the ecosystem. In particular, the groups are concerned that:

1) specific federal and provincial funding commitments to implement the COA programs between 2007-2010 remain vague and difficult to evaluate;

2) while the new COA adds several new requirements to the commitments made under its predecessors, what remains unanswered is when the governments plan to undertake a substantive review of the effectiveness of COA; and

3) the lack of targets and deadlines to eliminate and reduce the most toxic and harmful substances and to complete the cleanup of Great Lakes AOCs will limit this agreement's effectiveness.

"The federal and provincial governments should immediately establish a long-term vision and plan for the Great Lakes that includes line-by-line budgets needed to carry out the plan," said John Jackson, clean production program director for Great Lakes United.

"Unfortunately, this agreement still does not detail the resources necessary for the jobs that need to be done in the Canadian portion of the Great Lakes," he continued, adding, "While there have been some increased commitments to the overall budget, the governments have not yet committed the billions of dollars needed to complete the Remedial Action Plans for cleaning up the historical pollution in the 15 designated Areas of Concern."

The groups point out that new stresses such as climate change, invasive species and the presence of pharmaceutical residues in water are complicating the ability to restore the Great Lakes.

"We worry that incremental steps may not be big enough to keep pace with the complex interactions we are seeing in the ecosystem. It is increasingly difficult to know if individual and cumulative actions will ever be able to achieve the overall goals of restoration and protection of the Great Lakes." said CELA researcher Sarah Miller.

And while the new COA has incorporated important new provisions on drinking water source protection and tracking climate change impacts, the environmental organizations say it is unclear whether these new provisions will be mirrored in the improvements to the GLWQA currently being reviewed by the federal government.

More information is available on the CELA Web site, www.cela.ca, or from Sarah Miller at CELA, 416/960-2284, ext 213; John Jackson at Great Lakes United, 519/744-7503; or Mike Layton at Environmental Defence, 416/323-9521, ext 257.

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