Thank you and good afternoon.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak to the committee about Ontario's interest and work on the Great Lakes water quality.
I am joined by my colleague, Mr. Brian Nixon, director of our Land and Water Policy Branch.
The Great Lakes are of great importance to the province of Ontario. The Great Lakes are the source of drinking water for 80% of Ontarians, and the Great Lakes basin is where the great majority of Ontarians live and where most of our economic, agricultural, and social activities take place.
The Province of Ontario has long been actively protecting, monitoring and remediating the water quality of the Great Lakes. Ontario's work on the water quality of the Great Lakes is guided by a vision of the Great Lakes that are drinkable, swimmable, and fishable for generations to come.
Our current efforts in this regard are described in three main initiatives: Ontario's Great Lakes strategy, released in December 2012; Ontario's proposed Great Lakes protection act, Bill 6, currently before a committee of the Ontario legislature; and the Canada-Ontario agreement on the Great Lakes, currently in the final phases of its eighth renewal.
I will briefly outline some of the salient aspects of these three initiatives and I will leave copies of Ontario's Great Lakes strategy for the committee.
Ontario's Great Lakes strategy provides a road map to focus tools and resources across ministries as well as priorities for action and collaboration with the broader Great Lakes community. It has six goals.
The first one is to engage and empower communities. Because the health of the Great Lakes impacts almost everyone in Ontario, it is essential to engage Ontarians and their communities in the protection and restoration of the Great Lakes. This focus on engaging and empowering communities has led to new alliances; for example, with first nation communities, reflecting their unique relationship to the lakes, the importance of traditional ecological knowledge to protect them, and a commitment to ongoing collaboration.
Activities to date include Great Lakes Guardian Community Fund awards of $3 million to 158 community-based projects to protect habitat and species, clean up beaches and shorelines, reduce the impact of invasive species, and restore wetlands to help manage stormwater runoff. The Great Lakes as a context for learning involves the production of a conference for high school teachers designed to profile Great Lakes career opportunities.
The second goal is protecting water for human and ecological health. This goal includes a range of actions to address excess nutrients and related algae blooms as well as toxic chemicals and pharmaceuticals in the Great Lakes. This goal also addresses issues related to stormwater and waste-water discharges to the lakes.
Activities to date include: the $17-million showcasing water innovation program for innovative water management approaches, including, for example, a project designed to increase the recycling of nutrient water in Ontario's greenhouse sector, leading to a reduction in the use of water and in the discharge of nutrient-bearing water into the lakes; more than $660 million committed by the province for waste-water and stormwater infrastructure upgrades in the Great Lakes basin since March 2007; source protection initiatives undertaken under Ontario's Clean Water Act, including assessments of existing and potential threats to municipal drinking water sources and identification of implementation actions by local source protection committees to reduce or eliminate these threats. The province has invested approximately $240 million in source protection activities related to the Great Lakes since 2004.
The third goal is to improve wetlands, beaches, shorelines, and coastal areas to protect fish and wildlife habitats and address beach impairments. Ontario is identifying and mapping significant wetlands, conducting research to improve our understanding of sources of E. coli contamination and causes of other beach impairments, such as nuisance algae, in order to guide beach management actions and continue efforts to remediate designated areas of concern and other areas.
Activities include the release of a new provincial policy statement that includes policy direction to increase protection of Great Lakes coastal wetlands in southern areas of the province, enhance water policies to provide increased direction to municipalities to identify shoreline areas in their official plans and apply additional protection, and consider cumulative effects in the watershed. The provincial policy statement also includes policies directing municipalities to take a coordinated approach when addressing Great Lakes issues.
Provincial ministries have inventoried, evaluated, and mapped more than 125 wetlands totalling more than 10,000 hectares. As the Canada-Ontario agreement negotiations continue, Ontario has maintained its commitment to the shared lakes objectives with Canada, including through funding of $46.3 million to clean up contaminated sediment in Hamilton harbour's Randle Reef.
The fourth goal is to protect habitats and species. The Great Lakes basin ecosystem is home to more than 4,000 species of plants, fish, and wildlife. Recreational fishing in the Great Lakes contributes more than $600 million to Ontario's economy each year. In order to protect one of the most biologically rich ecosystems in Canada and to continue to protect recreational opportunities such as fishing, Ontario's Great Lakes strategy includes measures to prevent the introduction and spread of invasive species, which threaten biodiversity, and to restore the habitats the Great Lakes species call home.
Activities include the following:
On February 26, the Government of Ontario introduced new legislation to support the prevention, early detection, rapid response, and eradication of invasive species in the province. If it is passed, Ontario will become the first and only jurisdiction in Canada to have stand-alone invasive species legislation.
The province has strengthened regulations, increased monitoring efforts, and collaborated with researchers to increase understanding of Asian carp biology and behaviour.
The fifth goal is to enhance understanding of the Great Lakes ecosystem and adaptation. The changing climate has emerged as a significant threat to Great Lakes water quality. For example, severe weather events associated with climate change have increased runoff to the Great Lakes, and with it the flow of pollutants from urban, industrial, and agricultural sources.
In order to improve our understanding of stressors such as climate change and enhance our ability to adapt, Ontario is increasing public access to scientific information on the Great Lakes and enhancing monitoring and modelling to understand and predict the impacts of climate change and other cumulative impacts. Ontario and its partners are offering municipalities information on how to manage risks and adapt to climate change.
For example, Ontario has provided $145,000 to the Municipal Adaptation and Resiliency Service, or MARS, launched by mayors of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative to help municipalities accelerate local adaptation to climate change in the Great Lakes region.
The sixth goal is to ensure environmentally sustainable economic opportunities and innovation.
Ontario's Great Lakes region contains 40% of Canada's economic activity. Ontario recognizes that protecting the Great Lakes is necessary for numerous sectors of the economy. Water technology innovation and conservation practices provide tools to improve environmental sustainability while helping Ontario companies tap into the half-trillion-dollar global water technology market in order to promote sustainable economic opportunities that help Ontario protect the lakes.
Ontario's proposed Great Lakes protection act, Bill 6, is currently moving through the legislative process. It builds on what we have learned through existing agreements and would provide the Government of Ontario with a more comprehensive suite of tools to address the combined stresses on the Great Lakes at a multiple watershed scale. For example, if passed, the act would authorize the Minister of the Environment to use legally binding instruments, such as geographically focused initiatives and targets, to protect the Great Lakes.
Canada and Ontario have long collaborated on Great Lakes issues, and have achieved significant success in addressing algae blooms, reducing the levels of persistent toxic chemicals, such as PCBs and mercury, and working to remediate areas of concern. This strong relationship between Canada and Ontario continues with a negotiation of the eighth Canada-Ontario agreement on the Great Lakes, which concluded recently. The agreement is now in the approval phase.
We look forward to posting the new Canada-Ontario agreement for public consultation this spring. Under this new agreement, Ontario plans to work with Canada to complete cleanup actions in five of the remaining areas of concern.
To sum up, the Great Lakes are a natural heritage of key importance to Canada and Ontario. Its protection and preservation for future generations requires concerted action and significant investment. Ontario is committed to continued collaboration with Canada and other partners in the ongoing protection and restoration of the Great Lakes.
Together, we have improved the health of the Great Lakes in many respects. Much more remains to be done, however, and Ontario welcomes Canada's continued participation and investment in the future as a vital resource.
This concludes my remarks.
Thank you for your attention.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, for the opportunity to speak to the committee today regarding the Great Lakes water quality, an issue that my colleague from the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Mr. Bitran, has indicated is very important to the province of Ontario from an environmental, economic, and social perspective.
As Mr. Bitran mentioned, the Great Lakes basin is home to 98% of Ontarians. It also contains over 90% of all agricultural land in the province. This prime agricultural land supports the most diverse agricultural industry in Canada, with over 200 different commodities being produced for both domestic consumption and export. It accounts for the largest share of the total Canadian GDP in agriculture and food processing, 33.2% to be exact.
In 2010, Ontario accounted for 23.2% of all farm cash receipts in Canada, and 23.8% of all exports of agriculture and food and beverage processing in this country. The food and beverage processing industry is Ontario's second largest manufacturing sector in terms of employment, and the greater Toronto area is one of the top three food-processing clusters in North America. Fifty per cent of the province's processors are located in rural Ontario, and processors purchase almost 65% of Ontario's food-related farm production.
Within the province, almost all of this production and manufacturing takes place within the Great Lakes basin. The Great Lakes are indeed essential to the prosperity of Ontario's agrifood industry, and a sustainable quality water supply is critical to both Ontario and Ontario's agrifood industry. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the Ministry of Rural Affairs recognize the importance of the Great Lakes in supporting a sustainable agricultural industry, but we also recognize that a sustainable agricultural industry must be based on a sustainable Great Lakes basin.
Understanding the interaction between agricultural production systems and the Great Lakes basin ecosystem is essential to the continued sustainability of both. This is why the Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the Ministry of Rural Affairs are focusing their efforts on three key areas to support the province's Great Lakes strategy: research, education and awareness, and stewardship practices.
The ministries fund research to develop effective best-management practices, which are then field tested and demonstrated within the sector through cost-shared stewardship programs with the support of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
Research is funded through a variety of partnerships with academic institutions, conservation authorities, and farm organizations. The University of Guelph partnership supports an environmental sustainability research team, which has funded research concerning soil health, nutrient management, water quality, and water quantity. This research continues to improve our understanding of how agricultural practices interact with the ever-changing natural environment. As indicated by my colleague from the Ministry of the Environment, and I'm sure by others who have presented at this committee, there is much that we don't know about the interaction between human activities and the ecosystem of the Great Lakes basin, and how this is being further complicated by climate change, invasive species, and other factors.
The ministry's best practices verification and demonstration program endeavours to examine some of these challenges from an environmental and economic perspective by field testing new and improved practices to address such challenges as extreme weather events. It is through these research programs and working with our federal and U.S. colleagues that we are developing a better understanding of what actions we can take to support the health of the Great Lakes basin ecosystem.
The federal, provincial and territorial agricultural policy initiative, Growing Forward 2, also supports applied research and demonstration projects. The Ministry of Agriculture and Food and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada recently announced the water adaptation, management, and quality initiative under Growing Forward 2.
This initiative will provide funding for demonstration and applied research projects that showcase innovative technologies and solutions for agricultural water conservation and water efficiency activities related to adapting to climate change, as well as the efficient use of nutrients and effective nutrient management relative to water quality. The program is intended to assist farmers to prepare for and better manage the impacts of climate change through the development of resilient farming practices, address the issues of water supply by adopting water conservation and water use practices, and improve water quality through better nutrient management practices. The program is open to the agricultural commodity groups, marketing boards, recognized industry associations and non-profit organizations, first nations groups, and universities and colleges.
Education and awareness are primarily driven through the promotion of the Canada-Ontario environmental farm plan, a voluntary education and awareness program that has received worldwide recognition since its inception in 1992. The program is supported through a long-term partnership between the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the Ministry of Rural Affairs, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and farm organizations represented by the Ontario Farm Environmental Coalition.
The environmental farm plan has proven to be a very effective environmental awareness program, helping to change farmers' attitudes toward the environment, raising the awareness of regulatory requirements, and promoting the adoption of best practices to address on-farm risks. The list of best management practices categories that are supported recognizes the diversity of agricultural operations in Ontario and the importance of encouraging voluntary action from the many different types of farm operations, from greenhouse floriculture to beef cow-calf to cash crop operations. The program provides an opportunity for each sector to address risks they identify through the environmental farm plan educational process.
Ontario farmers continue to demonstrate a strong commitment to the environment. Between April 1, 2005 and March 31, 2013, approximately 23,500 cost-shared environmental improvement projects have been completed on Ontario farms. This represents an investment of $352.9 million, including $227.9 million of the farmers' own money, $99.1 million in federal-provincial cost-share funding from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the Ministry of Rural Affairs, and $25.9 million leveraged from other provincial ministries and private foundations.
Examples of projects completed include improved manure storage and handling, enhanced well water protection, buffer strips around sensitive areas such as streams, soil erosion control works, water management plans, and improved cropping systems and precision agricultural projects.
Changing people's attitudes towards the environment in which they live and how they interact with that environment is essential to the sustained health of the Great Lakes basin. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the Ministry of Rural Affairs sees stewardship as critical to the success of any long-term solution. We are committed to promoting good stewardship practices through such initiatives as the environmental farm plan and the development of best management practices that reflect our changing environment. As we move forward to implement Ontario's Great Lakes strategy, stewardship will play an increasingly important role in achieving our objectives and putting in place solutions that are long lasting and transgenerational in nature.
Agriculture is an integral part of the Great Lakes basin ecosystem, and its interaction with that ecosystem is complex and dynamic. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the Ministry of Rural Affairs are committed to better understanding this interaction towards the development and implementation of more effective and efficient best management practices while maintaining and building a sustainable and competitive agrifood industry. To that end, we will continue to work with federal, provincial, and state agencies in support of Great Lakes water quality.
That concludes my remarks. I would be pleased to answer any questions that you have for us.
Good afternoon. My name is Ian Wilcox, and I'm the general manager of the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority.
I want to thank the standing committee for the invitation to attend and the opportunity to provide a conservation authority perspective regarding efforts to improve the water quality of the Great Lakes.
As context, Ontario's 36 conservation authorities have been in place for more than 60 years. We work on a watershed jurisdiction to manage water and other natural resources. We are principally funded by our member municipalities but routinely work with provincial ministries and federal departments to conduct research, and most importantly, translate that research into the implementation of best practices for environmental improvement. On-the-ground implementation of best practices is our priority and strength, and measurable improvements in water quality and forest health are our outcome measures.
The Upper Thames River Conservation Authority is based in London, Ontario. Our watershed joins with the Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority to ultimately discharge to the western basin of Lake Erie, which is the current flashpoint for water quality concerns in the Great Lakes. Our land base includes the most intensive agricultural region in Canada and more than half a million people.
With regard to your three specified questions, I offer the following responses.
The first is regarding priority locations in the Great Lakes basin. As you're well aware, the western basin of Lake Erie is facing a water quality crisis. Unprecedented algal blooms threaten drinking-water sources and commercial and recreational fisheries and impact other recreational uses.
Research has identified the Maumee River watershed in Ohio as the greatest single source of contamination to the western basin, and our American partners appear fully engaged in remediation strategies. On the Canadian side, the Thames River basin is the single largest contributor of contaminants to the western basin. As an analogy, it is our belief that these two watersheds must be considered the new areas of concern for remediation.
Targeted non-point source pollution control in these two watersheds offers the greatest hope for improving water quality in Lake Erie's western basin. I would also offer that Lake Erie more broadly warrants a comprehensive implementation plan. Within that scope, Ontario's Grand River watershed must also be recognized as a critical location for enhanced implementation.
Your second topic of interest concerns efforts that are currently under way or planned for remediation. My colleagues have mentioned several programs that we've all worked on together. We have a long history of research, planning, and implementation programs for the Great Lakes. Conservation authorities have participated in many of these ventures, but to be clear, our reason for participating has always been to ensure that all efforts lead to some form of on-the-ground implementation. Examples include our role on various annex subcommittees of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, participation on lake-wide management plan committees and work groups, as well as being a recipient of funding for implementation under the Canada-Ontario agreement.
Conservation authorities have also created their own implementation programs. For example, the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority's clean water program secures funding from foundations, the private sector, municipalities, and provincial and federal partners to offer incentives to private landowners for water quality best management practices. Examples of eligible projects include erosion control measures, remediation of faulty septic systems, restriction of livestock from watercourses, clean water diversions, and nutrient management plans. This very successful program has been in place for more than 10 years. The intent has been to provide a stable umbrella incentive program for local landowners that uses, but is immune from, the cycle and confusion of short-term incentive programs.
Our regional clean water program has supported more than 3,000 projects on private lands, with a total investment of more than $14 million. Federal funding has supported 7% of the program's total costs, meaning the benefits have been more than 14 times the value of the federal investment. The ability of conservation authorities to leverage funding is a standard practice and creates value added for any participating partner.
Our clean water program has changed individual attitudes and behaviour and provides environmental benefits for the landowner, the watershed, and ultimately the Great Lakes. Greater benefits are limited only by funding and capacity.
The most important of your questions, however, relates to recommending best practices that will facilitate further remediation of areas of environmental concern within the Great Lakes basin. Historically, the approach to implementation of best management practices has been incentive based, voluntary, and targeted at rural constituents.
Conservation authorities have been a principal delivery agent for these programs for decades and combined with our technical assistance, they have been very successful from the perspective of landowner participation, satisfaction, and maximizing available funding. However, if actual lake and tributary water quality is our true outcome measure, they have been inadequate.
Current science is clear that water quality in Lake Erie is deteriorating. Within the Thames River watershed, our own watershed report cards demonstrate that, at best, our and your investment in water quality implementation programs has only managed to maintain water quality as status quo. This is not an outcome that any of us should be content with. Additional work is required. To that end, conservation authorities are advocating for the following.
First, additional funding for incentives and implementation is required. Science has proven that existing best management practices are effective; however, the current level of investment for implementation is inadequate to effect measurable improvements in water quality. The nine conservation authorities in the Lake Erie basin have worked together in the past to lobby for an increase in funding and capacity for implementation of best management practices, but to date we've been unsuccessful in securing significant new funding. In addition, the four conservation authorities in the western basin—again, the flashpoint—the Essex, Lower Thames, St. Clair, and Upper Thames, have recently agreed to collaborate to pursue enhanced and stronger implementation measures for this critical area of Lake Erie.
Second, research into new implementation technologies is also required. Environmental conditions have changed over time with elevated water temperatures and more extreme drought and flood events complicating water quality conditions. Research designed to develop new and more effective best management practices should always be encouraged to maximize any investments in implementation.
Finally, a broader and stronger policy approach is needed. Historical reliance on voluntary incentives and technical assistance-based policies has achieved a degree of success and does have a strong role in the implementation programs moving forward; however, consideration must be given to stronger regulatory policies as a complement. While there can be sector-based resistance to these classical command/control regulatory tools, the regulatory policy category also includes tools that focus on training, certification, and cross-compliance between programs, all of which are effective, as well as more publicly palatable. The current state of Lake Erie's water quality, as well as the impaired health of contributing tributaries, makes it clear that a stronger and expanded policy approach to complement voluntary incentive-based programs is required.
I appreciate that the suggestions provided here require a significant financial investment. However, 60 years of experience with implementation by Ontario's conservation authorities has demonstrated that the science and best management practices are largely in place to improve the water quality of the Great Lakes. The implementation infrastructure, which includes technical experts, relationships, and communication tools, is also in place through conservation authorities and other partner agencies.
The remaining keys to improving Great Lakes water quality are a significant increase in incentive funding for implementation and the development of complementary and stronger implementation policies.
I'd like to thank you for your time and the opportunity to share these perspectives.
Like the other panel members, I am certainly available for any questions.
The report prepared by the International Joint Commission and in which the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture and Food participated is founded on work by the Science Advisory Board and the Water Quality Board. It states that if you look across the Great Lakes with respect to nutrients, Lake Erie, in particular its western basin, is in trouble.
A lot of the environmental conditions are dictated by the morphology, the shape of the lake. You can think of Lake Erie as actually three small lakes joined together: the western basin, which is very shallow, the central basin, and the eastern basin. In the western basin, the water mixes constantly. The two main tributaries to the basin are, as Mr. Wilcox suggested, the Maumee and Sandusky rivers coming from the United States, and the Detroit River coming through the international border.
The Maumee and Sandusky watersheds are developed extensively in agriculture, particularly row crops, corn, bean, wheat. They have identified that as the single largest contributor of phosphorus to that area. In aquatic systems, phosphorus is a very important nutrient. If you add phosphorus, things grow. It is considered to be the limiting nutrient and the most significant. That's why the discussion is focused on it.
If you recall back in the 1960s and 1970s, Lake Erie was referred to as the dead lake and through a lot of binational work, it was recovered. By the time I started practising in the 1980s, it was a lake in recovery and there were actually discussions that the phosphorus levels were getting too low. Since the 1990s, a number of things have changed. It seems to be related to the presence of invasive species, zebra mussels and quagga mussels, and changes in the food web. While we are still meeting those original objectives in the open water for phosphorus, now it looks like—and this is a theory, not a fact—what was an acceptable level of phosphorus 15 years ago is no longer acceptable.
The other thing the report points out is that traditionally phosphorus exists in two states in water: dissolved and particulate phosphorus. The particulate phosphorus is usually associated with soil particles and in agriculture situations, runoffs, and erosion. Through much of the last century, the focus was on controlling total phosphorus. What the International Joint Commission report is suggesting is that we need to turn our attention to dissolved phosphorus now as being the most biologically significant, in that if you add dissolved phosphorus, algae grows really well.
In Ontario, I think we could say that they have many of the issues correct although they've extrapolated the data from American practices and American studies, which don't necessarily track the same in Ontario. We use different agriculture practices. We have somewhat different soils and the definition of large in the United States is much different from the definition of large in Ontario, order of magnitude quite oftentimes.
The best practices, the things that you can do to balance the proper use of phosphorus and other nutrients in the lake, those translate well across the borders. Under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement which came into effect a year ago, there is an annex that deals specifically with nutrients and it asks for a number of steps to be taken. We are participating with Ohio and a number of the binational jurisdictions on that task force.
Simply speaking, they're setting new objectives for the lake that will address these ecological endpoints, like harmful algal blooms, dissolved oxygen depletion, and cladophora growth as a first step that's to be done by 2016.
We're looking at a review of best practices across the jurisdictions, what works best where, and we're coming up with domestic action plans. That's already part and parcel of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
Those projects you've mentioned are managed by federal and provincial partners. Conservation authorities, I have to be clear, are unique entities. We are mainly municipally driven, municipally funded, in terms of scale, very small scale, certainly from our provincial colleagues. About 20 years ago it became very obvious that we have a large role to play in these types of planning exercises, nutrient management strategies, and the rest, because we are an on-the-ground delivery agent.
It's always been our intent, our role, to participate in planning exercises. The ones you've talked about we've worked with Environment Canada, the Ministry of the Environment, Natural Resources, Agriculture and Food, to assist with planning exercises, whether that's community engagement.... Again, we are small organizations. We like to believe we know people by their first name and can engage them in trying to bring these higher level planning exercises down to their front door.
We participate in the planning and in the information dissemination, but again, as I tried to provide in my opening comments, our role has always been to push, to make sure that plan equals work done on the ground. So in each of the cases you've mentioned, our role is to push it to implementation. I'll be very blunt, if there's funding associated with anyone, we're there with our hands out to make sure we can use and leverage that funding to get work done on the ground.
There's a whole variety of programs. There are the ones you've mentioned, the ones my colleagues have mentioned up here, where our role is to be there during the planning. We've been challenged in the past because there are 36 conservation authorities and when it comes to the Great Lakes there aren't enough seats around the table, so we've worked to regionalize our representation. But again, that's our only purpose in being there, to make sure. On the nutrient management strategy, for example, we have already changed our clean water program to elevate funding levels for nutrient retention plans. The report that was mentioned previously, just released from the IJC, we are again looking at our own implementation plan to see if we can modify it to take advantage of the latest policy and science.