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People walk out on a pier over a steamy Lake Ontario in Oshawa. (MARK BLINCH FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
People walk out on a pier over a steamy Lake Ontario in Oshawa. (MARK BLINCH FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Ottawa must spend more to ensure health of Great Lakes, report says Add to ...

The Liberal government needs to boost spending on water infrastructure and assessment of groundwater resources to ensure the health of the Great Lakes, as they face threats from climate change and unsustainable use, the International Joint Commission urged Tuesday.

In a report to governments on both sides of the border, the binational commission applauded measures taken by states and provinces to protect the world’s largest freshwater system from large-scale diversions or excessive consumption. But more needs to be done, it concluded.

It issued a series of recommendations aimed at ensuring governments improve their knowledge of current water use, build climate resilience into their planning and provide better mapping and assessment of groundwater aquifers. Canadian commissioner Benoît Bouchard said Ottawa should support efforts of the provinces to upgrade their sewage and drinking-water infrastructure, and to map and assess the aquifers.

“We don’t really know the status of both” the infrastructure and the groundwater, Mr. Bouchard said in an interview at the IJC office in Ottawa. “The Great Lakes are one of the biggest assets we have as Canadians and Americans … so we’d really appreciate if both governments investigate the status of those issues and what needs to be done.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged to fund a $60-billion infrastructure program over 10 years to boost the economy, and Mr. Bouchard argued protection of freshwater resources should be high on the priority list.

Eight states and two provinces in the Great Lakes watershed reached agreement in 2008 that requires that a state or province consult with the other jurisdictions before allowing a significant diversion of water out of the basin. The agreement came after several proposals were made for bulkwater exports, or to construct projects that would siphon water out of the basin for use elsewhere.

“It is important to remember that there is no ‘surplus’ water in the Great Lakes basin,” the IJC report said. “From an ecosystem perspective, it is all in use, even in periods of high supply.”

While those large-scale diversion projects failed under the weight of poor economics and hostile public opinion, the IJC said that impacts from climate change or other unforeseen circumstances could revive such plans. “The Great Lakes region needs to continue to be vigilant and precautionary in its approach to diversion,” it said.

The report warned about specific threats from climate change, noting that average air and water temperatures are rising; the annual ice cover is shrinking; and both precipitation and evaporation are increasing. It said more research needs to be done to better understand the looming impacts and how to confront them.

There is currently an application from the Wisconsin city of Waukesha – which lies outside the watershed – to draw its supply from Lake Michigan in order to address concerns about the quality and quantity of water in the deep aquifer it currently uses. The regional body, made up of several states and the government of Ontario, must approve the application before it can move forward.

While the IJC report focused on diversion, one environmentalist warned there are growing threats to the drinking water from the lakes that governments will have to deal with. They include old and leaking infrastructure; the discharge of chemicals and plastics into the lakes; and the growing volume of nuclear waste stored by Great Lakes shores, said Mark Mattson, founder of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper.

The Liberal government in Ottawa has committed to greater protection of the country’s freshwater resources. In his mandate letter to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna last November, Mr. Trudeau urged her to work with cabinet colleagues and provinces and cities “to protect Canada’s fresh water using education, geo-mapping, watershed protection and investments in the best waste-water treatment technologies.”

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