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Where the Ontario parties stand on Great Lakes issues

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With less than two weeks before the Ontario election, only two of the four main parties have outlined specific policies on the Great Lakes.

The Liberals have outlined that they will: "defend Ontario's precious water resources for future generations with a Great Lakes Protection Act and launch a fund that will reduce water pollution and make our beaches cleaner." They have also committed $52 million to clean up the Great Lakes. Originally, the Ontario Liberal platform promised $4 million per year over the next four years.

In the Ontario NDP's document, Affordable Green Choices, the NDP state: "Ontarians live next to and depend on the health of the Great Lakes for drinking water, recreation, tourism, jobs and industry. There is real concern today about threats to the health of the Great Lakes: over 100,000 have people signed a petition against a risky Government-supported plan to ship radioactive nuclear waste across the Lakes. We will designate a Minister responsible for the protection of the Great Lakes and establish clear objectives and legislation to ensure that decisions by all Ministries protect the quantity and quality of the Lakes. We will not proceed with any approvals for the transport of radioactive steam generators on Ontario's roads and waterways until a full provincial environmental assessment has been conducted." (See some of my previous blogs for more information on the shipment of radioactive waste planned for the Great Lakes.)

While the PC party of Ontario has stated that they will "protect all programs that safeguard water quality" and "support local conservation efforts in protecting Ontario's many signature rivers such as the Thames, Don, French, and Ottawa," they have not outlined a concrete plan to protect and address threats to the Great Lakes.

Although the Green Party promoted broad goals such as "improving water quality and sewage treatment," they also have not outlined a plan to address existing and emerging threats to the Great Lakes.

The 2009/2010 Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO) report provides a recent assessment of the state of Great Lakes. The ECO report noted the affects of climate change on the Great Lakes: "Ontario's water resources will also be affected by climate change. For example, warmer water and air temperatures, increased evaporation from water bodies and adjacent lands, longer ice-free periods, and the spread of invasive alien species will alter the ecology of the Great Lakes basin. In addition to historical fluctuations, it is projected that the water levels of the lower four Great Lakes could drop by as much as 115 mm within the next four decades. Additionally, coastal wetlands will be affected by lower lake levels, triggering changes in which species are present."

The ECO report warned that sewage treatment was "not good enough." Gord Miller, Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, notes that "All waterways are vulnerable to deterioration from municipal wastewater, but the most densely populated parts of the Great Lakes basin -- Lake Ontario, Lake Erie and the Ottawa River -- receive the lion's share (about 85 per cent) of Ontario's effluent. Environment Canada has estimated that 15 per cent of river and lake areas in the Great Lakes basin have been damaged by effluents from municipal wastewater treatment plants."

The report also highlight that beaches on the Canadian side were dirtier than on the U.S. side : "The 2009 binational State of the Great Lakes report describes the phosphorus situation as 'poor' in nearshore areas of Lake Ontario, Lake Erie and Lake Huron, and calls for target phosphorus loads for major municipal sewage treatment plants. High phosphorus levels are contributing to increased algal fouling of shorelines over wide areas of eastern Lake Erie, areas of Lake Ontario and patches around Lake Huron. The quality of beaches in Ontario is 'poor' and 'deteriorating' over time not just for Lake Erie, but also for Lake Ontario. For 2006-07, only a quarter of beaches on our side of Lake Ontario were clean enough for swimming over 95 per cent of the beach season. Beaches on the U.S. side of the lake were much cleaner."

And with the recent report from the Internation Joint Commission on chemicals of emerging concern, the next provincial government has its work cut out for them.

Yesterday CBC reported that "It's not just pesticides, as scientists are finding worrying levels of pharmaceutically active compounds such as anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, anti-epileptics, and beta blockers in lake water. As well, hormones, pesticides and alkylphenols have been identified as threats...These products and medicines flushed down toilets an dumped into sinks are not stopped at water treatment plants, which are not geared to deal with them."

An effective protection strategy for the Great Lakes must not only include strict regulations on pollutants and projects threatening the Great Lakes but also a significant overhaul on the framework in which legislation is based. The next government needs to reconsider how water is viewed, managed and treated. They must be willing to adopt a commons and human rights framework rather than sustain a framework based on market principles, unbridled development and the myth of limitless resources.

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