TORONTO (CP) – The health of the Great Lakes ecosystem is improving in some ways, but the impacts of population growth, climate change and invasive species continue to raise troubling concerns about the future of the waters, says a new report by Environment Canada and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The report diagnoses the well-being of the Great Lakes as “mixed,” since some problems are improving while others are getting worse, said Environment Canada’s Nancy Stadler-Salt, who managed the team that provided the report’s Canadian content.
While the Great Lakes continue to be a good source for treated drinking water, and levels of toxic chemicals have been significantly reduced over the last 30 years, there are some problems that can’t be fixed, she said.
The report says more than 300 invasive or non-native species now thrive in the Great Lakes basin – and their destructive, parasitic behaviours are difficult to contain.
“That’s a huge concern, (especially) how they compete with our native species and in some cases, may replace them or drive them out of certain habitats,” Stadler-Salt said in an interview Monday.
“Once they’re here, they’re probably next to impossible to eradicate – it’s just learning how to control them.”
Many invasive species get into the basin from the ballast water of international cargo ships.
The region is a major centre for trade, so keeping the ships at bay is simply not an option, Stadler-Salt said, even though the damage caused by invasive species is estimated to cost billions of dollars annually.
Research is continuing into how to treat ballast water to stop the spread of invasive species, but there’s still no solution, she added.
The report also points to population growth as a major concern, with about 42 million people already living in the Great Lakes basin and huge expansion expected in areas like the Golden Horseshoe region in southwestern Ontario, which extends around the western edge of Lake Ontario from the Niagara region to Oshawa, east of Toronto.
The area is forecast to add 3.7 million residents by 2031.
That growth will put pressure on Lake Ontario as more water is drawn from it, and infrastructure and water-treatment facilities will be stressed, Stadler-Salt said.
Not only that, but the effects of climate change are expected to have a significant impact on the Great Lakes region that could lead to irreversible damage, said Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians.
The report suggests climate change will stir up more severe storms and potentially shorten winters, leading to less ice coverage on the lakes. An altered climate and lower water levels would also affect wetlands and continue to force wildlife from their natural habitats, Barlow said.
“They say wetlands are the kidneys of our waterways and forests are the lungs, and when you allow the destruction of wetlands to the extent that has been allowed to happen around the Great Lakes … there’s a potential for real disaster,” she said.
“The Great Lakes are a potential tragedy waiting to happen – or maybe it’s already happening.”
Aaron Freeman, a policy director with Environmental Defence, said he takes issue with the fact the report characterizes the health of the Great Lakes as “mixed” when there are so many serious issues that exist.
“Certainly there are some trends that are going in a positive direction, but overall, the environmental condition of the lakes is quite dire and I think trying to paint that as something that has a mixed conclusion is glossing over a lot of the serious problems,” he said.
Mark Mattson, president of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, noted that just 46 per cent of Canadian beaches on Lake Ontario met prescribed safety standards between 1998 and 2005, while the rate was 84 per cent on the U.S. side of the border.
And testing of herring gull eggs singled out Lake Ontario for environmental problems, demonstrating a situation that’s “almost a crisis,” he said.
The herring gull is found on all the lakes and its eggs have been tested over the past 30 years to help gauge the level of contamination in the Great Lakes region.
The current testing shows improvement in all the lakes, with Lake Superior classified as “good” for meeting its ecosystem objectives. But Lake Ontario is classified as poor, because its ecosystem is “severely negatively impacted.”
“It confirms the Great Lakes are in many ways in poor condition,” Mattson said.