By Teviah Moro
Politics is what often floats to the surface in the debate of how best to heal an ailing Lake Simcoe.
Behind the headlines, however, efforts to shore up scientific knowledge about the 725-square-kilometre lake are quietly shedding light on its fragile balance.
That was evident Thursday during a meeting of experts at Trent University for a conference exploring the Great Lakes.
Lake Simcoe, a sixth and junior partner in the mighty quintet, was the focus of 19 presentations from different agencies, universities and government ministries on the last day of the three-day 51st annual Conference on Great Lakes Research.
“We’re all listening to each other. Everybody’s pretty excited about this much interest,” Stephanie Guildford, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, told The Packet & Times.
“What’s really exciting is that there’s so many people working and getting really good data,” added Guildford, who co-chaired the Lake Simcoe forum.
Still fragile and ever-changing, the lake shows signs of promise, scientists suggested in their talks.
Presentations covered a number of topics, some highly technical in nature, including trends in water chemistry, phosphorous, chlorophyll, groundwater seepage, thermal dynamics, cold-water fish and invasive species.
The lake is home to a variety of fish, including lake trout, lake herring, lake whitefish, burbot and scul- pin.
“By 1990, basically this cold-water community was on full life support,” David Evans, a researcher with Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources, said during his presentation.
Because cold-water species stopped reproducing naturally, the ministry started stocking the lake with fish.
Simcoe’s water quality has suffered from reduced levels of dissolved oxygen and rampant algae and plant growth, due mainly to the loading of phosphorous, a substance that makes its way into the lake via a number of sources, including fertilizers and detergents.
In turn, algae decays and sucks oxygen from the water as it breaks down.
Oddly enough, there’s evidence that the notorious invasive zebra mussel has worked to improve the clarity of the water, Evans noted. Monitoring conducted by the Lake Simcoe Fisheries Assessment Unit has shown certain species that didn’t reproduce before started to do so in 2003.
“It’s way better than it used to be,” Guildford, a Canadian from Halifax, said of Lake Simcoe, which is home to more than 50 species of fish.
The lake suffered a particularly dark period when area pioneers started clearing land and farming right down to the shoreline, causing erosion and dumping of run-off.
“There weren’t nearly as many people, but they were certainly farming intensively and (there was) certainly no sewage treatment,” Guildford said. “And then industry built over time.”
She noted government policies and community action have encouraged better farming practices and set limits on phosphorous loading.
The Ontario Liberals have backed introducing a bill that would create an act to protect Lake Simcoe.
“We might see an act introduced in the legislature yet this spring,” said Simcoe North MPP Garfield Dunlop.
The Progressive Conservative, who first floated the idea of enshrining the protection of the lake in legislation, said it could take a year to pass through Queen’s Park.
“In the end, I’m very pleased on what we did on that. Now it’s a priority,” Dunlop said.
The province has created a panel of scientists to help advise it on the lake.
Dunlop said $850,000 in provincial funds and $30 million in federal money is only a start to implement any future legislation.
Though hopeful for the future, Guildford said warming trends, invasive species and population growth all present threats to the lake.
In the next 25 years, 250,000 more people are expected to move to Simcoe County alone, fuelling more development pressure around the lake.
In the meantime, the brain trust will keep working.
“I’m reckoning that, in the future, we’ll be reading a Lake Simcoe case study as an example of best practices being applied in trying to improve the lake,” Guildford said.