Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I'm Gordon Walker, acting chair of the Canadian section of the International Joint Commission. Two of our staff people are here today, our secretary, Camille Mageau, and Nick Heisler, senior adviser. With your permission, they will answer any questions I can't, which are mostly technical and scientific, I'm sure.
In keeping with the focus of the hearings, I will speak to water quality issues from our unique perspective, and particularly our mandate under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
As many of you will know, the commission is an independent treaty-based organization. Commissioners do not represent the positions of their respective governments. They take an oath on appointment to work in the interests of the people of the two countries. My comments are therefore those of the commission, determined by consensus by past and current commissioners.
The IJC was established by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 as a permanent independent international organization that prevents and resolves water disputes along and across the entire Canada-United States border. In that context of water quality under the treaty, our role is to investigate, alert, report, monitor, and ultimately advise governments.
Under the treaty, there is complete equality between the six commissioners, three from Canada and three from the United States. Even though the U.S. has 10 times the population, there is complete equality.
With respect to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, there have been some substantial accomplishments. In the 1970s, in 1970 itself, the IJC issued a series of reports on pollution in the Great Lakes, in response to a 1964 request by the governments. The findings of these studies led the two countries to sign the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1972.
This agreement, which was most recently updated in 2012 and entered into force in Canada in 2013, commits the governments to restore the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of the lakes. It's considered to be one of the most enduring and successful environmental agreements in the world. The agreement assigns the IJC roles in monitoring progress, providing advice, and engaging the public and alerting the governments to emerging issues.
With that background, I want to outline our assessment of water quality and what the IJC sees as priorities for the Great Lakes.
There are, as you know, five great lakes, each could fill today's hearings several times over in the allotted time, but I want to focus on some of the problem areas, particularly Lake Erie. In the Great Lakes, one of the most significant and recent priorities for the IJC has been to try and help, and address the crisis facing Lake Erie. The work meets all of your study criteria. It focuses on an area of environmental concern, it reviews efforts under way now, and it recommends best practices.
Government can take action to correct problems. As I noted, in the 1970s Lake Erie was in great distress. The IJC in its reports to Canada and the United States called for action, and they led to that agreement. Within 10 years of the signing of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement both countries had upgraded and expanded municipal sewage treatment plants, and the phosphorus concentrations in household detergents had been reduced.
By the mid 1980s, Lake Erie phosphorus loadings were reduced by more than half from the 1970s levels, and many of the problems associated with eutrophication had been reduced or eliminated. Around the world it was hailed as a success story, but now, once again, Lake Erie is at risk.
Following the record algal bloom in Lake Erie that covered almost the entire western basin of Lake Erie—some 5,000 square kilometres—in 2011 the commission launched its major effort into the Lake Erie ecosystem priority, also known as LEEP. To address the challenge dozens of scientists from both countries were brought together to examine scientific, socio-economic, and regulatory dimensions of the issues in both countries as part of a comprehensive approach.
The result is a report, which will be released to the public on Thursday this week. It is entitled “A Balanced Diet for Lake Erie: Reducing Phosphorus Loadings and Harmful Algal Blooms”.
The timing of my appearance is fortuitous, as some of you may have been able to participate in the embargoed LEEP webinar we held for Canadian and American federal legislators earlier today.
I'm going to give you a preview today, as IJC has already forwarded the report to the U.S. and Canadian governments. My apologies go to staff on Thursday. I hope I haven't scooped them too much by making some comments today.
To summarize, the LEEP study found that in most years, total phosphorus loadings into Lake Erie have been below the target of 11,000 metric tons per year established under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in the 1980s.
The question is, if that's the case—if it's below the level of 11,000 metric tonnes—why is Lake Erie in trouble? The answer is that phosphorus loads to Lake Erie are not distributed equally across the basin. Between 2003 and 2011, the average loads in the western basin were 64%, while the central and eastern basins of Lake Erie received just 26% and 11% respectively. Loads within each basin also may vary among tributaries for both total phosphorus and dissolved reactive phosphorus, with the largest contributions coming from the Maumee, the Sandusky, and Cuyahoga Rivers in the United States, and the Detroit River through Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie.
Phosphorus enrichment is a binational issue. It is not just from those rivers that I've identified, which happen to be mostly in the United States, but is across the board—across the lake itself and its tributaries. We in Canada contribute as well, but quite a bit less, I might say, than the Detroit, the Maumee, and the Sandusky Rivers do. I'm thinking of the Grand River into Lake Erie and the Thames River into Lake St. Clair. The monitoring initiated through Environment Canada's $16 million Great Lakes nutrient initiative along the north shore of Lake Erie and in the Thames River will complement existing and more intensive monitoring efforts in the Ontario Grand River.
The story, though, gets more interesting and complicated. Recall that the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement originally focused on total phosphorus as a measurement by which Lake Erie eutrophication was to be managed, and that those low targets have generally been met. So this is not the same as the 1970s problem. The real problem, recent research has shown, is that the proportion of dissolved reactive phosphorus—the form of total phosphorus that is highly bioavailable and stimulates algal growth—is increasing.
The LEEP report focuses on the Maumee River watershed in the United States, in Ohio, as the highest priority for remedial action. It recommends a targeted 41% reduction in dissolved reactive phosphorus loadings for the spring period, as compared with the 2007 through 2012 average.
To help achieve this goal, the commission recommends that the States of Michigan and Ohio formally list the waters of western Lake Erie as impaired under the U.S. Clean Water Act. That would trigger development of the total maximum daily load or nutrient reduction plan overseen by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. A complementary plan using both regulatory and non-regulatory measures could also be used to reduce loadings from Ontario watersheds.
To address the complex challenge of nutrient pollution from diffuse agricultural operations, the IJC recommends that governments throughout the watershed refocus agri-environmental management programs to explicitly address dissolved reactive phosphorus.
The commission also specifically recommends that the Province of Ontario and all the U.S. Great Lakes states ban the application of manure, biosolids, and commercial fertilizer containing phosphorus on frozen ground or ground that is covered by snow.
The IJC recommends that all governments work with municipalities to accelerate the use of green infrastructure, such as rain gardens and green walls, in urban stormwater management. In addition, the IJC recommends that the Province of Ontario and the U.S. States of Ohio and Pennsylvania prohibit the sale and use of phosphorus fertilizers for lawn care except in certain circumstances.
Because wetlands both support wildlife and filter pollutants, the IJC recommends that governments, working with non-government partners, commit to a goal of a 10% or 1,000-acre increase in coastal wetland areas in the western basin of Lake Erie by the year 2030. The IJC further recommends enhancing monitoring networks throughout the Lake Erie basin, including the establishment of a monitoring system at the outlet of the Detroit River that measures phosphorus and other critical nutrient parameters.
The IJC offers its analysis and recommendations in its LEEP report in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that today's challenges to Lake Erie's health are formidable, could be aggravated by climate change for sure, and require the leadership and guidance of the United States and Canadian governments and collaboration by all sectors of society. The IJC believes this teamwork will occur, as citizens and governments care deeply about this lake.
Through such cooperation, the IJC is confident that the recovery of Lake Erie can again become a globally known success story. It is timely to have dwelt on this one subject, Lake Erie, given today's briefings of your colleagues and Thursday's public release. There are, however, many aspects that I could dwell on, but time will not afford me that luxury at this moment during these opening remarks—climate change being one that could take a long time.
But I will mention some aspects. I understand that Environment Canada discussed the areas of concern with you as a committee two weeks ago, so I'm not going to belabour the importance that the IJC places on cleaning up those areas of concern, other than to note that the commission's role in areas of concern is substantial.
It is important to first point out that the governments, along with many public and private partners and agencies, are ultimately responsible for cleanup of hot spots, these “areas of concern”, as they're known. Under the 2012 agreement, the government will consult with the commission if they want to designate new areas of concern. The remedial action plans produced for each site are made available to the commission for review, and governments solicit review and comment from the commission, amongst other agencies, prior to delisting an AOC or designating an area of recovery.