Evidence of meeting #19 for Environment and Sustainable Development in the 41st Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was wetlands.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

David Sweetnam  Executive Director, Georgian Bay Forever
Jan Ciborowski  Professor, University of Windsor, As an Individual
James Brennan  Director, Government Affairs, Ducks Unlimited Canada
Mark Gloutney  Director, Regional Operations, Eastern Region, Ducks Unlimited Canada
Mary Muter  Vice Chair, Restore Our Water International, Sierra Club of Canada

3:30 p.m.


The Chair Conservative Harold Albrecht

I would like to call the meeting number 19 of the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development to order.

We're pleased to have with us today four groups that are going to provide testimony on our study on Great Lakes water quality.

Welcome Mr. David Sweetnam, executive director, Georgian Bay Forever.

We also have here Jan Ciborowski, professor, University of Windsor; from Ducks Unlimited Canada, James Brennan, director, and Mark Gloutney, director; and from the Sierra Club of Canada, Mary Muter, vice-chair.

We're going to proceed in that order unless you have agreed to a different order.

We'll begin with Georgian Bay Forever, Mr. David Sweetnam, please, for a 10-minute opening statement followed by the other testimony and then two rounds of questions.


3:30 p.m.

David Sweetnam Executive Director, Georgian Bay Forever

Thank you, Chair.

The effects of climate change are widespread and consequential. Fast-acting institutions, elastic regulations, and early-warning systems are needed as part of an adaptive management process to address these changes.

But according to the United Nation's climate change report released yesterday the scale of climate-change harms are expected to be so overwhelming that mitigation measures will be necessary to avert the greatest risks. In response to the report, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “Unless we act dramatically and quickly, science tells us our climate and our way of life are literally in jeopardy.”

This is a warning and a significant call to action.

The environmental side effects of climate change—from water quality to invasive species, water levels and habitat erosion—are alarming. But the associated economic impacts could be in the billions, with major harms caused to tourism, property values, shipping, and other key industries. More research into these economic impacts is necessary, but the environmental harms are already clear.

Chair and committee members, Georgian Bay Forever is pleased to have been invited to present to the committee and to bring you observations and recommendations to assist you with your work to protect our water quality, sustainability, and the environment in the Great Lakes region.

Georgian Bay Forever is a charity founded almost 20 years ago, with a focus on contributing to the scientific understanding of Great Lakes aquatic ecosystems and to providing balanced information to better inform the public. You have already heard testimony from a variety of researchers that Georgian Bay Forever has funded or worked with over the years.

Our Great Lakes aquatic ecosystems continue to face severe threats. A variety of interventions like stocking exotic species to control alewives and an ongoing annual $30-million investment in chemical and biological sea lamprey control merely prop up failing systems. Most recently, zebra and now the quagga mussels that have replaced them have stripped the food web at its base, resulting in a further decline in fish biomass as the Diporeia populations that the fish feed on have plummeted by 95% since the year 2000.

The UN report supports what we are already seeing in the Great Lakes, predicting that a “large fraction” of freshwater species face a growing risk of extinction and that the global stock of fish will decline by the year 2100.

Biologists tell us that amongst numerous other fish communities there used to be 12 distinct varieties of lake trout in Lakes Michigan and Huron and of those only two remain today. In Georgian Bay we have one of the only self-sustaining populations of that native lake trout found outside of Lake Superior and in this handout, which I believe you have, you'll see a picture of me holding one of those fish in this picture.

We are only just beginning to understand the role that climate change is playing in relation to our Great Lakes water quality and quantity. Increasing rainfall from more intense storms has lead to increases in untreated sewage releases, and runoff of surface water contaminated by lawn and agricultural fertilizers have been implicated in recent International Joint Commission reports of record level toxic and nuisance algae blooms in Lake Erie.

But those blooms are not restricted to Lake Erie. Sturgeon Bay in the Pointe au Baril area of eastern Georgian Bay has restricted circulation with the outer waters of Georgian Bay. You'll see a slide on page 2 of the impact in that area. It's very similar in that area to the impacts that Lake Erie is seeing. Water cannot be touched let alone used for drinking due to smell, taste, and possible toxicity.

Georgian Bay Forever has funded studies into what is causing these algal blooms and our DNA bar-coding technique has been used for rapid diagnosis of these blooms to evaluate whether they are toxic.

Low water levels also contribute indirectly to the erosion of healthy ecosystems as water warms. Warmer water is a significant contributor to increased evaporation from the Great Lakes, even more than the less understood ice coverage that we saw this past summer. You'll see again in your handout that water levels today in Lakes Michigan and Huron are actually below what they were in April of 2012. That was the year that we had the all-time ever-recorded low water levels.

So despite what you've heard in the media, we're still not in great shape.

New and innovative tools, with shorter response times and better resolution, will be needed to identify and respond to new risks and emerging threats. We will need to provide comprehensive baseline data sets and quantifiable measures of biodiversity. Georgian Bay Forever has funded pilot studies into the application of some of these novel tools, such as DNA bar-coding.

GBF has also worked with coastal municipalities to establish common protocols for water quality testing, which townships around the bay can use to monitor the quality of water in their areas. We're building on this work by adding new diagnostic tools, such as microbial source tracking, to better understand the origins of contaminants and inform better management decisions.

We have completed an in-depth study of historical conditions using paleolimnology to establish baseline conditions against which to evaluate current water quality conditions to better understand changes. We have seen numerous bays that support or have experienced blue-green algae blooms in the past, leaving them more likely to degrade if conditions worsen.

GBF has financed research into coastal wetlands that have been referred to as the water treatment plants of the Great Lakes, but we have to recognize that in many areas, our current state of understanding is incomplete and drawing conclusions without proper data is not helpful in informing good policy.

For example, in the Honey Harbour area, where much of our research has been conducted over the past decade, some historical coastal wetlands have enlarged while others have disappeared. Understanding the net effects of these changes is required to predict the impacts on fish habitat and coastal water quality, yet some of this basic science data is missing, mostly on the Canadian side.

There are various ways to get this information, including remote sensing technologies such as light radar, but this requires the resources of the federal government, and not just for today but to inform Canadian decisions in the coming centuries. We echo suggestions made by some previous witnesses that we need to think of the Great Lakes as an entire integrated system and think holistically, across disciplines and across watersheds. Canada and the U.S. must collaborate on funding research, and remediation projects and models must allow for multi-year funding.

In summary, there is little argument that we need to prepare ourselves for changes in the system, but there is now a growing realization that adaptation in the face of dramatic changes may not be enough, and that mitigation of these expected impacts is required. Mitigation requires investing in resources immediately and with urgency to accumulate more robust data to better understand the system changes.

Again to quote Secretary Kerry, “There are those who say we can’t afford to act. But waiting is truly unaffordable.”

In the face of rapid-onset emerging threats, our institutional dexterity is usually surpassed. This leads us to encourage this committee to recommend, given that low water levels driven primarily by climate change are a threat to water quality and that the U.S. Department of State is now seized with the urgency of addressing climate change impacts following the release of the UN report, that Canada and the U.S. move forward with urgency to decide mitigation measures to address declining water levels in the Great Lakes, particularly Michigan and Huron.

Given that the Great Lakes should be treated as one holistic system, Canada needs to increase funding for Great Lakes restoration projects to levels that reflect its shared responsibility with the U.S. to protect the Great Lakes. Mechanisms must be enhanced to foster cross-border collaboration in solving Great Lakes issues such as algal blooms, invasive species, water levels, and water quality.

Robust funding for the implementation of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement protocol of 2012 must be provided. Support for the implementation of the Great Lakes water levels advisory board to improve our scientific understanding of the Great Lakes must be available. We recommend that a short-term program be implemented to monitor and eradicate Asian carp, and we call for the separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River in response to findings in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study.

We recommend that the Great Lakes Executive Committee should report to this committee triennially on progress in Great Lakes protection and remediation, with this committee reporting to Parliament. Finally, the government must finalize the Canada-Ontario agreement.

In closing, we would draw the committee's attention to a study that we are funding on the impacts of declining water levels on the Great Lakes regional economy. It is being done by the Mowat Centre at the University of Toronto in partnership with the Council of the Great Lakes Region. This study is expected to show the very high costs of delays in implementing a solution to climate-driven declines in water levels and will support mitigation measures to address this problem. We would welcome the opportunity to return to discuss the results of this study with the committee.

Again, We would like to thank the committee for this opportunity to assist in your work.

3:40 p.m.


The Chair Conservative Harold Albrecht

Thank you very much, Mr. Sweetnam.

We move now to Professor Jan Ciborowski of the University of Windsor.

Mr. Ciborowski.

3:40 p.m.

Dr. Jan Ciborowski Professor, University of Windsor, As an Individual

Thank you very much.

I'm very pleased to be invited to speak.

My name is Jan Ciborowski. I'm a professor in the department of biological sciences at the university. I've been there since 1984. I'm an aquatic ecologist interested in understanding the relationship between environmental stress and the biota that are affected by it. I've been working on the Great Lakes since the early 1990s.

Given the huge areas covered by the Great Lakes and the problems faced, I have worked hard to participate in and to help lead collaborative research among researchers on both sides of the basin and also to work with the government agencies on both sides to identify the problems and try to build collaborative work at a scale that can address these sorts of problems. I'm really pleased to be able to contribute my perspective on the questions raised by the committee.

I'll address each of the questions that were listed. The first question is: what are the areas of greatest environmental concern?

Really, there are two perspectives taken when identifying these areas of concern. One strategy involves protecting areas that are currently of the greatest natural and economic value, especially those at greatest risk of losing their value, which can be by loss of species or of the habitat that sustains them. As well, and in tandem with this, there is the loss of the economic value and the aesthetic value that sustain the people around the lakes themselves.

Such areas have been variously identified through initiatives of the conservation groups, including the Nature Conservancy of Canada, and in the U.S., the U.S. Nature Conservancy. The State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference, SOLEC, developed the concept of biodiversity investment areas in 2000. These have guided many of the initiatives that have been trying to protect areas of shoreline throughout the Great Lakes as well. These are the areas most important in harbouring species of note, their important habitat, or the areas that are especially productive.

In Canada, the responsibility for protecting these areas is undertaken by both the provincial and national parks and special areas, as well as by the OMNR, and locally by the conservation authorities and municipalities. It is well recognized that we protect species and their environment by protecting and restoring their habitat. Nationally, this has been the responsibility of COSEWIC in identifying species at risk in their habitat, and federally of Fisheries and Oceans Canada through the fish habitat legislation.

The second strategy we have, in terms of understanding, is restoring areas that have been degraded to such an extent that their beneficial uses have been impaired. In the 1970s the International Joint Commission identified 14 different beneficial uses of the waters and the lands around the Great Lakes. When these uses become impaired, the areas are called “areas of concern”. They have been targeted for restoration by restoring those beneficial uses.

There are 42 areas of concern that have been identified, 12 in Canada entirely and five that are binational on various connecting channels on the Great Lakes. Of the 17 areas of concern associated with Canada, three have been delisted and two are in recovery. The remaining seven Canadian and five binational areas still have impairments, most relating to sediment contamination and habitat degradation.

The most widespread impairments, affecting all of the AOCs, are the degradation of fish and wildlife habitat and the degradation of the benthic invertebrates that sustain the fish. This degradation leads to restrictions on the dredging of the sediments to reclaim the area and on the consumption of fish. The other major beneficial use impairment is eutrophication, or the growth of undesirable algae. This is true both in the areas of concern on the Great Lakes and in protected areas, as Mr. Sweetnam has identified previously. The greatest areas in which this is recognized are on the shorelines and in the nearshore areas of the Great Lakes proper.

If we really want to restore these areas, we have to understand not just where those stresses occur but also the stress-response relationships. We have to be able to reduce the stress to the extent that those beneficial uses are restored. Understanding the stress is key to understanding the processes, not just the condition. What we have to recognize is that it is the extremes that are important, not just the average conditions. We lose species and lose environment at the worst times, not at just the average times. This means that we have to have monitoring on a continuous basis rather than just of the average.

From a geographical perspective, we're increasingly understanding that in order to control the stress we must look to the inputs to the lakes, not just to the lakes themselves. Although nutrients and toxins were formerly delivered by the atmosphere and by point source pollution—sewage treatment plants and industrial effluents through pipes—more and more we recognize that it's the runoff from farmland and from the suburban and rural areas, which are non-point, that is causing our greatest problems, especially during times of extreme weather conditions.

Runoff from farmland and so on is the primary source of nutrients, especially phosphorous, whereas formerly it was due to materials bound to sediment particles. Increasingly it's dissolved phosphorous that is the cause because this is much more bioavailable to algae, leading to the increase in hazardous algal blooms and nuisance algae on shorelines. It's also due to hypoxia, the absence of oxygen in the deeper parts of the lake when these materials decompose.

If we're dealing with shoreline that is rocky or sandy, the result is nuisance algae, things like cladophora that cause unsightly messes on beaches and shorelines, and when they decompose, they lead to epidemics like botulism and massive bird and fish kills. If the shorelines are muddy or silty, those nutrients tend to run into the middle of the lake where they give rise to hazardous algal blooms through cyanobacteria as well.

In practice, areas of environmental concern represent a continuum. It's not just the best areas and the worst areas; what we see is a full range of degradation. A lot of my collaborations and those of others have dealt with trying to understand and quantify the amount of human activity by type, amount of agriculture, amount of development, population density, and road sources in the various tributaries that are leading to the discharge into the basin.

There are over 5,900 different watersheds and contributing watersheds around the lakes, and we've been able to quantify the amount of development, the amount of stress, which allows us to determine where those stresses are the greatest, where they are the minimal, and where the greatest risks are.

We've been able to take advantage of new technology—remote sensing, and so on—that lets us produce maps for the state of the environment conference, the SOLEC, as well as recently for maps of both the lake and the land through the Great Lakes environmental assessment and mapping program. These are based on anywhere from 34 to 210 different types of stressors. By knowing where they occur, we can identify the best and the worst, where the transitions are that lead to the degradation and loss of the biota that really reflect what we're most interested in. This has allowed us to prioritize areas that are most at risk of biological degradation as well as the areas that are most likely to be able to be restored and as well to identify areas of risk to Great Lakes health.

Historically, we've identified the Detroit River and the Maumee River as areas of greatest risk, but looking at the more recent maps, we've come to recognize, using both the maps and also new genetic techniques, that places like the Thames River and the Sydenham have been providing elevated levels of nutrients that are giving rise to hazardous algal blooms both in Lake St. Clair on the north shore of Lake Erie and other areas that are synonymous with the types of things we've been seeing coming from the Maumee.

Other contemporary threats of ecological and economic use include the effects—

3:50 p.m.


The Chair Conservative Harold Albrecht

Excuse me. I'm just going to interrupt you for a minute. We have a 10-minute window. You're at eight minutes. You have a number of pages. I don't know if you want to prioritize some of the other pages. I hate to interrupt, but I'll give you that extra time though.

3:50 p.m.

Professor, University of Windsor, As an Individual

Dr. Jan Ciborowski

Thank you.

Shoreline development, episodically low water levels, as Mr. Sweetnam has described, and most especially the threats of invasive species are the really major threats. The prospect of Asian carp entering the Great Lakes through the Chicago channel and elsewhere is perhaps the most serious threat of causing changes in the entire food web. If we were to prioritize, that would be at the top.

We have a new annex to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement that has identified 12 different areas of concern or areas of remediation. There have been binational task forces formed that are addressing these according to very strict timelines, and I'm very confident that these will help prioritize and lead to strategies.

There are many efforts under way to speed restoration. In the U.S., we have the Great Lakes restoration initiative that's seen the investment of several hundreds of millions of dollars to deal with the greatest areas. Expenditures in Canada have been more modest but are still directed to specific risks. The Great Lakes nutrient initiative, which we hope will be matched by the province, is expected to have great effects.

The greatest threat I see, though, over the last five years has been a real lack in planning to assess the effectiveness of all this remediation. We've seen huge investment in repairs and trying to deal with things. What we seem to have lost at the same time, though, is the ability to communicate binationally. As Mr. Sweetnam mentioned, these efforts are binational. They work at much greater scales. What we've lost is the ability to travel, the ability to interact, and this is going to be absolutely essential.

If we're going to understand the effectiveness of these things, we have to know what things were like before, what they're like after, and what the basin-wide loads and restorations are. It's absolutely essential that we realize that the lakes and biota don't recognize political boundaries and that the processes are organized by the flow of materials from the watersheds and mixed into the lakes.

Consequently we need coordination and discussion among these different levels of government. Fiscal constraint and travel and communication restrictions have been very significant impediments to understanding how effective the initiatives are. I would really argue that the realignment of personnel and reorganization of departments, as well as these restrictions, have really led to impediments.

I'm very confident that with the new Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the assessment, and commitment to these task groups will lead to a re-establishment of those communications, and I really look forward to a reappearance of that lost dialogue.

3:50 p.m.


The Chair Conservative Harold Albrecht

Thank you very, Mr. Ciborowski.

We move now to Mr. James Brennan with Ducks Unlimited.

Mr. Brennan.

3:50 p.m.

James Brennan Director, Government Affairs, Ducks Unlimited Canada

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Ducks Unlimited Canada is grateful for the opportunity to appear before this committee on this important issue. My name is Jim Brennan. I'm the director of government affairs based here in Ottawa and my colleague, Dr. Mark Gloutney, also based here in Ottawa, joins me here today. Mark is director of regional operations for eastern Canada.

Ducks Unlimited Canada maintains a very keen interest in water quantity and water quality in the Great Lakes Basin, primarily because of the high importance of this area for waterfowl and Ducks' mission. In fact, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence valley ecozone is widely recognized in the waterfowl conservation community as being continentally significant, with the coastal wetland habitats of the lower lakes supporting millions of migrating ducks, geese, and swans, and the supporting inland wetlands being the nursery to many of the birds that migrate up and down the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways. Today we'll categorize water quality issues into two broad categories: sediment-based issues and water-based issues.

Sediment-based issues refer to those issues that concern suspended particulates in the water, including those materials accumulated along the beds and banks of water bodies via erosion, among other reasons. Most often, elevated levels of sediment results in issues like turbidity or contaminant buildup. These issues tend to be localized and well-known, and have formed the basis for ongoing remediation strategies over a number of decades.

On the other hand, water-based issues typically generate lake-wide and sometimes even basin-wide effects. As you are no doubt aware, these can have very serious social, economic, and ecological impacts. Water-based issues are largely the result of activities within the broader watershed, both activities undertaken in and around water as well as activities undertaken in adjacent upland areas. Phosphorus loading is an example of one issue that arises from broader land use practices in a watershed and that has far-reaching water quality effects.

While the negative effects of sediment buildup and runoff in the Great Lakes are significant, our core area of expertise is in wetlands and water. As such the balance of our comments will focus on water-based issues. On this matter we are pleased to report that we bring some good news. Wetland conservation and restoration form a practical and highly effective part of the solution to improve Great Lakes water quality.

At this time I'd like now to hand over the balance of our presentation to Dr. Gloutney.

3:55 p.m.

Mark Gloutney Director, Regional Operations, Eastern Region, Ducks Unlimited Canada

Thanks, Jim.

Wetlands are nature's water treatment plants. Abundant, intact wetlands remove phosphorous and provide important services that reduce the amount—

3:55 p.m.


The Chair Conservative Harold Albrecht

Just a moment. I'm not getting translation, but I'm not sure if anyone else is.

Sorry, start again. We'll give you that extra time.

3:55 p.m.

Director, Regional Operations, Eastern Region, Ducks Unlimited Canada

Mark Gloutney

Wetlands are nature's water treatment plants. Abundant, intact wetlands remove phosphorous and provide important services that reduce the amount of other impurities that enter our streams, rivers and ultimately the Great Lakes.

Ducks Unlimited Canada recently completed a research project to evaluate the impacts of wetland loss in the Lake Simcoe Watershed. This watershed, as many of you will know, is situated in the heart of one of the most highly developed rural landscapes in Canada, one hour north of Toronto, and is roughly 744 km2 in surface area.

Our science clearly indicates that wetlands are critical to solving Lake Simcoe's water quality problems. For example, the results were very sobering for us. It provides that if all of the remaining wetlands on one small tributary, the Black River subwatershed near Sutton, were lost, the impacts would include: an 891% increase in phosphorus loading—this is equivalent to dumping 47 tonnes or 22,000 bags of lawn fertilizer into the river every year—a 13% decrease in groundwater recharge capabilities, which have direct linkages to water quality; a 251% increase in sediment loading, also impacting water quality; and a 260% increase in nitrogen loading, which will impact public use, swimming, and recreation.

The research also revealed that Black River wetlands' removal of phosphorus saves the local municipalities about $300,000 per year. Further wetland loss would significantly affect the benefits of the financial investments in local water treatment facilities in the Lake Simcoe watershed. Losing approximately 25% or 2,088 hectares of the remaining wetlands would negate the current amount of phosphorus removal services of the Sutton Water Pollution Control Plant. Losing another 52 hectares of wetland would negate the additional removal capacity of the recent $3.8 million upgrade to the Sutton plant.

Additional economic research revealed that wetlands in the Lake Simcoe basin are estimated to be worth $11,172 per hectare annually or $435 million per year.

The most valued services these wetlands provide are water regulation, water filtration, flood control, waste treatment, recreation, and wildlife habitat, followed by climate regulation.

In the end, the science clearly demonstrates that investments in green infrastructure, like wetlands, are critical to retaining and enhancing grey infrastructure investments. While the information we have presented here relates specifically to Lake Simcoe, this study can be extrapolated throughout the broader Great Lakes Basin and we would expect the same results.

As such, there is considerable reason to be deeply concerned when we consider the current wetland loss trends in Ontario.

In spite of the significant values that wetlands provide, wetland losses within the Great Lakes watershed have been and continue to be substantial. For example, in southern Ontario we've lost 72% of wetlands, corresponding to 1.4 million hectares. This corresponds to the size of three-quarters of Lake Ontario. The loss continues with an additional 70,854 hectares of wetlands lost larger than 10 hectares, between 1982 and 2002. In the Lake Erie watershed, more than 85% of wetlands have been lost. Losses of Great Lakes coastal wetlands have also been substantial and in the same order of magnitude. Losses on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes have been comparable, averaging 65%.

Take a moment to imagine scaling our Black Creek findings up to the entire Great Lakes Basin, which is approximately 245,000 square kilometres when combined. Imagine what disastrous effects will result if we continue to lose more wetlands within the Great Lakes watershed. On the other hand, we would ask you to please take a moment to imagine an alternative picture, one where we work together to ensure that existing wetlands remain intact and functional and make a strong effort to restore wetlands in areas where they have been lost or degraded.

To Ducks Unlimited Canada, this picture looks like millions of dollars saved in foregone capital expenditures on environmental relief and rehabilitation; sustainable, renewable industries that rely on the health and integrity of the Great Lakes Basin; a healthy tourism and agricultural sector; healthy populations; and extensive social and ecological co-benefits, like habitat for fish and wildlife and upcoming generations of Canadians who connect with and to nature.

So how do we do this?

We are making some grounds programmatically and in recognizing the roles that wetlands play as a viable part of the solution. For example, the recent Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement explicitly includes wetlands as a key important habitat. Long-standing partnerships like the North American Waterfowl Management Plan persist and continue to invest in habitats on the ground. In Ontario alone, this partnership has resulted in the conservation of seven million hectares with an investment of $193 million.

Environment Canada's natural areas conservation program is a federal securement tool that has been used by conservation partners like Ducks Unlimited to purchase and permanently protect critical wetland habitats, including vital Great Lakes coastal wetlands, an important inland wetland complex.

While these programs and initiatives are excellent and must continue, we insist that more needs to be done. Moving forward, Ducks Unlimited proposes that we must work together, first, to ensure that the values of wetlands and their link to water quality is clear to all Canadians. We must ensure that expanded measures exist to conserve and restore wetlands throughout the Great Lakes watershed. As we have indicated to this committee previously, wetland conservation should be a cornerstone to the Government of Canada's national conservation plan.

Second, we must ensure that long-term funding is available for wetland conservation. Ducks Unlimited Canada calls upon the Government of Canada to increase its financial support for wetland conservation through a new national wetlands conservation fund. Ducks Unlimited Canada stands poised and ready to match this funding commitment.

Third, we must work with other levels of government to ensure that planning is landscape scaled, science based, well coordinated, and that appropriate policies exist to support our wetland conservation objectives.

Fourth, we must engage with our partners on the working landscape and build programs that compel people to make choices that benefit wetlands, and in turn, water quality.

4 p.m.


The Chair Conservative Harold Albrecht

Thank you, Mr. Gloutney. We'll leave the summary for later.

We'll now move to Ms. Mary Muter.

4 p.m.

Mary Muter Vice Chair, Restore Our Water International, Sierra Club of Canada

Good afternoon, honourable members of the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development. Thank you for taking the time today to look into the issues facing the Great Lakes. I know you've had previous speakers here, so we appreciate that.

By way of background, I will tell you that I am a full-time volunteer and have been working on Great Lakes water quality, water quantity, and wetlands for over 25 years. My background is in public health, so that when I first volunteered to sample recreational waters in Georgian Bay for bacteria such as E. coli and fecal streptococci, I carried out that work long before the tragedy of Walkerton happened. I knew then what high levels of these bacteria in the water meant, especially for young children learning to swim. The lesson I learned from that experience is that Environment Canada needs to strengthen the bacteria standards for safe recreational use of fresh water.

Today I wish to follow on the comments made last week by Dr. Pat Chow-Fraser of McMaster University. We have been working with Dr. Chow-Fraser for over 10 years now. Her work with us to identify and assess the wetlands on the east and north shores of Georgian Bay is groundbreaking, as no government agency had previously carried out that work.

At binational meetings around the Great Lakes that I attended, I would often see mapping not showing the extensive wetlands on Georgian Bay. The Great Lakes community, including government agencies, now knows that the most extensive, highest quality, most diverse but also sensitive wetlands in all of the Great Lakes are found in Georgian Bay.

As you know, wetlands provide important fish and wildlife habitat, but also play an important role in removing nutrients and chemicals found in the water. As the previous speaker noted, 70% of wetland habitat has been lost from Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, so there is an elevated need to protect what good wetland habitat we have left in the Great Lakes.

On Georgian Bay, after 14 years of sustained low water levels, Dr. Chow-Fraser has found we have lost an average of 24% of wetland fish habitat. There is a close link to degradation of water quality in a now shallow base that, because of the sustained low water levels, has lost the necessary exchange of water with open Georgian Bay water.

Over the past three summers, in the south shores of the bay, including Wasaga Beach Provincial Park, there have been significant die-offs, with dead waterfowl and fish washing up on the beaches. The cause is not certain but appears to be related to the low water levels, concentrating nutrients in shallow or warmer waters, resulting in algal blooms allowing for the growth of bacteria.

For some reason, the endangered, like sturgeon, have been targeted with dead three- to five-foot fish washing up on the shores. These die-offs would hit front-page news if this was happening on Lake Ontario shorelines, but because we are removed from easy reporting distance, it simply does not get covered.

This summer we will be setting up a citizen's botulism watch program and we'll have folks collect freshly dead birds and fish. We will freeze them and then send them to a lab at the new university in Oshawa that has a secure lab to test for botulism, so we can finally determine the cause of this.

Today, I do not have time to go into all of the Great Lakes issues there are, so I will focus on Asian carp and water levels.

I am sure you are all aware of the significant threat posed by the very large invasive carp species that are at the doorstep to the Great Lakes at Chicago. The silver carp feed by filtering out the tiny organisms that are at the bottom of the food chain for our native fish thereby disrupting the food chain. They can eat up to the equivalent of their weight in food daily, and grow up to over 100 pounds and four to five feet in length.

They spawn three times a year and adults can lay up to a million eggs each time. We have nothing like that right now in the Great Lakes. Other invasive carp species feed on wetland plants and tear the plants apart in doing so. These very invasive fish have the potential to decimate the $8 billion plus recreational Great Lakes fishery.

Early in January of this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released its report on options to prevent these fish from getting into the Great Lakes. The public comment period ended yesterday, but let me highlight two of our concerns.

First, the report made no mention of the risk these fish pose to Canadian waters. Our Department of Fisheries and Oceans completed an excellent risk assessment in 2005 that showed all four species now present in the Mississippi River posed a high risk to infiltrate into Canadian waters. The silver carp is the most aggressive. DFO determined that it would take over our lakes and rivers all the way up to James Bay and west to Alberta. But in 2009 a joint risk assessment was carried out by DFO with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That risk assessment showed that once in Lake Michigan, the silver carp would infiltrate all of Lake Huron, Georgian Bay, and Lake Erie within five years.

This is an unacceptable risk and Canada needs to let American authorities know more clearly that under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement the U.S. has obligations to prevent these fish from getting into the Great Lakes. The cost of prevention is much less than the millions we spend annually just to keep the numbers of one invasive species down, the sea lamprey. Scientists now know we will never be able to eradicate just this one invasive.

Second, the army corps listed eight options for preventing Asian carp from getting into Lake Michigan. The fish are now 60 miles away from entering the Great Lakes at Chicago. The army corps have listed the status quo, the electric barriers, as an option. Last summer the corps revealed that video footage taken at the electric barriers showed schools of four-inch fish swimming right through the barriers. In other words, the barriers should not be listed as an option. The only responsible option is total separation of connections between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River.

Let me now turn back to water levels. We have an opportunity here to correct a 50-year-old failure to act. In the 1950s and early 1960s the last formal deepening dredging took place in the navigation channels in the Great Lakes. A Canada-U.S. agreement was signed at that time that said that a condition of the dredging to deepen the channels to 27 feet was that the U.S. army corps would install compensation measures in the upper St. Clair River.

St. Clair River connects Lake Huron down through Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River to Lake Erie. But Environment Canada could not agree with the U.S. army corps on how many submerged sills or speed bumps should be placed on the riverbed. The project was being funded entirely by the Americans, but after 10 years the U.S. Congress withdrew the funding but not the authorization. Our governments agreed that there was a permanent lowering of Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, and Georgian Bay as a result of the deepened channel, but they thought it was a one-time drop and no further lowering would take place.

However, when water levels plummeted four feet beginning in 1999, we began working with a team of engineers as we suspected something had happened in the St. Clair River that contributed to the sudden drop that went beyond the decline related to decreased precipitation. Now 15 years later, erosion in the upper St. Clair River has been confirmed by the International Joint Commission as a contributing factor to the low water levels. The IJC has now advised our governments—almost a year ago—that Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, and Georgian Bay levels be restored via flexible measures in the St. Clair River.

After over 100 years of human alterations, including dredging, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, and Georgian Bay have been lowered by 50 centimetres, or 20 inches. This has not happened to any of the other Great Lakes. They have control boards and the ability to maintain their lake levels. This is an uncompensated loss. As a result, today there is a significant imbalance of water levels in the Great Lakes. Lake Superior, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario are all at or above their long-term average; but Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, and Georgian Bay are 34 centimetres, or 13 inches below their long-term average.

The U.S. government has now gone ahead and provided some funding to the U.S. army corps to begin their general re-evaluation report of the St. Clair River compensation design. In Canada, I have been assured that three senior cabinet ministers plus several MPs are seeking a coordinated Government of Canada response. We await that response. Canada, unfortunately, does not have any government agency like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that is capable of undertaking a project like this. We need to be at the table and announcing support for the IJC's advice and some funding so that we can then become a partner to resolving this.

This past winter's cold and snow across the Great Lakes has brought some temporary raising of all water levels, but the imbalance remains. In addition, virtually all of the experts are advising us that this truly is just a blip in the weather, not a change in the climate. The Great Lakes water is only 1% renewable; 99% is a glacial-age deposit. The time to act is now to restore the balance of water levels in the Great Lakes by compensating for the human-induced loss of water from Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, and Georgian Bay down the deepened St. Clair River.

I have some graphs to illustrate my point, and I think you should have a copy of this graph showing the increased conveyance over the past 100 years through the St. Clair River. This is basically the capacity of the channel.

4:10 p.m.


The Chair Conservative Harold Albrecht

The committee members don't have a copy because it wasn't in both official languages. I happen to have a copy, but the other members don't.

4:10 p.m.

Vice Chair, Restore Our Water International, Sierra Club of Canada

Mary Muter

Oh, okay.

4:10 p.m.


The Chair Conservative Harold Albrecht

Ms. Muter, your time is up. You can maybe refer to that during some of the questions that come your way.

We're going to move to our questions. I just want to clarify—

Sorry, go ahead.

4:10 p.m.


Stephen Woodworth Conservative Kitchener Centre, ON

There are two items before us that we haven't had access to that might be useful to us. One is the chart that Ms. Muter just mentioned and the other would be the full text of Professor Ciborowski's comments—and I was rather intrigued by them. So I wondered if it would be in order to request that those items be in some fashion provided to the clerk and translated for distribution to the members. I would appreciate it, at least.

4:10 p.m.


The Chair Conservative Harold Albrecht

We will. I'm sorry, I wasn't aware that Mr. Ciborowski's comments weren't available in both languages. I had them here.

Okay, we're going to move to the rounds of questions. I will just remind committee members we will probably need to discontinue at 5:15 because of the bells that are projected for the votes that are coming up. We will move now to the opening round of seven minutes.

Mr. Carrie, please.

4:15 p.m.


Colin Carrie Conservative Oshawa, ON

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

I want to thank the witnesses for being here today. I have so many questions, so I'd like to start off right away with Ducks Unlimited.

My understanding is that our government is currently providing almost another $370,000 towards your Lake Simcoe-southeastern Georgian Bay wetland collaborative through the Lake Simcoe-southeastern Georgian Bay cleanup fund. I was wondering, could you elaborate a little bit on that program?

4:15 p.m.


The Chair Conservative Harold Albrecht

Mr. Gloutney.

4:15 p.m.

Director, Regional Operations, Eastern Region, Ducks Unlimited Canada

Mark Gloutney

That's a project we're working on to increase the overall awareness of wetlands and wetland conservation issues in the geographic area that the fund is targeted to, which is sort of Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe.

We have a number of different elements within it. Some of them are directly related to some restoration activities on wetlands. There is another element that looks at mapping, to provide details for planners on the wetlands that actually exist within that landscape. Another key element is outreach. We're taking the information that we have and providing it to land planners and partners on the landscape, so that they can begin to understand and incorporate wetlands conservation into their official planning processes and in their overall municipal planning.

4:15 p.m.


Colin Carrie Conservative Oshawa, ON

That's great.

I think it's really important that people understand the importance of wetlands, so I was wondering if you could comment on how wetlands help restore and sustain Great Lakes water quality and ecosystem health.

4:15 p.m.

Director, Regional Operations, Eastern Region, Ducks Unlimited Canada

Mark Gloutney

That's a broad question.

4:15 p.m.


Colin Carrie Conservative Oshawa, ON

It is, yes.

4:15 p.m.

Director, Regional Operations, Eastern Region, Ducks Unlimited Canada

Mark Gloutney

I think there are a number of primary ways in which they do that. First and foremost is in terms of removing nutrients and sediments and preventing those elements from entering into the lake and causing the disruption of the lake ecosystem; that's the primary one.

In terms of the value of the wetlands, they are critical habitats. They are important to waterfowl, which is why Ducks Unlimited is interested in them, but also to a multitude of other species that are critically important, things like the fish that live in the Great Lakes and Great Lakes Basin and that are important to people. They are one of the highest densities of species at risk that occur within our wetlands along the Great Lakes.

I think the other key value that they provide as well is mitigation of flooding by providing storage and intercepting water as it's moving through the systems.

Also, I talked in my presentation about some of the economic consequences of having those wetlands in place and the functions that they provide.