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.