Through the binational process, Canada and the U.S. adopted a 40 percent load reduction target for Lake Erie’s western and central basins, based on extensive consultation on both sides of the border which included participation from the Province of Ontario. These targets were adopted by Ontario by virtue of provisions within the Canada-Ontario Agreement on Great Lakes Water Quality and Ecosystem Health, 2014 (COA).
Ontario is adopting a target of 40 percent phosphorus load reduction by 2025 (from 2008 levels), using an adaptive management approach, for the Ontario portion of the western and central basins of Lake Erie, as well as an aspirational interim goal of a 20 percent reduction by 2020, in order to assist in the reduction of algal blooms under Part IV subsection 9 (2) of the Great Lakes Protection Act, 2015 (GLPA).
Further, Ontario is seeking early public input on proposed actions which will support the development of a draft Canada-Ontario Action Plan for Lake Erie. These proposed actions and subsequent Action Plan will comprise the plan required under subsection 9 (5) of the GLPA.
Ontario and Canada will engage the Great Lakes community, including First Nations, Métis, and specific sectors on a draft Action Plan for Lake Erie.
The Great Lakes are integral to the health, social and cultural well-being, and economic prosperity for all those who live and work within the basin. For millennia, Indigenous peoples have lived in the Great Lakes Basin – fishing, hunting, farming and trading, while maintaining a spiritual and cultural relationship with the Great Lakes. Lake Erie is shared by the people of Ontario and four U.S. states, and it serves as a source of drinking water for over 11 million people. Lake Erie also supports a multi-billion dollar tourism and recreation industry and sustains one of the largest commercial freshwater fisheries in the world.
Lake Erie is the shallowest, warmest and most biologically productive of the five Great Lakes, making it highly sensitive to changes in nutrient levels and susceptible to algal blooms. Each day, the lake receives an estimated 11 billion litres of treated wastewater from Canadian municipal and industrial sources. Approximately 75 percent of the surrounding land base is dedicated to agricultural production. Following extensive phosphorus reduction efforts initiated in the 1970s, algal blooms that had been threatening Lake Erie were largely absent. However, harmful blue-green algae and nuisance algal blooms began to reappear in the mid-1990s.
Today, Lake Erie is once again showing symptoms of extreme ecological stress resulting in large-scale algal blooms that threaten drinking water quality, fish populations, beach quality, coastal recreation, and the overall ecological health of the lake.
There is consensus on both sides of the border that phosphorus is the primary nutrient that needs to be reduced. A number of contributing factors have been linked to algae such as increased loads of soluble reactive phosphorus (a form of phosphorus that is easily absorbed and available to algae), invasive species such as zebra mussels, changes to agricultural systems, and changes in climate.
Excess phosphorus is causing stress within the western, central and eastern basins of Lake Erie:
- Harmful “blue-green” algae (cyanobacteria that look like algae) bloom in the western basin and may contain toxins that can be harmful to humans and wildlife.
- Low oxygen (hypoxia) in the central basin is caused by the decomposition of dying algae that use up the oxygen in the lake bottom, depriving aquatic organisms (e.g., fish) of oxygen.
- Nuisance algae (Cladophora) in the eastern basin can clog water intakes, impede recreational uses, and degrade aquatic habitat. Algae decomposition can encourage bacterial growth and in some severe cases cause botulism resulting in bird and fish mortality.
The amount of phosphorus going into Lake Erie is variable and is dependent in large part on runoff from the land, and therefore is heavily influenced by weather which varies from season to season and from year to year. Phosphorus loads tend to be highest in late winter and spring, and years that receive more rain will generally have higher loads of phosphorus than drier years. Sources of phosphorus entering Lake Erie are generally considered to be either point sources (e.g., municipal and industrial wastewater treatment plants) or non-point sources (e.g., agricultural and stormwater runoff). For example, high runoff from fields can cause high phosphorus loadings during wet weather, while loadings are lower in dry conditions. Given the number and types of sources, multi-jurisdictional and multi-stakeholder collaboration and partnerships are essential for reducing nutrient loads to Lake Erie.
Point sources tend to be measured on a regular basis and their variability is relatively low because treatment processes are controlled, resulting in discharges with a fairly constant quality. Non-point sources are highly variable in quality and quantity over the course of a year and loads are more difficult to measure.
In the Ontario portion of the Lake Erie basin, similar to the U.S. portion of the basin, a significant majority of the loads are from non-point sources.
Commitments to Reduce Excess Phosphorus:
Without reducing the amount of phosphorus entering the lake, we will continue to see extensive algal growth and low oxygen conditions in Lake Erie. Ambitious and aggressive actions to reduce phosphorus loads are needed to restore and protect the lake’s water quality and ecological health.
Following public consultation, Canada and the U.S. formally adopted a science-based binational target of 40 percent reduction in phosphorus loads for the western and central basins from 2008 levels, based on an adaptive management framework. Canada’s allocated portion of this reduction is 212 tonnes, while the U.S. reduction is 3,315 tonnes. This includes reducing phosphorus loadings by 40 percent from key watersheds on both sides of the lake where localized algae is a problem, including two watersheds in Ontario: Thames River and Leamington tributaries. Ontario participated in the development of these targets and fully supports collaborative efforts at all levels to reduce excess phosphorus entering Lake Erie. At this time, a target for the eastern basin has yet to be established and requires further scientific assessment. Ontario is participating in the development of this eastern basin target.
Ontario and Canada are committed to working together, through the COA, to develop a draft Action Plan for Lake Erie. The Canada-Ontario Action Plan will identify actions which are aimed at reducing nutrient loads to meet the binational targets applicable to the Ontario portion of Lake Erie, as well as those that will help to monitor and track future progress in meeting these targets.
In keeping with the need for early action, Ontario signed the Western Basin of Lake Erie Collaborative Agreement (Collaborative Agreement) with the States of Michigan and Ohio on June 13, 2015, collectively committing through an adaptive management process to a recommended 40 percent total load reduction in phosphorus entering Lake Erie's western basin by 2025, with an aspirational interim goal of a 20 percent reduction by 2020 (from a 2008 base year). Working with the bordering U.S. Lake Erie States of Ohio, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania through the Great Lakes Commission, Ontario collaborated on the development of the Joint Action Plan which aligns with other binational and domestic nutrient efforts currently underway.
Ontario is also taking action at home to complement these efforts. Ontario’s 12-Point Plan on blue-green algal blooms outlines how we are working with our many partners to prevent and respond to blooms in the Great Lakes and other lakes and rivers, and to protect drinking water supplies.
Ontario continues to work with partners on a number of other related initiatives to protect the health of Lake Erie, including COA, Lake Erie Lakewide Action and Management Plan, Lake Erie Binational Nutrient Management Strategy, and Remedial Action Plans in the Lake Erie basin. The province is also supporting various watershed plans and initiatives, which are underway with partners from all levels of government, conservation authorities, Indigenous peoples, local communities, and key sector groups.
Although Ontario’s current nutrient reduction efforts are focused on Lake Erie, future efforts will be directed to Lake Ontario as the next priority Great Lake.
Canada-Ontario Action Plan for Lake Erie:
It has taken time for Lake Erie to get to its present state and because the environment of such a large lake takes time to adapt and respond to actions, it will take time to see improvements within the environment. Further, as there are many point and non-point sources of phosphorus entering Lake Erie, there is a need for immediate and collective action by all sectors and communities to achieve phosphorus load reductions.
While scientists agree that the majority of the loadings to Lake Erie are from U.S. sources, Ontarians must do their fair share of reducing phosphorus loads by 40 percent. The Canada-Ontario Action Plan for Lake Erie, to be developed by 2018, will identify actions that can be taken by all sectors to meet phosphorus load reduction targets, reduce algal blooms, and help restore Lake Erie for future generations.
Ontario (Ministries of the Environment and Climate Change, Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and Natural Resources and Forestry) is working with Canada and members of the Great Lakes community to develop one plan – the Canada-Ontario Action Plan for Lake Erie (or a Domestic Action Plan, as referenced in the Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA)), which will meet all of Ontario’s binational and domestic commitments related to various nutrient initiatives, including the COA, GLPA, Collaborative Agreement, and Joint Action Plan with U.S. states.
Ontario’s Proposed Actions:
Ontario is seeking early public input to help guide the content of the draft Canada-Ontario Action Plan for Lake Erie as part of a two-stage engagement process – to obtain comments now on proposed high level actions, followed by further public engagement once a draft plan is developed. As such, the following proposed actions are not an exhaustive list, and should be viewed as preliminary.
While the relative contribution from urban point sources is estimated to be approximately 10 to 15 percent of the total load across the basin, potential gains for phosphorus reduction from this source can be made. Urban point sources also have a higher soluble reactive phosphorus content than some other sources, which is a key driver of algae growth, and provides a further rationale for continued action. Achieving reductions in point source loadings may be supported by recent funding announced by Canada and Ontario through the Clean Water and Wastewater Fund (Phase 1 of Canada’s infrastructure commitments, as well as future funding under Phase 2).
Proposed Action: Work with partners to update provincial policies for Lakes Erie and Ontario in order to establish a legal effluent discharge limit of 0.5 milligrams per litre of total phosphorus for all municipal sewage treatment plants (STPs) that have an average daily flow capacity of 3.78 million litres or more per day. This action will bring Ontario’s policies in line with the binational recommendation under the Canada-U.S. GLWQA.
Proposed Action: Work with partners to reduce loadings where feasible, through upgrades to secondary STPs that have an average daily flow capacity of 3.78 million litres or more per day in the Lake Erie basin to a tertiary level of treatment, as well as improvements to wastewater treatment and collection infrastructure to reduce combined sewer overflows and bypasses, and stormwater management systems (including facility rehabilitation and incorporating green infrastructure).
Proposed Action: Ontario will promote and encourage optimization of sewage treatment as a way for municipalities to improve treatment plant performance (including lower phosphorus discharges) and achieve operational efficiencies. As part of this effort, Ontario will continue to support the development of area-wide optimization programs for municipal STPs to reduce phosphorus loads, and make Lake Erie the priority geography for this effort.
Proposed Action: Ontario, in collaboration with the greenhouse sector, will continue to work towards eliminating phosphorus-containing wastewater from entering Leamington area watercourses that flow into Lake Erie, through education, awareness, innovation, cost-shared investments and regulatory compliance and enforcement efforts.
Urban non-point sources account for approximately 5 to 10 percent of the total load across the basin. While stormwater runoff (phosphorus loads) from municipal urbanized and rural areas are estimated to be lower than the loads from municipal sewage treatment facilities, their contribution may be significant in some watersheds.
Proposed Action: Ontario is working with developers and others to promote and support the use of green infrastructure and low impact development (LID), including clarifying and enhancing policies, and developing green standards. Ontario is in the process of drafting a LID guidance manual that will assist proponents in implementing their efforts. The draft manual is expected to be available for public comment in early 2017.
Although septic systems are generally considered to make a minor contribution to the overall phosphorus load to Lake Erie, they can have significant local impact in nearshore areas that have a greater concentration of septic systems. The proper management and maintenance of septic tanks helps prevent phosphorus from entering waterways.
Proposed Action: In collaboration with partners, Ontario is considering enhancing and clarifying regionalized requirements for mandatory pump-out and inspections of septic systems to increase protection of ground and surface water quality.
Ontario has initiated a policy and program review for hauled sewage (e.g., septic tank pump-outs, etc.). Proper management of hauled sewage ensures protection of the environment and waterways, and leads to reduced loadings of phosphorus from rural lands in the Lake Erie basin and province-wide.
Proposed Action: As part of the hauled sewage policy and program review, Ontario will develop, and post for public comment, a draft policy framework for managing hauled sewage in the province.
With approximately 75 percent of the Lake Erie watershed in Ontario in agricultural production, farmland is considered a substantial contributor to the total phosphorus load. Given the variability in land and agricultural systems within the basin, the best approach to reducing phosphorus loss may vary between operations.
Proposed Action: In order to reduce phosphorus runoff during the high risk period (non-growing season), Ontario will partner with the agriculture sector to further enhance its outreach to farmers to promote the application of nutrients at the right time and is considering tighter restrictions on the application of nutrients during this period.
Proposed Action: Support for the implementation of an Ontario industry-led 4Rs program (right time, rate, source and placement of nutrients), based on the internationally-recognized 4R Nutrient Stewardship system which helps farmers reduce nutrient losses into the environment through efficient nutrient application.
Proposed Action: Ontario will continue to leverage funding for initiatives such as the Great Lakes Agricultural Stewardship Initiative that support nutrient management and soil health best practices within targeted areas in the Lake Erie basin.
Proposed Action: In collaboration with stakeholders, Ontario is developing an Agricultural Soil Health and Conservation Strategy to support agricultural soil management practices that provide economic, environmental and social benefits to Ontario. A document was released for public input titled “Sustaining Ontario’s Agricultural Soils: Towards a Shared Vision” proposing to build a collaborative framework for developing the strategy, which includes a draft vision, goals and objectives. The importance of long-term soil health is also featured in Ontario’s recently released Climate Change Action Plan and the government intends to provide further support for soil health initiatives.
Proposed Action: Ontario will continue to work with the agricultural sector to enhance and promote environmentally sustainable best practices, including the development of information and tools to increase use of cover crops during the non-growing season to reduce soil loss and field runoff.
Proposed Action: In an effort to support evidence based decisions to ensure healthy lands and waters, Ontario will develop a publicly available digital elevation model of the Lake Erie watershed (based on LiDAR technology) to assist all stakeholders with environmental stewardship planning.
Actions to improve and restore natural areas provide enhanced opportunity for improving the overall health of Lake Erie. For example, wetlands can act as a natural feature for capturing phosphorus.
Proposed Action: Through the implementation of the proposed Wetland Conservation Strategy for Ontario, we will improve wetland protection through strengthened policies to stop the net loss of wetlands and sustain essential ecosystem services, including improved water quality.
Proposed Action: Ontario will explore opportunities to target funds for wetland restoration/rehabilitation in priority basins.
Proposed Action: Continue to participate in partnerships such as the Ontario Eastern Habitat Joint Venture that work to promote and conserve Ontario’s wetlands.
Science, Monitoring and Public Reporting
Monitoring loadings and tracking progress to achieve nutrient reductions will be essential for ensuring that actions are making a measurable difference to Lake Erie’s water quality.
Proposed Action: Enhanced monitoring will be undertaken in the Thames River watershed and in Lake St. Clair to better understand the sources and types of phosphorus that are feeding algal growth.
Proposed Action: Ontario will work with its partners to provide an annual update on Lake Erie through its website, and produce a progress report every three years.
Great Lakes Protection Act, 2015:
Ontario’s Great Lakes Protection Act, 2015 provides new tools that can help address algal blooms in Lake Erie. The Act enables partners to come together to achieve shared goals in a particular watershed or geographic area in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin. The GLPA commits the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change to set at least one target by November 2017 to assist in the reduction of algal blooms.
The Minister of the Environment and Climate Change is adopting a target of 40 percent phosphorus load reduction by 2025 (from 2008 levels), using an adaptive management approach, for the Ontario portion of the western and central basins of Lake Erie, as well as an aspirational interim goal of a 20 percent reduction by 2020, in order to assist in the reduction of algal blooms under Part IV subsection 9 (2) of the GLPA. These targets are consistent with efforts being pursued under COA for which an Action Plan for Lake Erie is currently being developed. Ontario recognizes that these targets will need continual assessment based on best available information. To that end, Ontario will work with its partners and apply an adaptive management framework so that targets and actions could be refined as needed based on monitoring, performance measures, and evolving science and information. The Province will report every three years on progress on these targets, as part of regular Great Lakes progress reports mandated under section 8 of the GLPA.
Subsection 9 (4) requires that for each target established, the area to which the target applies must also be specified, and the manner in which public bodies (such as provincial ministries, municipalities, and conservation authorities) in that area should take the target into consideration. The target of a 40 percent phosphorus load reduction will apply to the Ontario portion of the western and central basins of Lake Erie, which includes the waters from the outflow of Lake Huron through Lake St. Clair and the outflow of the Detroit River into the western basin itself. The Canada-Ontario Action Plan for Lake Erie, currently under development with all partners, will set out the manner in which public bodies with jurisdiction in that area should take the target into consideration.
Subsection 9 (5) specifies that for any target established under the GLPA, the Minister shall also prepare a plan setting out the actions that shall be taken to achieve the target. The forthcoming Canada-Ontario Action Plan for Lake Erie will serve as the Minister’s plan for meeting the GLPA Lake Erie target to assist in the reduction of algal blooms.
Once a binational phosphorus reduction target is established for the Lake Erie eastern basin, MOECC will consult on that proposed GLPA target through a future Environmental Registry posting.