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The Ontario and federal governments have signed the latest (8th) version of the Canada-Ontario Agreement on Great Lakes Water Quality and Ecosystem Health (2014 COA). The purpose of this agreement is to implement Canada’s commitments to protect the Great Lakes made in partnership with the United States under the Canada-United States Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA). This bi-national agreement was first entered into in 1978; the latest version came into force February 12, 2013.

The 1978 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement brought the U.S. and Canadian governments together on these issues for the first time. Since then, the COA between Ontario and the federal government has been the key mechanism for Canada making good on its promises.

Arguably, these agreements have had some positive effect on the Lakes, e.g., a reduction in certain toxic chemicals like mercury. But what is the latest focus, and how healthy are the lakes based on identifiable bench marks? That is unclear. The federal government says: “The current trend for landscapes and natural processes that influence the Great Lakes is improving.” But as to actual water quality and fish, “The current trend for water quality and aquatic life that depend on the Great Lakes is deteriorating.”

Under the 1987 amendment to the GLWQA, 17 Canadian “Areas of Concern” were identified—areas where environmental quality was considered to be significantly degraded—with the goal of delisting these areas after restoration of environmental quality. The 2010 progress report disclosed that only 3 Areas of Concern had been delisted in 20+ years; Collingwood Harbour (1994), Severn Sound (2003) and Wheatley Harbour (2010). The current agreement (2014) prioritizes action to delist five other areas: Nipigon Bay, Peninsula Harbour, Niagara River, Bay of Quinte, and St. Lawrence River (Cornwall). For other areas like Toronto and Hamilton Harbour, the plan aims to “reduce microbial and other contaminants and excessive nutrients from municipal sewage plants, combined sewer outflows, urban stormwater and industrial wastewater,” although specific bench marks are not identified.

The previous version of this COA (signed in 2007) expired over two years ago on June 24, 2012. The current agreement does appear to be more ambitious than its predecessory. The 2007 COA identified four areas of focus: Harmful Pollutants, Areas of Concern, Lake & Basin Sustainability, and Coordination of Monitoring, Research and Information. The 2014 COA identifies 14 areas of focus or “Annexes”, including understanding Climate Change Impacts, Invasive Species and Promoting Innovation by, for example, “working with companies to commercialize [] new technologies in the water sector/market.”

The term of this COA is from December 18, 2014 until December 17, 2019. Let’s hope it will produce some real improvements in Great Lake water quality.

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