Restoring the Great Lakes Areas of Concern
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The Great Lakes basin is Canada's most populated region. Its large population and extensive development places a strain on ecosystem health and benefits to people. This indicator assesses progress on restoring areas with high levels of environmental damage.
- Environmental quality in Canada's 17 Great Lakes Areas of Concern has improved since the restoration program began in 1987
- As of 2019, 4 Areas of Concern have had all impaired beneficial uses restored
Progress on Canadian Great Lakes Areas of Concern, 1987 to 2019
Data table for the long description
|Lake||Area of Concern||Initial assessment
(number of beneficial use impaired)
|Initial assessment year||Year and number of restored beneficial use||2019 assessment year
(number of beneficial use impaired)
|Total beneficial use restored||Beneficial use not impaired|
|Superior||Thunder Bay||7||1991||2004: 1
|St. Marys River||9
|St. Clair River||8
|Detroit River||12||1991||2010: 2
||1992||No restored beneficial use||8||0||6|
|Ontario||Toronto and Region||8
|Ontario||Port Hope Harbour||1||2003||No restored beneficial use||1||0||13|
|Ontario||Bay of Quinte||10||1990||2017: 1
Note: n/a = not applicable. Empty cells indicate a Great Lake tributary river. The number of beneficial uses that are Impaired for 2019 is based on progress reported as of March 31, 2019. While the category "Area of Concern pending delisting" is not an official designation in the Canada-United States Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, it refers to an Area of Concern where all impaired beneficial uses have been restored and the delisting (designating as a restored area of concern) is pending final approval of the completion report. [A] Pending delisting. [B] Area of Concern in Recovery. [C] Restored.
Source: Environment and Climate Change Canada (2019) Great Lakes Areas of Concern Office.
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Note: The initial assessments were published between 1988 and 1993, with the exception of Wheatley Harbour and Port Hope Harbour, which were produced in 1998 and 2003, respectively. The number of beneficial uses that are Impaired for 2019 is based on progress reported as of March 31, 2019. While the category "Area of Concern pending delisting" is not an official designation in the Canada-United States Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, it refers to an Area of Concern where all impaired beneficial uses have been restored and the delisting (designating as a restored area of concern) is pending final approval of the completion report.
Source: Environment and Climate Change Canada (2019) Great Lakes Areas of Concern Office.
In 1987, the Canada-United States Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement identified 43 Areas of Concern around the Great Lakes. Of these Areas of Concern:
- 26 were entirely in American waters and 4 have been restored: Oswego River (2006), Presque Isle Bay (2013), Deer Lake (2014) and White Lake (2014)
- 12 were entirely in Canadian waters
- 5 are shared with the United States
To date, considerable progress has been made towards the restoration of Canada's 17 Areas of Concern. Of the 12 Areas of Concern entirely in Canadian waters:
- 3 have been fully restored and delisted: Collingwood Harbour (1994), Severn Sound (2002) and Wheatley Harbour (2010)
- 1 is in the process of being restored: Nipigon Bay (2016)
- 2 have been formally designated as Areas of Concern in recovery, signifying that the natural recovery of the ecosystem following completion of remedial actions continue to be monitored: Spanish Harbour (1999) and Jackfish Bay (2011)
Status of the Canadian Great Lakes Areas of Concern, 2019
The map shows the location and status of Canada's 17 Great Lakes Areas of Concern. Four (4) Areas of Concern are located on Lake Superior, 3 on Lake Huron, 1 on Lake Erie and 4 on Lake Ontario. The remaining 5 are located on the channels connecting the lakes and are shared by Canada and the United States. As of March 31, 2019, there were 4 Restored Areas of Concern in Canada: Severn Sound and Collingwood Harbour on Lake Huron, Wheatley Harbour on Lake Erie and Nipigon Bay (pending delisting) on Lake Superior. There were also 2 Areas of Concern in Recovery: Spanish Harbour on Lake Huron and Jackfish Bay on Lake Superior.
Source: Environment and Climate Change Canada (2019) Great Lakes Area of Concern Office.
At the 17 Areas of Concern, 121 beneficial uses have been considered to be Impaired since the beginning of the program. Of these beneficial uses, 59 have been restored to a Not impaired status as of March 2019. Efforts continue to restore the remaining 62 Impaired beneficial uses.
About the indicator
About the indicator
What the indicator measures
This indicator assesses progress towards the restoration of Canada's 12 Areas of Concern and the 5 Areas of Concern shared with the United States.
An Area of Concern is a region in the Great Lakes that has experienced a high level of environmental damage from human activity. There are 14 beneficial uses that are considered in order to decide whether an area should be classified as an Area of Concern. Beneficial uses describe how an aquatic ecosystem benefits the economy, human health and the environment: they are the ecological services that are available to the population and the environment when the ecosystem is healthy (not impaired). An Impaired beneficial use has experienced enough changes to the chemical, physical or biological integrity of the area to restrict human use or to restrict the area's ability to support plants and animals.
The status of a beneficial use is determined by monitoring and conducting scientific studies in the Area of Concern. The study results are compared to the findings for reference sites and targets listed in the site's remedial action plan and other update reports.
Why this indicator is important
This indicator is used to provide information about the state of the Great Lakes and the Canadian environment. It tracks the work done to repair the environment at 17 Areas of Concern in Canada. In these areas, the degraded environment has disrupted fisheries, tourism and/or agriculture.
Pristine lakes and rivers
This indicator supports the measurement of progress towards the following 2019 to 2022 Federal Sustainable Development Strategy long-term goal: Clean and healthy lakes and rivers support economic prosperity and the well-being of Canadians.
It is used to assess progress towards the short-term milestone: Work with Ontario, local governments, First Nations, Métis, watershed management agencies, other local public agencies, and community members to implement Remedial Action Plans to restore impaired beneficial uses across all 14 remaining Canadian Great Lakes Areas of Concern, and to assess approximately 19 other beneficial uses to confirm their impairment status.
In addition, the indicator contributes to the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It is linked to the 2030 Agenda's Goal 6: Clean water and sanitation and Target 6.6: "By 2020, protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes."
Finally, the indicator assess progress towards the goals of the Canada-Ontario Agreement on Great Lakes Water Quality and Ecosystem Health. Specifically, it measures progress towards restoring beneficial uses in 5 Canadian Great Lakes Areas of Concern (Nipigon Bay, Peninsula Harbour, Niagara River, Bay of Quinte, and St. Lawrence River) and in the remaining Areas of Concern (Thunder Bay, St. Marys River, St. Clair River, Detroit River, Hamilton Harbour, Toronto and Region, and Port Hope), with a target of increasing the number of beneficial use impairment re-designations from 18 in 2014 to 30 in 2019.
The Phosphorus levels in the offshore waters of the Great Lakes indicator reports on the state of and trends in total phosphorus concentrations in the open waters of the Canadian Great Lakes.
The Water quality in Canadian rivers indicator provides a summary of the state of and trends in water quality in Canada at a national and regional level.
Data sources and methods
Environment and Climate Change Canada's Great Lakes: Areas of Concern program tracks the status of all beneficial uses in Canada's 17 Areas of Concern (including 5 shared with the United States). This information is taken from progress reports, remedial action plans and stage reports published for each area. The most recent data available for each Area of Concern are used to calculate this indicator.
The 2019 data were obtained from Environment and Climate Change Canada's Areas of Concern Office. Progress reports summarizing the status of all beneficial uses for all Canadian Areas of Concern have been compiled every 1 to 2 years since 2003. Prior to 2003, beneficial use classifications were taken from remedial action plans and update reports.
Data coverage for this indicator begins with Severn Sound's Stage 1 report published in 1988 and includes data up to March 31, 2019. The other Areas of Concern released their Stage 1 reports between 1989 and 1993, with the majority being released in 1991. Wheatley Harbour released a combined Stage 1 and 2 report in 1998.
The Port Hope Harbour Area of Concern does not have a remedial action plan. It follows a separate program under the guidance of Natural Resources Canada (the Port Hope Area Initiative) because of the nature of the beneficial use impairment at this site. Only the progress reports compiled since 2003 were considered for Port Hope Harbour.
Description of the Areas of Concern process
The 1987 revision of the Canada-United States Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement identified 43 Areas of Concern in Canadian and American waters of the Great Lakes. All Canadian Areas of Concern, except the Port Hope Harbour Area of Concern, have a remedial action plan to guide restoration and protection efforts targeting specific beneficial uses.Footnote 1
|Impaired beneficial use||Category of impact|
|Restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption||Human health|
|Restrictions on drinking water consumption, or taste and odour problems||Human health|
|Beach closing||Human health|
|Tainting of fish and wildlife flavour||Economy|
|Restrictions on dredging activities||Economy|
|Degradation of aesthetics||Economy|
|Added costs to agriculture or industry||Economy|
|Degradation of fish and wildlife populations||Environment|
|Fish tumours or other deformities||Environment|
|Bird or animal deformities or reproduction problems||Environment|
|Degradation of benthos||Environment|
|Degradation of phytoplankton and zooplankton populations||Environment|
|Eutrophication or undesirable algae||Environment|
|Loss of fish and wildlife habitat||Environment|
In the former process, under the 1987 Protocol to the Canada-United States Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, remedial action plans were developed and implemented in 3 stages.
- Stage 1 identifies which of 14 beneficial uses identified in the Canada-United States Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement are classified as Impaired or Not impaired, as well as the sources and causes of the problem
- Stage 2 establishes the goals, objectives and actions required to restore the ecosystem to a healthy state
Once all recommended actions have been implemented, the Area of Concern either becomes an Area of Concern in Recovery or enters Stage 3 to move toward being declared Restored. An Area of Concern in Recovery is an area originally identified as an Area of Concern where, on the basis of community and government consensus, all scientifically-feasible and economically-reasonable actions have been implemented and additional time is required for the environment to recover. When monitoring confirms an area achieves the criteria for the beneficial use to be considered Restored, it enters Stage 3.
- During Stage 3, progress toward restoration and protection efforts in the Area of Concern is measured against the objectives outlined in the Stage 2 report to ensure the local goals and targets have been met. When the beneficial uses are considered unimpaired, Stage 3 is complete and the Area of Concern is declared Restored.
Under the 2012 Canada-United States Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the process was modified and remedial action plans are now periodically updated to reflect restoration progress. Canada:
- will remove an Impaired beneficial use designation when established criteria have been met
- may elect to identify an Area of Concern as an Area of Concern in Recovery when all actions identified in a remedial action plan have been implemented and monitoring shows recovery is progressing as anticipated
- will remove the Area of Concern or Area of Concern in Recovery designation when environmental monitoring confirms beneficial use restoration criteria have been met
The reports prepared for each Area of Concern and additional information can be found at Great Lakes: Areas of Concern.
The number of beneficial uses listed as Impaired was counted for all Stage 1 reports and all update reports conducted up to the end of March 2019. The results include the beneficial uses for Canada's 12 Areas of Concern, covering the 4 Canadian Great Lakes and their connecting channels, as well as the 5 Areas of Concern shared with the United States.
An Impaired beneficial use can be classified as Restored if all delisting requirements for that beneficial use impairment have been met. Delisting requirements for a beneficial use impairment are established in consideration of conditions that can be eventually achieved on a lake-wide basis.
In past reporting of the indicator, 17 beneficial uses classified as Requiring further assessment in the initial Stage 1 report were included in the Initial assessment impaired totals. In this update, the Initial assessment category only includes those beneficial uses that had an official standing of Impaired beneficial use in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The 17 beneficial uses classified as Requiring further assessment are now accounted for under Not impaired.
Caveats and limitations
This indicator does not show the continuous nature of the rehabilitation process for each Area of Concern because the status for each beneficial use impairment can only change when new reports are published and the party (Canada) has confirmed the status as per the provisions in Annex 1 of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. With progress reports being updated annually, the staggered change is less evident.
Port Hope Harbour follows a separate program under the guidance of Natural Resources Canada.
Environment and Climate Change Canada (2013) 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement: annex 1. Retrieved on June 12, 2019.
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