Niagara River: Area of Concern

The Niagara River Remedial Action Plan process is a collaborative, consensus-building process involving many agencies, and has included extensive consultation with the public during all stages of its development and implementation. Extensive progress on restoring the Area of Concern (AOC) has been made, through the clean-up of contaminated sediment, the creation of extensive fish and wildlife habitat, and the reduction of nutrients entering the watercourses.

Why it was listed as an Area of Concern

The Niagara River was designated an AOC because a review of available data indicated that water quality and environmental health were severely degraded. Elevated levels of toxic chemicals in the river and fish were found; the chemicals originated from contaminated sediments on the Canadian side of the river.

As a result, nine of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement's 14 beneficial use indicators (BUIs) of environmental quality were deemed as impaired and 1 as requiring further assessment.

What has been accomplished

Through the combined efforts of Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Province of Ontario, local industry, concerned citizens and other partners, there have been many improvements toward restoring the Canadian section of the Niagara River AOC. As a result, 4 beneficial uses have been restored and re-designated as “not impaired”: fish tumours or other deformities, bird and animal deformities or reproductive problems, and restrictions on dredging activities in 2009, and degradation of phyto- and zooplankton populations in 2019.

Efforts continue to restore the remaining 6 impaired beneficial uses: restrictions on fish consumption, loss of fish and wildlife habitat, degradation of fish and wildlife populations, eutrophication or undesirable algae, beach closings, and degradation of benthos. With contributions of approximately $7.8 Million since 1990, Environment and Climate Change Canada has collaborated with partners on numerous initiatives, including:

  • Removing approximately 10,000 cubic metres of contaminated sediment from the Welland River and the removal of arsenic-contaminated sediment from Lyons Creek West
  • Completing 25 projects to remediate non-point pollution sources in the Welland River watershed since 1994, which have reduced the entry of nutrients from sources such as manure from entering local watercourses, and ultimately, the Niagara River
  • Creating 147 hectares of wetland and 338 hectares of forest, as well as the planting of 54 kilometres of shoreline vegetation along local waterways
  • Completing the Welland River fish barrier program which resulted in the mitigation or removal of 165 fish barriers, opening up 800 kilometres of fish passage
  • Restoring over 750 metres of eroding river bank through the Niagara River Bank Stabilization Project
  • Creating extensive areas of coastal wetlands to provide nursery habitat for walleye, musky and other species in the Niagara River, including improvements at Gonder’s Flats, Usshers Creek and Bakers Creek

There have also been significant declines in the concentrations of chemicals in water, fish and wildlife. Monitoring undertaken through the Niagara River Toxics Management Plan has shown that pollutant loads of 18 priority toxics (such as chlorinated benzenes, pesticides, Mirex and industrial chemicals) in Ontario have been reduced by up to 99% between 1986 and 1995.

What’s left to do

An updated fish contaminant analysis will be completed using multiple lines of evidence, and a community survey will be conducted to determine which Niagara River fish are actually consumed, and in what quantities. This will help define the status of the restrictions on the fish consumption BUI.

A track-down study completed in 2019 identified sources of bacteria that result in restrictions on swimming at one beach in the Canadian section of the AOC, and efforts are underway to design and plan implementation of remedial actions to address the issue.

The creation of aquatic and wetland habitat will continue, including work to improve approximately 2 kilometres of riparian and nearshore habitat along the shoreline of the upper Niagara River, which directly addresses the loss of fish and wildlife habitat and degradation of fish and wildlife populations impaired beneficial uses. Monitoring of changes in the ecosystem is also on-going, to evaluate the success of restoration efforts.

Of the original 14 focus sites for contaminated sediment assessment and/or management on the Canadian side of the AOC, 11 have no acute or chronic toxicity in the benthic community and 2 were cleaned-up (i.e., “Welland Reef” site was remediated in 1995, Lyons Creek West was remediated in 2007). The remaining site – Lyons Creek East – has an administrative controls protocol in place to prevent disturbance of polychlorinated biphenyl-contaminated sediment, and a long-term monitoring plan is being implemented.

Continued implementation of the Niagara River Toxics Management Plan and associated actions to further address point and non-point sources of toxic contamination is continuing which will help to benefit the restrictions on the fish consumption BUI.

Outlook

The Niagara River is a binational AOC, meaning that continued effort is required in both Canada and the United States to achieve delisting. Environment and Climate Change Canada will continue to work with local and provincial partners to support restoration actions and the environmental monitoring and assessment studies needed to confirm that environmental quality objectives are met.

Partners

Efforts in the Niagara River (Canadian section) are undertaken in a partnership between the Government of Canada, other levels of government and non-government groups, including members of the public.

Undertaking environmental restoration requires a large amount of scientific and technical expertise, local knowledge and hard work. One agency or group cannot engage in such a large task on its own, without the help of others.

Listed below are participants that have contributed to efforts in the Niagara River (Canadian section):

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