Niagara River: Area of Concern

The Niagara River was designated a binational Area of Concern (AOC) in 1987 under the Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Shoreline alterations and industrial and municipal pollution contributed to the degraded  environmental quality. Eight out of 14 beneficial use impairments (BUIs) were identified, which measure the environmental, human health or economic impact of poor water quality. A further two were deemed “requiring further assessment”, meaning more information was required to determine whether they were impaired.

Accomplishments

Over the past 30 years, there has been significant progress in restoring the water and environmental quality of the river. On the Canadian side, this includes:

  • completing 25 projects to address nutrient and pollutant runoff from the surrounding rural land from entering the watershed
  • completing actions to address the results of a 2019 study that identified sources of bacteria that made the water unsafe for swimming at a local beach
  • reducing loads for 18 priority toxics—industrial chemicals such as chlorinated benzenes and pesticides— by up to 99% between 1986 and 1995 and a significant decline in the concentration of chemicals in water, fish and wildlife
  • creating 147 hectares of wetland habitat and planting of 54 kilometres of shoreline vegetation along local waterways
  • completing the Welland River fish barrier program to improve or remove 165 fish barriers that may be affecting fish migration, opening up 800 kilometres of fish passage
  • restoring over 750 metres of eroding riverbank through the Niagara River Bank Stabilization Project
  • removing contaminated sediment from the Welland River (approximately 10,000 cubic metres) and Lyons Creek West to prevent contaminants from entering the Niagara River 

Restoration of beneficial uses

Over the last decade, significant progress has been made to improve environmental conditions on the Canadian side. These beneficial uses are no longer considered “impaired”:

  • bird or animal deformities or reproduction problems (2009)
  • restrictions on dredging activities (2009)
  • fish tumours or other deformities (2009)
  • eutrophication or undesirable algae (2019)
  • degradation of phytoplankton and zooplankton populations (2019)

Work continues on restoring the remaining beneficial uses:

  • restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption – an updated analysis on fish contaminants is being completed and a community survey is being conducted to determine which Niagara River fish are consumed and in what quantities. There is no impairment affecting wildlife consumption.
  • degradation of benthos – of the original 14 contaminated sediment sites in need of addressing, 11 are no longer toxic to benthic communities, which are important for a healthy ecosystem, and two were cleaned up (Welland Reef was remediated in 1995 and Lyons Creek West in 2007). The remaining site, Lyons Creek East, has  protections in place to prevent the disturbance of contaminated sediment and a long-term monitoring plan is being implemented.
  • loss of fish and wildlife habitat – efforts to create additional wetland habitat and to improve over ten kilometres of riparian/nearshore habitat along the upper Niagara River is underway. Monitoring of changes in the ecosystem will take place to evaluate the success of restoration efforts.
  • degradation of fish and wildlife populations – a study concluded that waterbird populations are as healthy as those in other Great Lakes reference sites, which means environmental contaminants are not impacting species reproduction and population. A multi-year study is in progress to assess the health of Niagara River fish populations.

Recent actions

The overall health of the Niagara River has improved through these recent actions:

  • creation of three hectares of new coastal wetland habitat in five locations, which  provides important nursery habitat for walleye, musky and other fish species in Gonder’s Flats, Usshers Creek, Bakers Creek, Boyer’s Creek and Frenchman’s Creek in the upper portion of the Niagara River.
  • naturalizing and improving almost 10 kilometers of shoreline habitat to provide wildlife and fish with added shelter and food, while also reducing soil erosion to improve water quality

Remaining actions

We will continue to work with local and provincial partners to support restoration actions and the environmental monitoring and assessment studies needed to confirm environmental quality objectives are met. Priorities are to:

  • continue creating and improving nearshore and wetland habitat
  • monitor and assess changes in sediment and benthos within Lyons Creek East
  • continue implementing the Niagara River Toxics Management Plan and associated water quality monitoring to further address sources of industrial pollution to the Niagara River

Outlook

The Niagara River has seen significant progress towards restoration since its designation as an AOC. Under the Canada-Ontario Agreement on Great Lakes Water Quality and Ecosystem Health, we work with the province of Ontario to continue making progress towards remediation, environmental recovery and restoration of beneficial uses. As a binational AOC, Canada and the United States continue to work closely together to achieve restoration and eventual delisting.

Our partners

On the Canadian side, we partner with other levels of government, non-government groups, Indigenous communities and members of the public. This restoration work requires a large amount of scientific and technical expertise, local knowledge, hard work and the help of:

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