Great Lakes water quality agreement: areas of concern

Cobble Beach, Wilson Island (Jackfish Bay)

A scenic view of a cobble stone beach shoreline, as waves roll in during sun down. Forty feet from the shoreline, a bank of tall spruce trees line the beach. Small clouds float in the sky.

Photo: © Kate Taillon, Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Objective: To restore beneficial uses of the ecosystem by cleaning up severely contaminated and degraded locations around the Great Lakes.

This annex of the Canada-United States Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) reaffirms the commitment to work toward cleaning up and restoring designated Areas of Concern (AOCs) around the Great Lakes. These are areas where water quality and ecosystem health have been severely degraded by human activities at the local level.

The GLWQA requires that each AOC has a Remedial Action Plan (RAP) to guide restoration and protection efforts.  The prescribed process for developing RAPs has been streamlined, and the Agreement formally recognizes that an AOC may be identified as an AOC in Recovery once all remedial actions have been implemented and monitoring is underway to confirm that identified impairments, such as beach closures, fish tumours or algae have been resolved.

Why is action in Areas of Concern important?

Remediating AOCs contributes to the sustainability of local communities and of the Great Lakes region. Remediation is achieved by:

  • removing major sources of contaminants and other stressors that have been impairing water quality and restricting beach use and fish and wildlife consumption;
  • restoring fish and wildlife habitat and populations that are ecologically and economically significant at a local, lake and basin-wide scale.

Commitment to key activities within the 2012 GLWQA

  • Ensure that RAPs are developed, periodically updated, and implemented for each AOC. Each RAP will:
    • identify beneficial use impairments and causes;
    • include criteria for restoring beneficial uses to be established in consultation with the local community;
    • identify remedial measures to be taken and entities responsible for implementing these measures;
    • summarize how remedial measures have been implemented and provide updates on the status of the beneficial uses;
    • describe surveillance and monitoring processes.
  • Make RAPs and their updates available to the International Joint Commission and the public; solicit review and comment from various governmental and non-governmental interests, and the International Joint Commission, prior to designating an AOC as one in recovery, and prior to the removal of a designation as an AOC.

Expected outcomes

  • Complete the job by restoring water quality and ecosystem health in designated AOCs;
  • Implement science and monitoring programs to track the status of beneficial use impairments and the effectiveness of remedial actions.

What is a Beneficial Use Impairment?

Beneficial Use Impairments are the measures of the environmental, human health or economic impact of poor water quality. The GLWQA defines 14 Beneficial Use Impairments that contribute to a location’s designation as an AOC:

  • Restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption;
  • Tainting of fish and wildlife flavour;
  • Degradation of fish wildlife populations;
  • Fish tumours or other deformities;
  • Bird or animal deformities or reproduction problems;
  • Degradation of benthos (organisms living on lake bottoms);
  • Restrictions on dredging activities;
  • Eutrophication (undesirable algae);
  • Restrictions on drinking water consumption, or taste and odour problems;
  • Beach closings;
  • Degradation of aesthetics/visual appearance;
  • Added costs to agriculture or industry;
  • Degradation of phytoplankton and zooplankton populations (organisms that provide a crucial source of food to fish);
  • Loss of fish and wildlife habitat.

To date, three Canadian AOCs have been delisted and two have been identified as AOCs in Recovery.

Delisted: Severn Sound and Collingwood Harbour on Georgian Bay (Lake Huron), and Wheatley Harbour on Lake Erie.

Re-designated as an Area in Recovery: Spanish Harbour on Lake Huron, and Jackfish Bay on Lake Superior.

For more information on all AOCs remaining in Canada, visit: Great Lakes Areas of Concern.

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