Freshwater protection in the Great Lakes and Lake Winnipeg basins

Freshwater protection is a key priority for the Government of Canada, demonstrated most recently by the Budget 2017 investment of an additional $70.6 million over 5 years, beginning in 2017 to 2018, to support efforts to restore and protect freshwater quality and ecosystem health in the Great Lakes and Lake Winnipeg basin. Using existing and ongoing resources as well as the additional Budget 2017 investment, Canada has a renewed plan for protecting freshwater quality in the Great Lakes and the Lake Winnipeg basin as well as for using existing resources to strengthen governance arrangements and engagement in the St. Lawrence River and other major basins.

In the Great Lakes and Lake Winnipeg, new programming will help Canada meet commitments in existing governance agreements, enhance engagement of Indigenous Peoples and stakeholders and address the priority issues of toxic and nuisance algae and the impacts of climate change.

In the Great Lakes, toxic and nuisance algae caused by excess phosphorus from farms and other sources continues to occur at unprecedented scales, threatening water quality, human health and the environment. The problem is most severe in Lake Erie; however, toxic and nuisance algae are also significantly impacting the nearshore areas of Lake Ontario and Lake Huron. Science and action on phosphorus load reduction will help Canada meet binational phosphorus load reduction targets for Lake Erie of 40% below 2008 levels, which were announced in February 2016. Some persistent toxic chemicals still remain in the Great Lakes at concentrations that pose a threat to human health and the environment despite reductions in the production, use and release of many of these substances.

Through the Canada-United States Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA), Canada and the United States have identified those “Chemicals of Mutual Concern” for which further reduction efforts are required to protect human health and the environment. New freshwater programming contributes to the reduction of the release of these chemicals in the Great Lakes. The impacts of climate change are being experienced in the Great Lakes, particularly in relation to the health and viability of coastal wetlands. Through new Great Lakes freshwater programming, impact of climate change on wetlands will be better understood, and adaptation approaches will be developed to ensure coastal wetlands have sufficient resilience to withstand climate induced changes.

The Lake Winnipeg Basin also faces challenges related to toxic and nuisance algae caused by excessive phosphorus entering the lake leading to negative environmental, economic and health impacts. New efforts to protect Lake Winnipeg basin freshwater will build on existing basin-wide collaboration to engage Manitoba, other provinces, the United States, Indigenous Peoples, and other stakeholders in the coordination of nutrient management efforts and to establish nutrient targets for Lake Winnipeg and the other transboundary rivers within the basin. Science will be conducted including nutrient-related monitoring, modeling and research to inform ecosystem and adaptive management planning to support the development of ecosystem management solutions specific to the basin. The impacts of climate change on Lake Winnipeg will be studied including:

  • warmer water
  • longer ice-free seasons
  • increased nutrient availability associated with more frequent spring flooding, winter melts, and intense summer rainstorms

New programming will also include the development of policy approaches to address these impacts of climate change on Lake Winnipeg.

Canada’s commitment to protect the St. Lawrence River has been renewed through the authorization of the 2016 to 2021 action plan of the Canada-Quebec Agreement on the St. Lawrence 2011 to 2026. The Canada-Quebec Agreement sets out the long-term vision and ensures continuity and consistency in the actions taken by Canada and Quebec to restore and protect water quality and aquatic ecosystem health of the St. Lawrence River. Using existing resources, the 5 year action plan will address the priority issue areas of biodiversity conservation, sustainable use, and improved water quality. In other major freshwater river basins including the St. John River, Mackenzie River and Fraser River, existing resources will be used to explore opportunities to strengthen governance arrangements, including enhancing federal-provincial-territorial engagement and Indigenous engagement, for the protection of freshwater quality.

Canada’s efforts to protect freshwater have positive impacts on the environment, directly in the targeted ecosystems and watersheds, and indirectly for water management across the country. The direct outcomes include:

  • meeting commitments of existing governance arrangements in the Great Lakes and Lake Winnipeg Basin
  • enhanced engagement of Indigenous Peoples on freshwater issues and enhanced capacity to engage in addressing freshwater priorities in the Great Lakes and Lake Winnipeg Basin
  • better understanding of science of nutrients and toxic and nuisance algae in the Great Lakes and Lake Winnipeg Basin
  • development of nutrient targets in key watersheds and action plans to meet those targets and reduce toxic and nuisance algae in the Great Lakes and Lake Winnipeg basin
  • better understanding of the effects of climate change on freshwater in the Great Lakes and Lake Winnipeg Basin
  • a renewed action plan to protect the St. Lawrence River for the period 2016 to 2021 under the Canada-Quebec Agreement on the St. Lawrence 2011 to 2026
  • science and research will lead to a better understanding of water quality challenges in the targeted freshwater ecosystems which may also lead to a better understanding of common challenges in all freshwater ecosystems in Canada

Canada’s efforts to protect freshwater also directly contribute to meeting 3 2016 to 2019 Federal Sustainable Development Strategy (FSDS) goals including:

  • effective action on climate change
  • pristine lakes and rivers
  • safe and healthy communities

Through science to better understand the impacts of climate change on Canada’s freshwater ecosystems, including the Great Lakes and the Lake Winnipeg basin, and through information sharing with stakeholders and partners, the vulnerability of freshwater ecosystems to climate change will be better understood. This will lead to policy approaches and on-the-ground actions that will build resilience to the impacts of climate change in Canada’s major freshwater basins. To promote safe and healthy communities, new freshwater efforts will contribute to reducing toxic substances in the Great Lakes that have been identified by Canada and the United States as Chemicals of Mutual Concern.

To protect and restore pristine lakes and rivers, Canada’s freshwater protection efforts will reduce nutrient pollution in the Great Lakes and Lake Winnipeg, and their tributary rivers. In the Great Lakes, phosphorus loadings into Lake Erie will be reduced by 40% to achieve the binational (Canada-US) phosphorus targets from a 2008 baseline through the implementation of the Canada-Ontario Lake Erie Domestic Actin Plan. Reporting on nutrient pollution and other environmental indicators will continue to be reported on through the State of the Great Lakes. In Lake Winnipeg, actions will support Manitoba’s plan to reduce phosphorus in Lake Winnipeg by 50% of pre-1990 levels. Canada’s efforts in the St. Lawrence River will contribute toward achieving a result of “intermediate” or better on 85% of indicators in the Overview of the State of the St. Lawrence.

Improved water quality will positively impact human health and support sustainable economic growth. The excessive growth of algae and algae toxins is impacting tourism and recreation, commercial fishing, shoreline property values, and has on occasion resulted in closure of industrial water intakes. Common health effects of algae toxins range from headaches, fever, and nausea to respiratory and muscular paralysis, depending on exposure. Toxic chemicals that have been identified as Chemicals of Mutual Concern by Canada and the United States under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement also have the potential to negatively impact human health. New freshwater programming will contribute to reducing the releases of these chemicals in the Great Lakes.

Freshwater is important to Canada’s regional and national economies. The economic impacts of toxic and nuisance algae on the Canadian economy in Lake Erie alone are estimated at $272 million per year. The Lake Winnipeg basin supports $110 million in recreation and tourism and $15 million in commercial fishery landings. Degradation of the ecosystem would threaten these activities.

Progress on new freshwater protection efforts in the Great Lakes, Lake Winnipeg and St. Lawrence River basins will be tracked using both existing and new tools for evaluating success. In the Great Lakes, reporting on key priority issues will continue under provisions in the Canada-Ontario Agreement on Great Lakes Water Quality and Ecosystem Health. Similarly, Canada and the United States will continue to report on progress to meet commitments under the GLWQA through the release of the Progress Report of the Parties every 3 years.

New reporting and evaluation tools will also be used to track and communicate progress. For example, the Canada-Ontario Lake Erie Domestic Action Plan includes specific regular reporting on phosphorus reduction targets. In the Lake Winnipeg basin, reporting on the health of Lake Winnipeg and its basin will continue using the Lake Winnipeg State of the Lake Report (2018 and every 5 years thereafter) as well as the Lake Winnipeg State of the Lake Indicator series. In addition, the Lake Winnipeg program will provide data for the Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators (CESI) for total phosphorus and total nitrogen in Lake Winnipeg. In the St. Lawrence River, progress under the Canada-Quebec Agreement on St. Lawrence River 2011 to 2026 is reported through the Overview of the State of the St. Lawrence which is updated and released every five years, most recently in 2014.

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