Canada Water Act annual report for 2017 to 2018: chapter 6

6 Ecosystem-based approaches to water quality management

This section describes a number of key cooperation-based ecosystem approaches through which Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) works to ensure that Canadians have access to clean, safe and healthy water, and that the country’s water resources are used wisely, both economically and ecologically. While these initiatives are not formalized under the act, they do contribute to the objectives of the Act through their contribution to improving the management of water resources in Canada.

ECCC’s Ecosystem Initiatives are cooperative, place-based programs designed to deliver environmental results in targeted ecosystems. The objective of the Ecosystem Initiatives is to enhance or maintain ecosystem sustainability by addressing a range of local or regional environmental challenges through partnership-based work. Local activities are coordinated by ECCC and undertaken in collaboration with a range of local partners and stakeholders that may include other federal departments, provinces and territories, regional, municipal and local governments, Indigenous peoples, federal and state governments in the United States, businesses, non-governmental and community organizations, and colleges and universities.

6.1 Lake Winnipeg Basin Program

The Lake Winnipeg Basin Initiative (LWBI) was the Government of Canada’s response to addressing water quality issues in Lake Winnipeg. The LWBI aimed to engage citizens, scientists, and domestic and international partners in actions to restore the ecological health of Lake Winnipeg, reduce nutrient pollution and improve water quality.

In 2017-2018, Lake Winnipeg continued to experience large and frequent algal blooms due to high nutrient levels from multiple transboundary sources, including agriculture, industry, municipal wastewater and surface run-off. Through the Lake Winnipeg Basin Program (LWBP), ECCC continued to conduct and support research, and incorporated a targeted approach for nutrient reducing actions, while introducing financial support for collaborative efforts throughout the basin and enhanced Indigenous engagement on freshwater issues.

Nutrient reduction actions

Through the LWBP Science Plan, ECCC conducts research on the response in Lake Winnipeg to nutrient reduction action in the basin, the impact of climate variability on nutrient loading to Lake Winnipeg, and the impact of zebra mussels on nutrient cycling and the food web. The LWBP also supports the Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium, the in-lake science platform of Lake Winnipeg, and the Canadian Watershed Information Network, a web-based open access data and information network. Through application-based funding, the LWBP supports targeted stakeholder delivered projects, in key geographic areas within the Lake Winnipeg Basin that demonstrate an effective means of reducing phosphorus loading and increasing public knowledge and engagement.  ECCC continued to collaborate with regional stakeholders through the Canada-Manitoba Memorandum of Understanding Respecting Lake Winnipeg and the Lake Winnipeg Basin (MOU) to develop and report on lake indicators, as well as planning to publish a State of the Lake report starting in 2018 and every five years thereafter.

Collaborative governance

The LWBP brings an increased focus to stakeholder engagement, including Indigenous Peoples, by encouraging and strengthening collaborative efforts to protect fresh water throughout the Lake Winnipeg Basin. An adaptive management framework for the Lake Winnipeg Basin is being developed through collaboration efforts under the MOU.

Indigenous engagement

The water quality in Lake Winnipeg and its basin affects the cultural, social, spiritual, and economic well-being of First Nation and Métis peoples. The LWBP supports opportunities to build capacity and increase engagement of First Nation and Métis governments, organizations and communities on Lake Winnipeg basin water quality issues, including the incorporation of traditional knowledge in discussions on the ecosystem health of Lake Winnipeg.

Some key highlights from 2017–2018:

  • An engagement session was hosted to seek input on program design including targeted approaches for nutrient reducing actions and approaches to enhance collaboration throughout the basin. A What We Heard report was prepared and shared with participants.
  • ECCC’s LWBP Science Plan was fully implemented.
  • Agreements with three other federal and provincial governmental departments were implemented to support geo-mapping projects.
  • Contribution agreements were signed with five non-governmental organizations to support research, information sharing, Indigenous engagement, and collaboration.
  • The application-based component of the Lake Winnipeg Basin Program was launched under the departmental-wide proposal call to apply for grants and contributions funding.
  • The MOU is in place until September 2020. The MOU facilitates a cooperative and coordinated approach in efforts to understand and protect the water quality and ecological health of Lake Winnipeg and its basin.

Scientific projects in 2017–2018 focused on:

  • Evaluating the effectiveness of federal funding in reducing nutrient additions to local tributaries by conducting watershed based research and modelling, and evaluating the performance of best management practices and their effect on nutrient loading in response to hydrologic and climatic controls;
  • Demonstrating progress in reducing nutrients reaching the lake by undertaking water quality and biotic monitoring to track spatial and temporal flux of nutrients transported from the watershed to the lake; and
  • Demonstrating progress in establishing ecologically sustainable nutrient balance in the lake by developing new models and addressing critical knowledge gaps in lake nutrient dynamics relative to changes in nutrient loads and recently invaded zebra mussels to Lake Winnipeg.  ECCC is also developing satellite earth observation tools for detecting and reporting on the extent and severity of algal blooms on Lake Winnipeg.

6.2 Great Lakes Protection Initiative

The Great Lakes Protection Initiative, which received an additional $44.84 million over five years (2017 to 2022), is ECCC’s primary program targeting federal priorities in the Great Lakes. Through the Initiative, ECCC combines science and action to address the most significant threats to Great Lakes water quality and ecosystem health. Its current priorities for action include:

  • working with others to protect the Great Lakes
  • restoring water quality and ecosystem health in Great Lakes Areas of Concern
  • Preventing toxic and nuisance algae
  • improving the health of coastal wetlands
  • identifying at-risk nearshore waters
  • reducing releases of harmful chemicals
  • engaging Indigenous Peoples in addressing Great Lakes issues
  • engaging the public through citizen science

Freshwater management of the Great Lakes is shared with other Canadian federal departments and other governments. To coordinate efforts on water management, restoration and protection, ECCC works in close collaboration with other implicated federal departments, the governments of the United States and Ontario, Indigenous Peoples and many other organizations, groups and individuals[1]. This is accomplished through leading and coordinating implementation of the 2012 Canada–U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) and the 2014 Canada–Ontario Agreement on Great Lakes Water Quality and Ecosystem Health (COA). The GLWQA establishes long-term objectives for Canada and the United States for restoring and protecting the Great Lakes, while the COA provides the governments of Canada and Ontario with a shared short-term (five-year) plan for achieving GLWQA commitments.

Key actions completed for the reporting period include:

  • Pursuant to the GLWQA, the Governments of Canada and the United States finalized the Great Lakes Nearshore Framework, which is a systematic, integrated and collective approach for assessing the nearshore health of the Great Lakes and identifying and communicating cumulative impacts and stresses. Through implementation of the Nearshore Framework, Canada will provide the first comprehensive assessment of Canadian nearshore waters of the Great Lakes; share information from the assessment; identify areas that would benefit from protection, restoration or prevention activities; and identify causes of impairment and threats. In 2017–2018, a full Canadian assessment was completed for Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers.
  • The Governments of Canada and the U.S. completed development of the Lakewide Action and Management Plan (LAMP) for Lake Huron. The LAMP provides an assessment of the state of the lake and priorities for action.
  • In 2017-2018, ECCC initiated a new program to assess and enhance the resilience of Great Lakes coastal wetlands. This program will assess the vulnerability of coastal wetlands to projected climate change and other stressors; identify best approaches to increase wetland resilience; and work with others to develop priorities for action.
  • To address the problem of toxic and nuisance algae in Lake Erie, a draft Canada-Ontario Lake Erie Action Plan for achieving phosphorus reductions from Canadian sources was prepared and released for public comment from March to May 2017. The draft Plan presented Canada and Ontario’s proposed actions in support of binational targets and commitments under the GLWQA and the COA, and invited Canadians to contribute their ideas and actions for inclusion in the Action Plan. The final Canada-Ontario Lake Erie Action Plan was released in February 2018.
  • In 2016, Canada and the U.S. designated the first set of Chemicals of Mutual Concern (CMCs) targeted for binational action as required by the GLWQA. These chemicals include hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD); long-chain perfluorinated carboxylic acids (LC-PFCAs); mercury; perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA); perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS); polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs); polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); and short-chain chlorinated paraffins (SCCPs). In 2018, Canada and the U.S. finalized Binational Strategies for the first two CMCs (HBCD and PCBs) which identify options that governments and their partners can implement to reduce releases of these substances and improve human and ecosystem health within the Great Lakes basin.

To support others in taking action to protect the Great Lakes, Canada announced application-based funding available for partner-led projects that will help move the yardstick on priorities, such as: cleaning up Areas of Concern; preventing toxic and nuisance algae in Lake Erie; reducing releases of harmful chemicals; engaging the public through citizen science; and enhancing local Indigenous capacity.

Restoring water quality and ecosystem health in Great Lakes Areas of Concern

Areas of Concern (AOCs) are specific locations, such as harbours and embayments, where water quality and ecosystem health have been severely degraded by human activity at the local level. In 1987, Canada and the United States together designated 43 AOCs, 12 of which are in Canada and 5 that are shared between Canada and the United States. In 2017–2018, coordination of restoration activities in Great Lakes AOCs continued, including assessing and reporting on the success of past actions and on the status of remaining actions. Some examples of activities which ECCC led or supported are noted below:

  • The St. Lawrence River Institute for Environmental Studies continued the study to assess shoreline sediment mercury concentrations, which is expected to result in an updated contaminated sediment management plan for the river.
  • The Bay of Quinte Remedial Action Plan completed an assessment of the restrictions on dredging activities and concluded that this beneficial use impairment is no longer impaired.
  • In the Toronto Region AOC, the first phase of the $1.25 billion Port Lands Flood Protection project got underway. This project will naturalize the mouth of the Don River to improve aquatic and terrestrial habitat in the Area of Concern, and address flooding issues in the Port Lands.
  • In the Hamilton Harbour AOC, the City of Hamilton began construction on Woodward Wastewater Treatment Plant.  This $320 million upgrade, which will be completed by 2022, includes building a new pump station and a new electrical power centre to enhance biological processes, and adding tertiary treatment.  This project also includes improvements to the City of Hamilton’s combined sewer overflow system. Work continued on the Randle Reef Contaminated Sediment Remediation Project. This $138.9 million project is the largest contaminated sediment remediation project ever undertaken in a Canadian AOC, addressing 695,000 m3 of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon contaminated sediments.
  • In the Peninsula Harbour AOC, ECCC and the Government of Ontario completed monitoring activities to assess the efficacy of a sediment remediation project implemented in 2012 (a $7.3 million thin-layer cap to mitigate contaminated sediment and ecosystem impairments). The data analysis and review continues, and the monitoring results are expected to be shared and discussed with members of the community in 2018-2019.
  • In the St. Marys River AOC, ECCC and the Batchewana First Nation continued to advance planning, design and community engagement for improving aquatic habitat in the river to benefit native fish species, including Brook Trout, Whitefish and Walleye.
  • In the Niagara River AOC, ECCC continued to provide financial support to a multi-year project to create new wetland and aquatic habitat to improve conditions for fish populations.

Science and Monitoring

ECCC undertakes research and monitoring projects to support decision-making in the Great Lakes AOCs in Canada and in binational AOCs.

In 2017-2018, a broad range of monitoring activities targeting water, sediment and aquatic biota were undertaken. Science-related work included ongoing monitoring surveys on the Great Lakes, the review and update of Lake Management Plans and ongoing data collection to support Great Lakes environmental indicator reporting.

Monitoring of nutrients continued on tributaries flowing to Lake Erie to assess tributary load targets, in-stream processes and to support the development of domestic action plans for achieving phosphorous reductions in Lake Erie. In addition, monitoring continued in the nearshore of East Basin Lake Erie to assess nearshore water quality and ecosystem health, and a similar monitoring program was initiated in Lake Ontario given growing concerns about nuisance algae along the northern shore. Monitoring results demonstrated which waters have phosphorus concentrations at established targets and which areas may require further nutrient action or controls.

Research activities under the Great Lakes Protection Initiative included determining the relationship between human activity and nutrient concentrations, thereby better informing nutrient source identification and nutrient criteria development. In addition various beneficial management practice scenarios were simulated to assess the impact on nutrients, sediment and flow for the Grand River and Thames River watersheds. Research tools are being developed to provide daily satellite imagery to map algal bloom extent and for assessing the spatial/temporal trends in Lake Erie.

Research efforts continued on developing predictive tools for understanding of catchment inputs to local water quality and benthic algae conditions and improve understanding of major drivers of variation.  Integrated watershed-lake models were implemented for Lake Erie to improve understanding of factors responsible for periodic wash-up of algae on shorelines.

6.3 St. Lawrence Action Plan

The St. Lawrence Action Plan is a collaborative effort between the Canadian and Quebec governments intended to strengthen collective efforts for the integrated management of the St. Lawrence basin, and to carry out joint actions to conserve and enhance its ecosystem. These efforts are based on three priorities: biodiversity conservation, improved water quality, and sustainable use. This multi-year program, which has been renewed five times since it was first signed in 1988, has helped produce concrete results through the cooperative efforts of the two governments. Their efforts have benefited from participation by the private sector, universities, research centres, Areas of Prime Concern committees (zones d’intervention prioritaire, known as ZIP committees), non-governmental organizations and riverside communities. The program focuses on all of the St. Lawrence River’s ecosystems and on the mouths of its main tributaries, from Lake Saint-François, straddling the border between Quebec and Ontario, to the eastern reaches of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The Canada-Quebec Agreement on the St. Lawrence 2011-2026, also known as the St. Lawrence Action Plan, covers a span of 15 years, with 5-year planning cycles.

For the year 2017–2018, 37 projects were carried out as part of the Joint Action Plan for which a number of research projects, fieldwork activities, and decision-making tools were developed, including:

  • the identification of important fish and interconnected habitat for protection and restoration
  • an Integrated Biodiversity Conservation Plan for the Lowlands and Coastal Areas of the Estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence
  • a study of the potential for re-establishing the functional connectivity of biodiversity hotspots in the St. Lawrence lowlands, including tools for knowledge transfer
  • wetland rehabilitation guidance for the St. Lawrence
  • the integration of wildlife and habitat issues with the potential for marine transportation development
  • the promotion of recreational fishing along the St. Lawrence, including the implementation of an incentive program
  • the establishment of a committee to promote and better integrate climate change issues
  • the quantification of the contribution of dissolved and particulate organic matter to hypoxia and the acidification of the deep waters of the St. Lawrence estuary
  • a study of the impacts of hydrocarbons and dispersants on aquatic freshwater organisms
  • a study of the use of retention ponds to capture pesticides and nutrients in surface water and agricultural runoff in the Lake Saint-Pierre area
  • a study of the current state and evolution of the weed beds and plant ecosystems of Lake Saint-Pierre, including the impacts of algal blooms and the presence of cyanotoxins
  • a study of the eco-toxicological effects of sewage discharge from the city of Montreal after its disinfection treatment by ozonation (tertiary wastewater treatment)
  • a study of the risk associated with the presence of the cytostatics (new pharmaceutical products/anti-cancer substances) in the St. Lawrence

Community involvement and awareness

Under the St. Lawrence Action Plan, ECCC and Quebec’s Ministry of Sustainable Development, Environment and Fight against Climate Change are implementing the Community Interaction Program (CIP), which provides funding to non-governmental organizations and Indigenous communities for projects that aim to conserve and enhance the ecosystem of the St. Lawrence. In 2017-2018, Environment and Climate Change Canada distributed $491,863 in funding for 15 projects. These projects involved key players from riverside communities, including municipalities, First Nations, academia, industry and agriculture, local communities, and relevant provincial and federal departments. Specifically, the projects funded were intended to:

  • implement measures to improve the biodiversity of the littoral zone of Lake Saint-Pierre, to benefit wildlife of the St. Lawrence River
  • restore a site in order to improve fish movement between a branch of the Saint-François River (Tardif Channel) and a marsh in the Odanak community
  • protect the ecological richness of the St. Lawrence shoreline in urban and periurban areas of Montreal by preventing the spread of Japanese knotweed
  • restore portions of the shoreline of the St. Lawrence River east of the village of Saint-Ulric, in the regional county municipality of Matane; and
  • promote behavioral change of boaters in order to protect the biodiversity on nine islands in the St. Lawrence River situated near the Island of Montreal

Moreover, the Areas of Prime Concern Program (Zones d’intervention prioritaire, ZIP) supports Stratégies Saint-Laurent and its 13 committees in their cohesive actions to engage and support local stakeholders working to improve the quality of the surrounding environment. ECCC provided $1.1 million in funding under this program.

The State of the St. Lawrence River Monitoring Program

A network of governmental and non-governmental collaborators continued to conduct sampling campaigns required to obtain scientific data through the State of the St. Lawrence River Monitoring Program. ECCC collected data on water levels and flow rates; the fluvial transport of contaminants; water quality; benthic communities in Lake Saint-Pierre and Northern Gannet populations. Fact sheets were released on water quality, benthic communities, sediment contamination in Lake Saint-Pierre. The interpretation of sediment contamination in Lake Saint-Louis, and land cover data was performed in 2017-2018.

Numerical Environmental Prediction Program

The Numerical Environmental Prediction Program for the St. Lawrence is a program to aid decision-making and water management planning for the St. Lawrence and its watershed. It simulates the evolution of physical, biological or chemical processes in the St. Lawrence and its watershed to predict the state of the corresponding terrestrial and aquatic environment. The program aims in particular to improve understanding of the St. Lawrence ecosystem as a whole and to provide a tool to support decisions about its integrated management. In 2017-2018, the working group made significant progress, notably through four projects that dealt with the coupling of the hydrological models of the St. Lawrence watershed, the integration of hydrodynamic modelling tools into the Montreal archipelago, and hydrological and hydraulic modelling of the Lake-Champlain/Richelieu River watershed under an IJC study (International Lake Champlain and Richelieu River Study).

6.4 Gulf of Maine Initiative

ECCC is working collaboratively with other federal departments, provincial governments, U.S. governments, and community groups to help advance efforts that enhance conservation and promote responsible development in the Gulf of Maine transboundary ecosystem, which includes watersheds and coastline in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

The Gulf of Maine Initiative (GMI) focuses on enhancing collaborative efforts to build knowledge of the transboundary ecosystem—watershed and coast—to better understand its current condition and identify stressors and threats, which will ultimately help inform decisions.

ECCC contributes funding, technical and scientific expertise, and direct staff support for water quality projects. These contributions improve assessment, monitoring, and modeling of the area and lead to the mitigation of multiple stressors and their cumulative effects on water quality in the Gulf of Maine ecosystem.

In 2017–2018, four multi-year projects addressed water quality issues in the Gulf of Maine ecosystem:

  • Building upon data from two previous GMI projects, the Gulf of Maine Council created data-based action plans for six Bay of Fundy estuaries. The action plans provide local watershed organizations a basis to create targeted environmental management strategies to ensure there is a cohesive, science-based strategy for environmental management at the watershed level.
  • The Nature Conservancy of Canada classified the biological and ecological diversity within watersheds by developing a seamless aquatic ecosystem classification and stress index across the Canadian portion of the Gulf of Maine and prioritized watersheds and stressors within watersheds for conservation and restoration.
  • Eastern Charlotte Waterways Inc., in partnership with Dalhousie University, completed a baseline assessment of pH in the estuarine environments of the Bay of Fundy.
  • The University of New Brunswick quantified the impacts of salmon aquaculture on invertebrate and fish communities of shallow coastal habitats of the Canadian Gulf of Maine and provided recommendations to reduce the associated impacts on water quality.

In addition to the grant and contribution funded projects in 2017-2018, ECCC worked in collaboration with the International Oceans Institute at Dalhousie University to develop a report on the emerging environmental issues in the Bay of Fundy/Gulf of Maine. This report will help to enhance and share knowledge of current and potential future stressors to the ecosystem, and will inform future policy and management decisions and actions.

6.5 Atlantic Ecosystems Initiatives

The Atlantic Ecosystems Initiatives (AEI) program provides grants and contributions funding for projects that improve the health, productivity, and long-term sustainability of ecosystems in Atlantic Canada. The program supports projects that use an ecosystem-based approach and include broad collaboration and cooperative action resulting in positive environmental impacts throughout Atlantic Canada. The program funds Atlantic Canadian organizations, including non-government organizations, coalitions and networks of organizations, research and academic institutions, and Indigenous governments and organizations to deliver projects that address one or more of the three program priority issues of water quality, habitat and biodiversity, and the impacts of climate change.

ECCC contributes funding, technical and scientific expertise, and direct staff support, for water quality projects to improve the assessment, monitoring, modeling, and mitigation of multiple stressors and their cumulative effects on water quality in Atlantic Canada from headwaters to estuaries.

In 2017–2018, 20 AEI projects addressed water issues quality, habitat and biodiversity, and impacts of climate change. ECCC committed over $1.2 million dollars for these projects. The following multi-year projects are ongoing and represent the type of projects that received funding:

  • In Prince Edward Island, the Hillsborough River Association collaborated with stakeholders from multiple sectors to plan and implement climate change monitoring in the Atlantic Region using consistent methodologies to provide reliable and comparable climate change data. The result is a better integration of climate change data into climate change adaptation decision-making in Atlantic Canada that strengthens current and future adaptation efforts in vulnerable coastal communities.
  • In Nova Scotia, Bluenose Coastal Action Foundation examined the abundance and impact of microplastics as a stressor on coastal ecosystems in Atlantic Canada. The project will fill a research gap in Atlantic Canada waters and improve understanding of the impacts of microplastics to inform decision-makers in their use and management.
  • The Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence Coalition on Sustainability conducted research and implemented mitigation actions related to eelgrass beds in the Atlantic Region. Eelgrass is a highly productive habitat and provides important ecosystem services in the coastal zone such as coastal erosion and carbon and nutrient sequestration. This project increases climate resiliency by mitigating stressors affecting eelgrass health and restoring eelgrass in the region to encourage widespread recolonization.

6.6 Wolastoq/Saint John River Watershed in New Brunswick

ECCC identified the Wolastoq/Saint John River Watershed in New Brunswick as a priority in the Freshwater Action Plan, under ‘Other Major Basins’ in 2017-2018.

In 2017, an Interim Statement of Cooperation was signed by ECCC, DFO, eight Maliseet First Nation/Tribal Leaders, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the United States Army Corps of Engineers, and the United States Geological Survey. The Statement of Cooperation serves as an aspirational, nation-to-nation document, which will facilitate cooperation in restoring the watershed and ecosystem, as well as recognizing the rights of the Maliseet and the Saint John River (Wəlastəkw).  At an international summit in the spring of 2018, preliminary discussions were held on a governance structure for the river.  The Leadership (signatories on the Statement) committed to re-convening later in 2018 to advance these discussions.

In 2017-2018, ECCC focused on four key commitments for the Wolastoq/Saint John River under the Freshwater Action Plan:

  • increased coordination and cooperation among orders of government
  • enhanced Indigenous and stakeholder engagement
  • coordinated freshwater science and assessments
  • strengthened information sharing

This work involved various efforts towards a coordinated and integrated management approach for the river, including working with federal, provincial, Indigenous, and non-government organizations to identify watershed priorities, goals and objectives. ECCC facilitated internal and external meetings to identify common areas for coordination and collaboration, including water quality monitoring, data management and access, freshwater assessment, and funding arrangements.

ECCC worked with the Canadian Rivers Institute to develop an ‘Emerging Environmental Issues’ report for the Wolastoq/Saint John River that highlighted the current and future pressures and threats affecting the watershed. The report provided a tool to guide future discussions with partners, and defined potential issues on which to focus future efforts.

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