Canada Water Act annual report for 2018 to 2019: chapter 5

5 Ecosystem-based approaches

This section describes a number of key cooperation-based ecosystem approaches through which 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 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.

5.1 Lake Winnipeg Basin Program

The Lake Winnipeg Basin Program (LWBP) is the Government of Canada’s response to addressing water quality issues in Lake Winnipeg. The LWBP aims 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.

ECCC also collaborated with regional stakeholders through the Canada-Manitoba Memorandum of Understanding Respecting Lake Winnipeg and the Lake Winnipeg Basin (MOU). The MOU facilitates a cooperative and coordinated approach to improve the ecological health of Lake Winnipeg and its basin, and includes efforts such as the development and reporting of lake indicators and preparation of the next State of the Lake report scheduled to be released in 2020.

Lake Winnipeg Basin Program Science Plan

The Lake Winnipeg Basin Program Science Plan focuses on the following three key areas.

The LWBP also supports the Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium, which operates and maintains the in-lake science platform on Lake Winnipeg, and the Canadian Watershed Information Network (CanWIN), a web-based open access data and information network.

Scientific projects in 2018-2019 focused on:

Nutrient reducing actions

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 on water quality issues.

Indigenous engagement

The water quality in Lake Winnipeg and its basin affects the cultural, social, spiritual, and economic well-being of Indigenous peoples. The LWBP supports opportunities to build capacity and increase engagement of Indigenous 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 2018-2019 include the following:

5.2 Great Lakes Protection Initiative

The Great Lakes Protection Initiative is ECCC’s primary program targeting federal water quality and aquatic ecosystem 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 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, and engaging the public through citizen science.

Freshwater management of the Great Lakes is a responsibility shared by multiple levels of government. To coordinate efforts on water management, restoration and protection, ECCC works in close collaboration with other implicated federal departments, the governments of Ontario and the United States, local governments, Indigenous peoples and many other organizations, and individuals. This is accomplished through leading and coordinating implementation of the 2012 Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) and the Canada-Ontario Agreement on Great Lakes Water Quality and Ecosystem Health (COA), an agreement under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999. The GLWQA establishes long-term bi-national objectives for the restoration and protection of the Great Lakes, while the COA provides the governments of Canada and Ontario with a shared short-term (five-year) action plan for achieving Canada’s commitments under the GLWQA.

Key actions completed for the reporting period include:

ECCC also continued its program to 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. ECCC developed a draft framework to assess coastal wetland vulnerability to climate-related impacts with metrics for climate exposure, wetland sensitivity and the capacity of wetlands to adapt to climate change, and conducted monitoring at 24 wetland sites around the Great Lakes. In addition, ECCC also convened an expert workshop with a wide range of wetland conservation practitioners to increase awareness of wetland vulnerability to climate change impacts, to discuss the wetland vulnerability assessment approach, and to discuss partner needs and considerations for future use of project results to enhance wetland resilience.

To support others in taking action to protect the Great Lakes, Canada provided application-based funding for partner-led projects on priorities, such as:

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

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.

In 1987, Canada and the United States designated 43 AOCs, 12 of which were in Canada and 5 are shared between Canada and the United States. To date, 4 of Canada’s AOCs have had all impaired beneficial uses restored and the AOC designation for 3 of these sites has been removed, with re-designation of the 4th site pending.

There are 14 beneficial uses that are assessed in each AOC. Environmental monitoring and studies determine whether beneficial uses in an AOC are impaired and require restoration. Remedial Action Plans to restore beneficial uses are developed and implemented in cooperation with the Government of Ontario with input from First Nations, Métis, municipal governments, watershed management agencies, other local public agencies, and the public. Canada removes a beneficial use impairment designation when criteria established in the Remedial Action Plan have been met.

Of the 157 beneficial uses initially identified for remedial actions or further study, 78 have been restored since the beginning of the program. Efforts continue to restore the remaining 79 impaired beneficial uses.

Through the Great Lakes Protection Initiative, Canada provides funding and technical support to partners at the local level to implement remedial actions to advance the restoration of beneficial uses in AOCs. Examples of activities in 2018-2019 led or supported by ECCC to restore water quality and ecosystem health in Canadian Areas of Concern include:

Science and monitoring

ECCC undertakes research and monitoring to support decision-making in the Great Lakes. In 2018-2019, ECCC conducted a broad range of monitoring activities targeting water, sediment and aquatic biota to support decision-making in the Great Lakes. Science related work included ongoing monitoring surveys on the Great Lakes, the review and update of binational Lakewide Action and Management Plans, and ongoing data collection to support binational State of the Great Lakes environmental indicators and reporting.

In addition, ECCC conducted scientific studies of fish, wildlife, benthos, algae and plankton in AOCs, to assess the current status of beneficial use impairments within Canadian AOCs. These assessments help direct remedial actions and to confirm when delisting criteria have been met allowing for the removal of Beneficial Use Impairment designations. A few recent examples include monitoring and assessment of:

ECCC undertook numerous scientific activities in 2018-2019 in partnership with the Governments of Ontario and the United States to support implementation of the Canada-Ontario Lake Erie Action Plan with the goal of reducing annual phosphorus loading into Lake Erie by 40% from a 2008 baseline. This included improved calculation of phosphorus loads and issuing of the first annual report on phosphorus loadings and algal conditions in Lake Erie.

In 2018-2019, an ECCC contribution agreement with Swim Drink Fish Canada allowed them to engage Canadians in a citizen science project to conduct water quality monitoring of beaches and other recreational waters. Swim Drink Fish Canada established two monitoring hubs in the Great Lakes. The first monitoring hub was established in downtown Toronto through its Lake Ontario Waterkeeper Initiative. The second hub was launched in the fall of 2018 on Manitoulin Island and is hosted by Zhiibaahaasing First Nation. Volunteers help hub coordinators collect water samples in places where people swim, boat, and hold ceremonial activities.

Monitoring of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in water was conducted in Hamilton Harbour in support of the Randle Reef remediation project, as well as in the Detroit River for organic contaminants in support of assessment of several beneficial use impairments. Monitoring in the Detroit River identified source areas in the watershed. However, levels have declined in the last decade reflecting efficacy of management actions.

In addition, watershed models were developed for various beneficial management practice scenarios to assess the impact on nutrients, sediment, and flow for the Thames River and Sydenham watersheds. Modelling work was also initiated to assess climate change impacts on the delivery of nutrients to Lake Erie.

Research tools were developed to provide daily satellite imagery to map algal blooms extent and for assessing the spatial/temporal trends of these blooms in Lake Erie.

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

5.3 St. Lawrence Action Plan

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.

The St. Lawrence Action Plan is a platform for collaboration 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 focus on three priorities:

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 from 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.

For 2018-2019, 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:

Activities under the St. Lawrence Action Plan’s numerical environmental predictions working group continued in 2018-2019. These activities are done through the federal-provincial collaboration under the St. Lawrence Action Plan. The main activities of the group were:

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 2018-2019, ECCC distributed $422,062 in funding for 13 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:

Moreover, the Areas of Prime Concern Program supports Stratégies Saint-Laurent and its 12 ZIP 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.

5.4 Gulf of Maine Initiative

The five-year Gulf of Maine Initiative (GMI) marked its final year in 2018-2019. This initiative enabled ECCC to work collaboratively with other federal departments, provincial governments, United States 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 GMI focused 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 contributed funding, technical and scientific expertise, and direct staff support for water quality projects. These contributions improved assessment, monitoring, and modeling of the area and led to the mitigation of multiple stressors and their cumulative effects on water quality in the Gulf of Maine ecosystem. 

In 2018-2019, four multi-year projects addressed water quality issues in the Gulf of Maine ecosystem:

In 2018-2019, GMI also supported efforts to better understand the current status of coastal wetlands and their potential to sequester and store carbon as a mechanism to mitigate atmospheric CO2 emissions. In addition, information generated over the duration of the GMI was assembled and made publically available through a common website to ensure on-going access following completion of the initiative. Partners were engaged in evaluating the success of the program and in identifying emerging issues and future opportunities for conservation and sustainable development of the ecosystem.

Overall, between 2014 and 2019 GMI provided grant and contribution funding to 13 organizations and undertook 11 contracts to address program objectives. A final report will be available to summarize project accomplishments and highlight lessons learned that would help inform future programs and other activities in the Gulf of Maine and elsewhere.

5.5 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. For 2018-2019, a place-based approach was piloted to support projects in two priority ecosystems of concern: the Saint John River Watershed, and the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence Watershed. ECCC contributed 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 2018-2019, a total of 19 AEI projects addressed water 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:

5.6 Wolastoq/Saint John River Watershed

In 2018-2019, ECCC continued to focus on four key commitments for the Wolastoq/Saint John River under the Freshwater Action Plan.

Various efforts were taken toward a coordinated and integrated management approach for the watershed, including working with federal, provincial, Indigenous, and non-government partners to advance shared priorities and objectives. ECCC facilitated internal and external meetings to further discussions on common areas for coordination and collaboration, including water quality monitoring, data management and access, freshwater assessment, citizen science, and funding arrangements.

Progress continued under the Wəlastəkw Interim Statement of Cooperation signed in 2017 by ECCC, DFO, Wolastoqey (Maliseet) Chiefs, and several U.S. Federal Agencies. International summits were held in the spring and fall of 2018, focused on defining a collaborative watershed governance model, as well as advancing ecosystem science initiatives. ECCC enhanced stakeholder engagement through training and providing access to tools to support citizen science activities and information sharing.

ECCC collaborated with Nature Conservancy of Canada and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to produce a Watershed Stress Index, covering both the Canadian and U.S. portions of the Wolastoq/Saint John River watershed. The assessment tool evaluates 16 stressors to water quality and aquatic connectivity. The Index will inform monitoring, management, conservation and restoration activities in the watershed.

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