Canada Water Act annual report for 2020 to 2021: chapter 7

7 Ecosystem-based approaches to water quality management

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 not all of these initiatives are 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.

7.1 Lake Winnipeg Basin Program

The Lake Winnipeg Basin Program (LWBP) (2017-2022) 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. It does this through the following 3 program priorities: collaborative governance, Indigenous engagement and nutrient reduction.

Collaborative Governance

The Canada-Manitoba Memorandum of Understanding Respecting Lake Winnipeg and the Lake Winnipeg Basin (PDF), signed under the Canada Water Act facilitates a cooperative and coordinated approach between Canada and Manitoba to improve the ecological health of Lake Winnipeg and its basin. As the Memorandum of Understanding expired in September 2020, Canada and Manitoba have initiated the development of a new Memorandum of Understanding.

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 community-based monitoring and incorporation of traditional knowledge in discussions on the ecosystem health of Lake Winnipeg.

Nutrient reducing actions

Lake Winnipeg experiences large and frequent algal blooms due to high nutrient levels from multiple transboundary sources, including agriculture, industry, municipal wastewater and surface runoff. ECCC, the Manitoba government and other partners are engaging citizens in nutrient reducing activities in several ways, including funding provided through the LWBP.

Through application-based funding, the LWBP continued to support targeted stakeholder-driven projects in 2020-2021 that demonstrate an effective means of reducing phosphorus loading, while also increasing public knowledge and engagement on water quality issues within the basin. This includes activities such as:

Projects funded by ECCC and completed between 2010 and 2021 have prevented 270 215 kilograms of phosphorus from reaching Lake Winnipeg.

Figure 6: Estimated cumulative reduction in the amount of phosphorus reaching Lake Winnipeg, April 2010 to March 2021

Long description

Figure 6 shows the estimated cumulative reduction in the amount of phosphorus reaching Lake Winnipeg as a result of projects implemented through Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Lake Winnipeg basin programming, Canada, April 2011 to March 2021. Reductions in phosphorus loads to Lake Winnipeg.

Source: Environment and Climate Change Canada (2020) Lake Winnipeg Basin Program

Note: The estimated reduction in phosphorus load is based on the results of LWBP funded projects completed between April 2010 and March 2021. Estimated phosphorus reductions for each project are summed to calculate the total. Year refers to fiscal year, which runs from April 1 to March 31. The year 2021 therefore refers to April 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021.

Lake Winnipeg Basin Program Science Plan

The LWBP Science Plan builds upon previous science efforts that characterized the state of Lake Winnipeg. Research is aimed at improving knowledge of nutrient export to streams and understanding impacts of climate variability and invasive species on the lake. The science plan has 4 priority areas:

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

A significant amount of planned field work could not proceed and new sampling could not be completed by ECCC in 2020-2021 due to COVID-19 restrictions. However, data collected by partners along with historical data and existing models enabled work on scientific projects in 2020-2021 to focus on the following:

Some key program highlights from 2020-2021 include the following:

7.2 Great Lakes Protection Initiative

The Great Lakes Protection Initiative is ECCC’s primary regional 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 partners and many other organizations, and individuals. This is accomplished through leading and coordinating implementation of the:

Key actions completed for the reporting period include:

Preventing toxic and nuisance algae in Lake Erie

Lake Erie frequently experiences both toxic and nuisance algae due to excess phosphorus loading resulting from a combination of physical characteristics and surrounding land use. The situation is further complicated by a changing climate, hydrological patterns and invasive species, all of which are contributing to shifting ecological systems.

The Government of Canada, the province of Ontario, and other partners are taking action to address harmful algal blooms and improve the health of the lake through the implementation of the Canada-Ontario Lake Erie Action Plan. This 5-year action plan was established in 2018 to reduce phosphorus loadings; ensure effective policies, programs and legislation; improve knowledge; educate and build awareness; and strengthen leadership and coordination.

Through the Great Lakes Protection Initiative, ECCC provides funding for partner-led projects that increase participation in the application of phosphorus load reduction measures in the Lake Erie basin by demonstrating innovative approaches and best management practices, and promoting their broad uptake and application. In 2020-2021, the initiative provided $1 million over 2 years to support 5 new partner-led phosphorus reduction projects that would implement activities such as:

Projects supported through the Great Lakes Protection Initiative resulted in a 20-tonne reduction in total annual phosphorus from Canadian sources to Lake Erie in 2020-2021.

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

Areas of Concern (AOCs) are specific locations, such as rivers, 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 designated 43 AOCs, 12 of which were in Canada and 5 of which are shared between Canada and the United States. Three Canadian AOCs have since been restored through the implementation of individual Remedial Action Plans for each AOC.

There are 14 beneficial use impairments (BUIs) that are assessed in each AOC. Environmental studies and monitoring 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 province of Ontario, with input from First Nations, Métis, municipal governments, watershed management agencies and other local public agencies, and the public. Canada removes a BUI designation when delisting criteria established in the Remedial Action Plan have been met.

Environmental quality in all of Canada's Great Lakes Areas of Concern has improved since the restoration program began. To date, of the 157 BUIs initially identified for remedial actions or further study, 90 have been resolved and removed from the list. Efforts continue to restore and assess the remaining 67.

Canada, in cooperation with the province of Ontario and other partners, continued to restore beneficial uses in AOCs and removed the following BUIs in 2020-2021 in:

As of March 31, 2021, Canada formally removed the AOC designation from Collingwood Harbour, Severn Sound, and Wheatley Harbour – 3 of the original 17 AOCs. In addition, all beneficial uses have been restored in the Nipigon Bay AOC and it will be removed from the list upon final approval of its completion report.

Through the Great Lakes Protection Initiative, Canada provides funding and technical support to partners at the local level to implement remedial and monitoring actions to advance the restoration of beneficial uses in AOCs.

Examples of activities in 2020-2021 which Canada, through ECCC or others, led or supported to restore water quality and ecosystem health in Canadian AOCs include:

Scientific research and monitoring

ECCC undertakes research, modelling and monitoring to support decision-making in the Great Lakes. In 2020-2021, typical monitoring science activities in the Great Lakes and connecting channels were not completed due to restrictions in place to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Science-related work included ongoing water quality assessments in the Great Lakes, the review and update of binational Lakewide Action and Management Plans, and ongoing data collection and analysis to support binational State of the Great Lakes environmental indicators and reporting.

In addition, Canada studied plankton, fish, wildlife, and habitat to assess the current status of BUIs within Canadian AOCs. These assessments help with the design of effective remedial actions and confirm when delisting criteria have been met and beneficial uses have been restored.

Assessments contributed in several other areas, with recent examples including:

Canada undertook numerous scientific activities in 2020-2021 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 from Canadian sources and, in October 2020, issuing of the first annual Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators (CESI) report on phosphorus loadings (PDF, 859 KB) (Figure 7). Lake Erie phosphorus loads are publicly reported annually through various mechanisms.

Figure 7: Total estimated phosphorus loadings to Lake Erie, 2008 to 2018

Long description
Figure 7 shows estimated phosphorus loading to Lake Erie from 2008 to 2018.
Year Total phosphorus loading, United States portion (tonnes per year) Total phosphorus loading, Canada portion (tonnes per year) Total phosphorus loading, Basin total, (tonnes per year)
2008 9,026 1,509 10,535
2009 6,242 2,156 8,398
2010 4,768 903 5,672
8,817 2,758 11,575
2012 7,161 1,305 8,466
2013 6,648 1,987 8,634
2014 6,497 2,594 9,092
2015 5,342 1,458 6,800
2016 4,613 1,133 5,747
2017 8,998 1,792 10,789
2018 9,395 2,266 11,661

Source: Environment and Climate Change Canada (2020)

Note: Basin total values include loadings from runoff and tributaries in Canada and the United States, flows from Lake Huron and atmospheric sources of phosphorus. Half of the total phosphorus loadings from atmospheric sources and from Lake Huron were allocated to each country.

Research tools were developed to provide daily satellite imagery to map the extent of algal blooms and for assessing the spatial/temporal trends of these blooms in Lake Erie. Studies using remote sensing and in situ observations were conducted to further develop satellite chlorophyll-retrieval algorithms.

Three-dimensional modelling of in situ contaminant distributions was completed for a St. Mary’s River sediment deposit, confirming a consistent improvement in sediment quality over time.

In 2020-2021, with the COVID-19 pandemic leading to the suspension of monitoring activities related to the abundance of benthis algae and dreissenid mussels, the focus shifted to analysis and interpretation of existing data collected to investigate the factors contributing to excessive algal growth in the nearshore areas of Lakes Erie and Ontario. Data and syntheses were used to improve and refine integrated watershed-lake models and informed binational task teams assessing current nutrient targets developed to control the extent of hypoxia and the wash-up of algae on shorelines.

Research efforts advanced the development of new modelling capability for understanding the effect of catchment inputs on local water quality and benthic algae (Cladophora) and improving our understanding of major drivers of variation. Improved modelling efforts were conducted to assist the development of east basin nutrient objectives.

Integrated watershed-lake models were implemented for Lake Erie to improve understanding of the factors responsible for hypoxia and periodic wash-up of algae on shorelines.

In 2020-2021, 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 and to educate citizens about the significance of water, where water comes from and how to use it sustainably.

Swim Drink Fish Canada has established several monitoring hubs in the Great Lakes. In 2020, a fourth hub was added in Kingston on Lake Ontario. Previous monitoring hubs were established in downtown Toronto through its Lake Ontario Waterkeeper Initiative; on Manitoulin Island hosted by Zhiibaahaasing First Nation; and on the eastern shores of Lake Erie in the Niagara Region. Volunteers help hub coordinators collect water samples in places where people swim, boat, and hold ceremonial activities.

In 2020-2021, volunteer training curriculum was developed and the citizen science data collected was made available to the public through an Open Data Portal. In Toronto, the hub engaged 233 youth through a collaboration with Harbourfront Centre Camps.

7.3 St. Lawrence Action Plan

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 3 priorities:

The Canada-Quebec Agreement on the St. Lawrence 2011-2026 allows for implemention of the St. Lawrence Action Plan that covers a span of 15 years, with 5-year planning cycles.

This multi-year program, which has been renewed 5 times since it was first signed in 1988, has helped produce concrete results through 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.

The Overview of the State of the St. Lawrence River 2019 (PDF) was published in November 2020.

The last fact sheets released in March 2021 were related to:

In 2020-2021, work on 37 projects identified in the annual report for 2019-2020 continued, including:

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. Some research activities such as the fluvial transport of contaminants in water, benthic communities in Lake Saint-Pierre, wetland vegetation in Lake Saint-Pierre and Boucherville Islands were postponed due to the exceptional circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Activities under the St. Lawrence Action Plan’s numerical environmental predictions working group continued in 2020-2021. These activities are done through 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 (Ministère de l’Environnement et de la Lutte contre les changements climatiques du Québec) 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 2020-2021, ECCC distributed $376,249 in funding for 12 projects. These projects involved riverside communities, including municipalities, First Nations, 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 CIP committees in their cohesive actions to engage and support local stakeholders working to improve the quality of the surrounding environment.

7.4 Atlantic Ecosystems Initiatives

The Atlantic Ecosystems Initiatives (AEI) 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 integrated ecosystem planning and decision-making, coordinated science and action initiatives.

In 2020-2021, ECCC committed over $1.1M in funding for 6 new multi-year AEI projects to enhance integrated ecosystem planning and decision-making, increase ecosystem knowledge and science, and undertake actions to conserve, restore, and enhance the Wolastoq/Saint John River Watershed and the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence Watershed ecosystems.

The following projects received funding:

7.5 Wolastoq (Wəlastəkw)/Saint John River Watershed in New Brunswick

In 2020-2021, ECCC continued to focus on 4 key commitments for the Wolastoq/Saint John River watershed under the Freshwater Action Plan:

Activities were undertaken to advance a coordinated and integrated management approach for the watershed. ECCC initiated meetings and discussions with other partners (Canadian and United States governments, provincial and state governments, non government institutions and groups, and Indigenous Peoples) to advance shared priorities such as water quality monitoring, data management and access, freshwater assessment, citizen science, and information sharing.

Progress continued under the Wəlastəkw River Interim Statement of Cooperation signed in 2017 by ECCC, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Wolastoqey (Maliseet) Chiefs, and several U.S. Federal Agencies (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior (Bureau of Indian Affairs)). Although International Summits were not held this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the partners continued discussions to advance a watershed governance model and organizational structure going forward.

ECCC funded economic study of the Wolastoq/Saint John River to identify and quantify key economic sectors within the watershed, uses of the watershed, and to identify risks or costs associated with potential changes in environmental quality. The study also identified natural assets such as forests, water supply, wetlands and estuaries, and the ecosystem goods and services they provide, such as recreation (fishing, boating, swimming, and ecotourism) and climate change mitigation.

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