A version of the following article appeared in The Toronto Star
Great Lakes agreement could spring a leak
By Tim Morris
April 10, 2007
Last week, Ontario's government introduced legislation in support of a regional agreement to oversee large-scale water use in the region. Significantly, the regional agreement prohibits siphoning Great Lakes water to thirsty regions in the American southwest.
Known as the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Sustainable Water Resources Agreement, the pact is between Ontario, Quebec and the eight U.S. Great Lakes' states.
This is an important piece of legislation. Preventing long-range diversions out of the Great Lakes basin is critical for the protection of the lakes and their dependent ecosystems.
But there is a worrying loophole: Even though the proposed legislation bans diversions out of the basin, it still permits large-scale diversions between individual Great Lakes within the basin.
One proposal of this type is already in the works and several others could follow.
Allowing these types of diversions to proceed is dangerous given their potential impacts on water levels of the Upper Great Lakes, such as Lake Huron/Georgian Bay.
We already know about predictions that global warming will cause a substantial drop in Great Lakes water levels, especially the levels of Lake Huron/Georgian Bay.
Diverting water out of the Upper Great Lakes into the Lower Great Lakes will only compound the effects of climate change and these effects will have profound impacts for Ontario's environment and economy, degrading ecosystems, destroying fish, bird and wildlife habitat, and costing billions in lost shipping, hydropower generation, and industrial production.
The Ontario government says it prohibits in-basin diversions in the proposed legislation but there are a number of exceptions to the ban.
The devil is in the details and currently these exceptions are vague and open to wide interpretation.
An example of an in-basin diversion is the current proposal by the Regional Municipality of York, which has told the public that it meets the exception standard.
York Region wants to build a big pipe to divert waste water from growing communities in the Lake Huron/Georgian Bay watershed to Lake Ontario. For Lake Huron/Georgian Bay, the impacts of the in-basin diversion would be just as harmful as if the water was being diverted outside the Great Lakes Basin.
Mary Muter, spokesperson for Georgian Bay Association, a citizen-based group that works on protecting the waters of Georgian Bay and Lake Huron, is concerned by the potential impacts of the York Region proposal.
"Lake Huron/Georgian Bay water levels have been close to record low levels for the past six years. We are concerned that allowing the York Region transfer out of the Lake Huron/Georgian Bay basin in Ontario will set a precedent that others will follow and cumulatively will lower lake levels even further. This will result in even more dried up wetlands and loss of fish habitat," Muter says.
There is a more sustainable alternative for York Region.
It could build a local sewage treatment plant within the Lake Huron/Georgian Bay watershed so that no water would need to be diverted.
But York Region says it is cheaper for it to flush Lake Huron/Georgian Bay water down to an existing treatment plant on Lake Ontario.
If the York proposal succeeds, it will be difficult to turn off the leaky tap; several municipalities are considering diversions, including Waterloo, Hamilton, and London. Waterloo says it needs to divert water from Lake Huron/Georgian Bay because it is running out of local water supplies.
This would not be the case if the region were committed to a culture of conservation.
Water users in the Great Lakes basin are some of the most profligate in the world.
But allowing in-basin diversions discourages water conservation. Instead of conserving, municipalities will just pipe in water from elsewhere.
Banning in-basin diversions would send a clear message to municipalities that they have to do a much better job of saving their water supplies.
Friends of the Earth Canada (FOEC) has consistently campaigned for improved water management in the region.
It promotes an approach that relies less on large engineering solutions and more on effective conservation to stay within natural hydrological limits.
Christine Elwell, senior campaigner for FOEC explains: "There is clearly no need for these invasive transfers given the unlocked potential of water conservation and better land-use planning to provide for more sustainable alternatives."
If Ontario allows in-basin diversions there is also a danger that this will give U.S. jurisdictions a reason to approve more diversions out of the basin.
"It would be hypocritical of Ontario to divert water over hundreds of kilometres between Great Lakes because its geographical advantage allows it to benefit from this loophole, while telling U.S. jurisdictions they cannot transport water from one end of town to the other because these communities straddle the edge of the basin" says Dan McDermott, director of the Ontario Chapter of Sierra Club.
So the legislation, while a step in the right direction, needs to be followed up by further legal measures that ban these dangerous diversions and implement mandatory conservation measures.
This is a view shared by Derek Stack, executive director of Great Lakes United, a coalition of groups dedicated to preserving and restoring the Great lakes ecosystem.
He is calling on the proving to show leadership "by banning Great Lakes diversions in Ontario." As a first step he envisages a "moratorium on all in-basin diversions."
Tim Morris is national water campaigner for the Sierra Club of Canada