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Great Lakes Summit Leaves Unanswered Questions In U.S., Canada

This week, government agencies and non-profits from the U.S. and Canada have been meeting in Cleveland to discuss urgent priorities for restoring the Great Lakes. The two countries have just updated a 25-year old water quality agreement that adds new commitments to reduce nutrient pollution, curb invasive species, and help cities adapt to climate change. But environmentalists on both sides of the border are concerned that neither the US nor Canada will spend what’s needed to implement the changes. Over the past four years, the U.S. has significantly stepped up spending on the Great Lakes, pouring more than $1 billion into clean-up. That’s won praise from environmental advocates like Andy Buchsbaum, director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes program office, who says the US investment represents “tremendous progress,â€? particularly in cleaning up toxic hotspots. But others charge that in recent years, Canada hasn’t been doing its fair share. In an article this month in the Toronto Globe & Mail, Canadian advocate Bob Oliver, CEO of Pollution Probe, said Canada’s investment over the same period has remained relatively stagnant, capped at about $50 million a year. Some citizen groups, such as the Council of Canadians, say future spending plans by Canada are quote – “absurdly inadequate.â€? Some Canadian coastal landowners like Bob Duncanson are frustrated that problems like dropping lake levels and new algae blooms aren’t being dealt with faster

Like any frustrated taxpayer, they’re never doing enough, but they’re taxing me too much. So it’s a double-edged sword.

Canadian government officials claim they are making headway on combating new Great Lakes threats like nutrient pollution and invasive species, despite the lack of a national investment strategy like the US Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. "Within Environment Canada, we have already initiated a new program focused on Lake Erie," says Michael Goffin, head of Canada’s federal environmental protection agency for the province of Ontario, a region that encompasses four of the five Great Lakes. Goffin says this summer, Environment Canada began new water quality monitoring on Lake Erie and its Canadian tributaries, trying to pinpoint the source of algae blooms that have plagued the lake for the last decade.

And the funding continues for the next four years. That will allow us to achieve the commitment contained with the amended Great Lakes water quality agreement to have new targets in place within three years in force of that agreement.

Goffin is referring to one of the provisions in the new Great Lakes Water Quality agreement that would identify targets for reducing phosphorus, the nutrient that’s causing the algae blooms. In an editorial this week, the Toronto Star called that “hardly ambitious.â€? But Goffin frames it positively. "On some things like the phosphorus issue, there’s a need for coordination and a need for urgent action. And the government of Canada has recognized that," Goffin says. Canada is also committed to spending about18-Million dollars fighting Asian Carp. The invasive fish species could deal a severe blow to Canada’s multi-million dollar commercial fishing industry. Government officials say these and other steps will make a difference. Paul Evans, head of Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment, says what impacts Lake Erie also hurts the Canadian economy.

95 percent of Ontarians live within the Great Lakes basin, 80-percent of Ontarians take their drinking water from the Great Lakes, so it’s an important piece of our daily life.

Evans says he wishes that Canada, with its much smaller resources, could match what the federal US government is now doing to restore the lakes. "The amount of investment through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, we look on that with somewhat a bit of envy. But we’re trying to take on whatever steps we can within our fiscal resources." Some Americans at the conference give Canada high marks when you consider performance over the span of several decades. Andy Buchsbaum, from the National Wildlife Federation, says Canada has got the US beat on implementing previous Great Lakes agreements.

I believe, based on history, the last 25 years, Canada uses the Great Lakes water quality agreement as a much more defined set of policy objectives and policy measures than the US does.

But he warns that both countries need to continue their efforts to step up funding on the Great Lakes or risk losing the progress that’s already been made. For ideastream/for Ohio Public Radio, I’m Karen Schaefer.