By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Landowners, residents and farmers who live in the coastal fringe have confirmed that water quality is the most important issue to them regarding the health of Lake Huron.
Swimming and natural shorelines followed closely behind.
This is the kind of information commissioners from across Canada and the United States wanted to hear when they came to Goderich on August 7 for the International Joint Commission (IJC) Public) Public Meeting on the Status of the Great Lakes Water Quality.
Two Canadians and two Americans heard how farmers are addressing the water quality issue, as well as conservationists and lake lovers. The Commissioners toured the Garvey Glen watershed earlier in the day before a panel of speakers revealed how Huron County is taking care of Lake Huron.
“The IJC was formed in 1909 to settle disputes on water flow, levels, rivers or lakes that straddle the border,” explained Pierre Beland, the Canadian co-chair of the IJC. “Our role is to make sure the government is on the right track and report what scientists and research boards have discovered. Also, to report on what various people around the Great Lakes have observed and how they think the government is fulfilling that mandate.”
In particular, the IJC wants to know what are the successes, challenges, and failures surrounding the health of the Great Lakes? What should the government focus on?
Hannah Cann of the Coastal Centre in Goderich said the centre’s goal is to “create a coast of eco-conscious citizens.”
Using data from a survey which 260 people living in the coastal fringe (two kilometres from the shoreline) from Sarnia to Tobermory, Cann revealed that the stressors and threats people find most important are invasive species, pollution and altered shorelines.
“I can’t tell you how many inquiries we get about rocks in baskets (called Gabion baskets) and we describe to them why they are a plague on the lake from an engineering perspective and also for the heath of the coastline,” said Cann. (See Big Picture story next for more information on the work of the Coastal Centre).
Now at work developing the Coastal Action Plan, Cann said they are identifying sensitive areas like wetlands to see what is currently being protected ... and what is not.
“We have municipal interest in supporting threat analysis and best management guides,” explained Cann. A BMP guide to protecting Lake Huron waters was created and distributed for landowners in Huron-Kinloss.
“Our actions have ripple effects,” said Cann. “We have manipulated our environment so heavily and now that we are aware of the consequences, this is an opportunity to step forward and work together for environmental resiliency,” said Cann.
Rick Kootstra was also on the panel, giving the commissioners a farmer’s perspective as well as representing the Huron Soil and Crop Improvement Association (HSCIA).
“I think we all need to ask ourselves what our discharge rate is into the lake,” said Kootstra. “We can blame everyone else, but we have to look at ourselves.”
Kootstra says he has a farming mentor in Ohio who, through BMPs such as cover cropping and no-till farming, can take 16 inches of rain before his fields discharge water into the tiles. “When that water gets to the tile, his parts per million (ppm) of contamination is zero. How is he doing it? Can we do it here?” The Ohio farmer’s organic matter is eight per cent. Most farms in Ontario are around four per cent.
“Soil health goes hand in hand with good drainage,” said Kootstra. “It’s like one hand holds the other.”
Taking it further, Mel Luymes then shared the success of the HSCIA’s drainage project behind Huronview in Clinton. (See the August issue of The Rural Voice for the full story).
Luymes explained that tile drainage is basically a plastic pipe with holes in it that takes excess water away from the field. It creates an ideal environment for plants that cannot thrive in saturated soil. However, it can drain a field too quickly and lead to damaged and polluted waterways.
The drainage project installed controls in the drainage system by way of control gates and terraces.
“The whole idea is to slow water because then it does not erode,” explained Luymes. She said it was a very exciting project, aligning many partners who all have the same goal: water quality.
Phil Beard took the theme of collaboration and partnerships a step further by sharing the success of the Healthy Lake Huron collaborative. Formed 10 years ago, the collaborative started addressing the sources of pollution running off from both rural and urban sources.
“The focus was to improve water quality issues and watersheds,” explained Beard, general manager of the Maitland Valley Conservation Authority (MVCA). “It’s such a huge area that we decided to focus on five smaller watersheds first.”
One of those was the Garvey-Glen watershed in Ashfield-Colborne-Wawanosh which is a success story of landowners coming together to address water quality and storm water management. Farmers joined forces, realizing by improving water flow on their land through cover crops, minimum tillage, berms and grassed waterways, they were improving the health of the lake.
Since 2011, with thanks to government funding, the Healthy Lake Huron collaborative has completed over 500 BMP initiatives.
Mari Valiz, a Healthy Watersheds Manager with the Ausable Bayfield Conservation Authority said BMPs like good buffer strips along streams and creeks is important so that vegetation holds onto the banks to prevent additional erosion.
The whole goal is to focus on water: how to slow it down, spread it out and soak it in.
More conservation tillage, more cover crops, longer rotations, and practices that improve organic matter in soil are all items that need focus.
“When we look at the greater watershed scale, there are not enough of these things done in each field to make measurable differences,” said Valiz.
She believes collaboration is key. When one organization learns a lesson, they need to transfer that information and learning to another. Also, different places require different solutions.
Beard said the MVCA has created another five-year plan of work they want to do. Projects like: incentives for plans to improve soil health, mapping the flood plain that is used for cash crop and finishing priority watersheds.
Then, of course, there is the bottom line. Who will pay? This is a concern for everyone from landowners to farmers to taxpayers to conservation authorities. It costs money to improve land and protect the lakes.
When the meeting was opened to the audience, additional issues were brought to the attention of the commissioners. These included:
• What are the concerns of First Nations communities? Commissioner Beland said consultations with First Nations people are helping the IJC understand how people interact with land and water. For instance, when releasing water in the spring (via dams) how does that affect the sturgeon’s spawning areas?
“We learned that when the leaves of the poplar trees are the size of a beaver’s ear, that is when the sturgeon come to spawn,” said Beland. “We are trying to integrate this knowledge and philosophy from the First Nations to learn how we are to survive in this world with climate change and increased population.”
• Our Great Lakes are a national treasure. “You need to understand their majesty and care about it. I would challenge everybody to drive around our coastlines ... they are a wonder,” said one member of the public.
• Geologic repositories of radionuclides: Two members of the public expressed concern about these repositories and asked that radionuclides (from nuclear waste) be added as “chemicals of mutual concern” in IJC reports.
• Phragmites. One person asked how he could, as an individual, help eliminate this invasive weed in waterways. He was encouraged to join an organization with knowledge on how to remove this plant correctly and then join in group efforts to eradicate this invasive species.
• Education. One member challenged the IJC to promote more education on the value of the Great Lakes and how to protect them at all levels of schooling.
In conclusion, the IJC’s American commissioner, Lance Yohe, encouraged everyone to keep providing feedback.
“The Great Lakes are having water quality problems. Our role is to report on the needs and the issues. We need to be proactive,” said Yohe.◊