Minister’s Ten Year Report on Lake Simcoe Obscures Progress by Mixing Science and Politics

August 7, 2020

On July 17th Barrie-Innisfil MPP Andrea Khanjin released the Minister of the Environment’s Ten Year report on Lake Simcoe and made a $581,000 funding announcement for Lake Simcoe research. The Minister was nowhere to be seen. Also missing were a credible science monitoring report and the 2018 and 2019 Ministers reports on Lake Simcoe.

We should take this investment to mean that the province is very aware that there are people like you and me who are going to make them wear the impacts of their decisions and actions on Lake Simcoe. We are a strong constituency, and we need to keep it that way. Public pressure is the Lake’s best defence.

I will focus my questions and comments on Lake Simcoe, but the Lake does not exist in a geographical or policy vacuum. Recent and proposed changes to the Growth Plan are going to perpetuate suburban sprawl until 2051 and beyond. The changes virtually guarantee that the scarce remaining farmland in southern Ontario will be bought by land speculators, threatening the viability of local food production. Recent policy changes and proposals also threaten the protection of more natural areas as aggregate extraction will soon be permitted in habitats of endangered species and other natural features outside the Greenbelt and possibly the Lake Simcoe watershed. The Environmental Assessment process is a shell of what it used to be. I could go on. The point is that the environmental policy regime in Ontario has been shattered. This will naturally affect Lake Simcoe.

Now, to the substance of the Minister’s Ten Year Report on Lake Simcoe. The Ten Year Report is far rosier than it should be. There are more unknowns, strange changes, and looming disasters than the report lets on. While I agree that the remedial actions have been helping the lake, there is an obvious editorial slant towards the bright side. I find this problematic because this report forms the backdrop to the review of the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan. I worry that it will lead readers to think that the Lake is doing well and needs less protection.

Indeed, fishing and swimming is the way most people use the lake, and the Ten Year Report underreports downward trends and / or existing poor conditions at beaches and regarding fish health. People who use Lake Simcoe have a right to know the truth, warts and all.

If I authored the report it would highlight:

  • Phosphorus loads have skyrocketed in recent years; new development and its impacts are increasing pressure on the lake, and the remedial actions are not keeping up with the need to drive down phosphorus loads;
  • The nearshore area is a mess of invasive species, and the nearshore ecology has undergone massive changes in the past ten years; impacts are yet inadequately studied;
  • We don’t know why dissolved oxygen levels have gone up (good) while phosphorus loads have gone up (bad). This result is the opposite of what lake modelling told us to expect. The most likely explanations involve positive changes brought on by invasive species absorbing, consuming and / or moving phosphorus from one part of the lake to another. The long-term consequences of this are unknown;
  • We are not achieving the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan’s natural heritage targets for forests, wetlands and shorelines, which are, essentially, to protect what we have and increase the size and quality of natural heritage features. Instead, we have lost wetland and forest cover across the watershed. The legal mechanisms in place will not achieve the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan’s natural heritage targets;
  • Remedial actions are working but they are not compensating for the impacts of development and climate change. The Lake’s health will not improve without limits to growth, a strong emphasis on restoration, natural heritage protection, and invasive species control.

The most important point, however, is one of transparency. One should not blend science and politics in such an impenetrable way. The Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks is a politician, not a scientist. Yet the Minister’s report says, “This consolidated report, which addresses both five-year and annual reporting requirements under the Lake Simcoe Protection Act, 2008, describes the collaborative efforts taken to implement the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan, as well as results of monitoring programs and progress towards the plan’s objectives.” It reports on the results of monitoring and progress towards objectives inconsistently and inadequately. If the province intended to produce more scientific reports to support the review of the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan, which we now understand they will do, they should have been clear about that when the Minister’s report was released.

Here’s what is expected: The Lake Simcoe Protection Act, 2008, which has legal effect, lays out some reporting requirements requiring “the Minister of the Environment to prepare a report that, describes the results of any monitoring programs; and describes the extent to which the objectives of the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan are being achieved at least once every five years.” 1 The Lake Simcoe Protection Plan says, less forcefully, that the “Ministry of the Environment in partnership with other ministries will produce a report that describes the results of monitoring programs as well as the extent to which the objectives of the Plan are being achieved.”

The Minister’s combo Science and Politics report of 2020 simply does not provide the analysis needed to evaluate the extent to which the objectives of the Plan are being achieved, and does not meet the reporting requirements of the Lake Simcoe Protection Act.

It is not appropriate to put all of this information into one report with little to no citations, and with no editorial input from the Lake Simcoe Science Committee. There is a totally unscientific catch-all reassuring the reader that, “Each priority area is supported by data and trends collected from several provincial monitoring programs, and supplemented with data from partners such as the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority.” I do not mean to diminish the work of these conservation professionals. But the Minister’s report is not a science report without citations. In the absence of any other public explanation, the reader concludes that the province is trying to take the shortest route possible to meet the reporting requirements of the Lake Simcoe Protection Act and Plan by jamming it all into one inadequately sourced document.

The last comprehensive monitoring report on Lake Simcoe was released in 2014. It had been discussed and developed by the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change in collaboration with the Lake Simcoe Science Committee over many months. The Minister’s 2014 Five Year Report on Lake Simcoe appropriately followed the Five Year Comprehensive Monitoring Report. It highlighted the good news, like the Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks in 2020, but at least it referenced an independent science report. The 2014 Comprehensive Monitoring Report has authors, citations, and references listed. It includes standard “science stuff” like clearly identifying progress against targets, which is inconsistent at best and deliberately misleading at worst in the 2020 report.

For instance, although the overall watershed trend is a LOSS of forests and wetlands (1% loss each over a ten year time period) what is highlighted in the press release of July 17 is, “The 10-year report on Lake Simcoe shows the restoration of more than 15 kilometres of degraded shorelines, the planting of more than 55,000 trees and shrubs, and the creation and restoration of 120 hectares of wetlands…” 2. Highlighting successes without context is misleading, and is the reason why blending politics and science in one report is problematic.

Related to the loss of natural heritage is development, the only growing source of phosphorus loading at Lake Simcoe. Ten years ago the province acknowledged that approved development to 2031 in the watershed would ADD up to 15.3 Tonnes per year Phosphorus to the lake. 3 The provincial Lake Simcoe Science and Coordinating Committees’ formal advice to the Minister cautioned that development threatens the Lake’s health, advising, “Ensure that the assimilative capacity and ecosystem health of the watershed are considered prior to any amendments to future growth projections.” 4 In contrast, the province has recently inflated growth projections using market demand and land needs assessment methodologies that have been called speculative and flawed by critics. The province has allowed municipalities to expand their settlement boundaries more easily and more often, and has allowed developers to build fewer homes per acre. This new growth will double the watershed’s population by 2041 and add stress to the lake via phosphorus loads from construction in the watershed, and from land converted to urban uses. Therefore we absolutely need to maintain the development and construction policies, practices and offsets programs that reduce the pollution from development at Lake Simcoe.

This is a relatively minor point but I am truly puzzled by this one. The Minister’s 2020 remarks end with: “I want to thank the local conservation authorities, Indigenous communities, municipalities, agricultural and commercial sectors and residents who have worked tirelessly on implementing actions to protect and restore the ecological health of Lake Simcoe. I also want to thank the Lake Simcoe Coordinating Committee and the Lake Simcoe Science Committee for their advice on where our efforts need to be focused. This ongoing work requires collaboration and I look forward to continuing this important partnership with you.”

I just do not believe this. It’s polite to thank everyone, it’s true, but this is disingenuous considering what has happened under this administration. To date, the Conservation Authorities budgets’ have been slashed and their powers are expected to be severely curtailed in yet unreleased regulations; there is no Indigenous representation on the Lake Simcoe Science and Coordinating committees, and local Indigenous communities are poised to oppose the new Upper York Sewage System going into Lake Simcoe; the Lake Simcoe Science and Coordinating committees have not met since the current provincial government came to power; municipalities have less ability now to collect development cost charges from developers on some growth-related costs; farmers are furious with the province for basically putting housing development ahead of farmland protection; and frankly, to date commercial and residents have not been publicly engaged by the province.

Lake Simcoe is not a political pawn. It’s a living thing that heals when the right conditions are in place. We need to engage experts in determining what the Ten Year monitoring results mean before contemplating any changes to the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan.

Claire Malcolmson is the Executive Director of the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition. She has worked and volunteered on Lake Simcoe issues since 2001. Claire sat on provincial committees established to develop and then implement the Lake Simcoe Protection Act and Plan from 2008 – 2018.

The Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition represents 26 groups around the Lake Simcoe watershed, and spearheaded the campaign to get the Lake Simcoe Protection Act in 2008. www.rescuelakesimcoe.org

  1. S. 12. 2. Lake Simcoe Protection Act
  2. Ontario newsroom. July 17, 2020. Ontario Taking Action to Further Protect Lake Simcoe. https://news.ontario.ca/ene/en/2020/07/ontario-taking-action-to-further-protect-lake-simcoe.html
  3. Ontario, 2010. Lake Simcoe Phosphorus Reduction Strategy. https://www.ontario.ca/page/lake- simcoe-phosphorus-reduction-strategy
  4. Minister’s Ten Year Report on Lake Simcoe, 2020 https://www.ontario.ca/page/ministers-10-year-report- lake-simcoe

Aggregate extraction in the home of endangered species? What this means for Lake Simcoe

There are over 27,000ha of potential aggregate resources (sand, stone and gravel) in Simcoe County.[i] Last year the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition analysed how well protected from development our natural features are, and found that only 14% of Simcoe County’s landscape is well protected, and of this, 11% sits atop aggregate resources.[ii]

As the province continues to push for more aggregate development, the health of communities and ecosystems are at risk. Increased atmospheric phosphorous, changes to water regimes, complaints of noise and dust due to blasting, traffic related to haulage, and impacts to the watershed’s forests and wetlands (and their wild inhabitants) are just a few concerns relevant to the Simcoe watershed.


The Provincial Policy Statement (2020) (PPS) sets out the ways in which natural features, such as aggregates, are to be managed. Under the PPS aggregate resources are afforded long-term protection in ways that other natural features are not. Particularly concerning is section 2.5.2.1, which states that “[a]s much of the mineral aggregate resources as is realistically possible shall be made available as close to markets as possible” and that demonstration of need or demand/supply analyses are not required. This directive is almost verbatim included in the County of Simcoe Official Plan.[iii] There is clear danger in assuming constant demand for which constant supply must be made available, as it leaves much of the province, especially the GTA, at risk of unfettered extraction.

Working in tandem with the PPS, the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe[iv] guides where and how development activities should take place. The Growth Plan is currently under review. Through Amendment 1 of the Growth Plan, the province is seeking to “make it easier to establish mineral aggregate operations closer to market.” To do so, changes would permit new aggregate operations in Natural Heritage Systems (except the Greenbelt), while removing prohibitions on aggregate operations from the habitat of endangered and threatened species within the Natural Heritage System.[v] Amendment 1 is currently open for comment on the Environmental Registry (ERO-019-1680) until July 31, 2020.

What stands in the way of rampant extraction? The Lake Simcoe Protection Plan (LSPP)[vi], is a bold policy that limits the impacts of development activities, including aggregate extraction on the Lake Simcoe watershed. What makes the LSPP particularly powerful is that in case of conflict between it and other provincial policies, “the provision that gives the greatest protection to the ecological health of the Lake Simcoe watershed prevails.” In fact, the LSPP is very strict against permitting new aggregate operations in specific key heritage and key hydrologic features.[vii]

The provincial government announced that they would begin a statutory review of the LSPP this fall. We need to ensure that the Plan is strengthened and implemented in ways that will protect the health of Lake Simcoe and its watershed for the long term. 

Dena Farsad, PhD (ABD)

July 24, 2020


[i] In 2013, the Ontario Geological Survey produced the Aggregate Resources Inventory Paper 188 which outlines potential quantity and quality of aggregate resources in the County of Simcoe. AIRP 188 identifies 2404 ha of primary resources (totalling 283.7 million tonnes) and 27,503 ha of possible bedrock-derived aggregates (totalling 10,928 million tonnes) within the boundary of Simcoe County.

[ii] See the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry’s Pits and Quarries online GIS mapping application to get a sense of the number and location of pits and quarries currently within the Lake Simcoe watershed.

[iii] See for example, section 3.3.1.5 and section 4.4.2 of the Simcoe County OP.

[iv] In Ontario, land-use planning happens under the guidance of the Planning Act, which establishes planning goals and processes, and sets out roles and responsibilities of municipal and regional governments. Section 3 of the Actmandates the establishment of the PPS. All regions and municipalities in Ontario must adhere to the policies set out in the PPS while developing regional and municipal official plans.

[v] In many ways, this is the nail in the coffin for endangered and threatened species as the Endangered Species Act, 2007 has already been significantly weakened under Schedule 5 of Bill 108 (More Homes, More Choice Act, 2019).

[vi] The Plan is given legislative authority via the Lake Simcoe Protection Act, 2008.

[vii] Including significant wetlands, significant habitat of endangered species and threatened species, and significant woodlands.

Take action!

Take action until July 31st, 2020 at https://act.environmentaldefence.ca/page/62895/action/1?ea.tracking.id=action and / or make comments on the province’s Environmental Registry of Ontario site here https://ero.ontario.ca/notice/019-1680Or email growthplanning@ontario.ca directly. 

Please include something like this in your comments:  Ontario’s proposed changes to growth, planning, and allowing aggregates in habitats of endangered species would be bad for Lake Simcoe’s water quality if enacted. I am very concerned about these and other proposed changes, allowing unfettered, and unneeded greenfield development across southern Ontario at the cost of farmland and natural heritage. 

Re. ERO 019-1679, the proposed changes to the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe and ERO 019-1680, the Lands Needs Assessment Methodology. 

What would a Lake Simcoe Protection Plan review look like during a pandemic?

What does legitimate public consultation on the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan look like in the middle of a global pandemic? In April, the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition asked its 26 member groups to discuss this question, and we have been sharing the opinion below with the province since. 

The province missed the 2019 deadline for the statutory review of the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan, an indication (among many) that protecting the environment is not a priority for this administration. Too bad, because in retrospect it would have been simpler to get experts together starting in 2018 to produce and review the science that should inform proposals to change Lake Simcoe Protection Plan (LSPP) policies. 

Instead, the government is caught on its back foot, behind schedule, and lacking expert advice, having cut funding that allowed two mostly-volunteer committees of experts to advise the province on both the evolving science of the lake, and the implementation of the LSPP. 

I know, because I sat on these committees. They were starting to prepare advice for the minister of the environment and climate change to guide the LSPP review in 2018. But committees like these stopped meeting, all over the province, as the government cut “red tape,” no longer funding the cost of travel or food for meetings. The tap of practically-free advice was turned off. Not wanting to stand idly by, I stepped down as chair of the Lake Simcoe Coordinating Committee in late 2018. 

The province doesn’t have the conditions in place, or the expert advice it needs, to do a major policy review of the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan any time soon. The province has two basic choices: 

A. Do an administrative review of the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan, tidying up redundant or out-of-date regulations, but not touching the policies or targets of the LSPP. Focus instead on implementation, specifically better protecting and restoring forests and wetlands, and aggressively bringing down phosphorus loads through a strengthened Phosphorus Reduction Strategy. Phosphorus loads to the lake have gone up since the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan came into force. 

B. Take the time to get it right. For a robust and legitimate review of the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan and its policies the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition and its 26 member groups suggest that the following conditions are needed: 

1. The Lake Simcoe science and co-ordinating committees need three days of meetings, with scientists, to get up to speed and have their questions answered, to provide their feedback to the province on the scope of the review. Some members of the committees are new; it is not reasonable or responsible to expect them to provide good advice about a plan they are not yet familiar with. 

2. If the Lake Simcoe Science Committee endorses the release of a current Lake Simcoe Monitoring Report, which provides adequate information upon which to make adaptive management decisions (i.e. tracks progress toward targets), we suggest that the review can start three months later. This gives analysts and the government the necessary time to evaluate progress and make thoughtful recommendations. 

3. Environmental Bill of Rights and the Environmental Registry of Ontario must be up and running. The Statement of Environmental Values must be considered by decision-makers. In April, 2020, the Ontario government passed a regulation under the Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR) that exempts new laws, regulations, or policies that will impact Ontario’s land, air, water and/or wildlife from going through a 30-day consultation period. The optics are simply not good for the government if they proceed with a major piece of environmental policy review without adequate public consultation.

4. Social distancing measures must have eased such that people would attend open houses. The province could use online consultations only, and certainly this will be part of the solution. But one of the essential components of public participation in policy review is the ability to ask questions, and equally, hearing other people’s questions is an important part of public debate. Without the ability to hold open houses, and engage people in dialogue, feedback is more likely to be from paid professionals, a dynamic that supports profit-oriented interests more than non-profit and public ones. 

5. There must be First Nations representation on the Lake Simcoe Coordinating Committee and the Lake Simcoe Science Committee. 

The Lake Simcoe Protection Plan includes “principles to guide our efforts.” These are self-explanatory, but it is worth reminding the province that they are expected to use them. For instance, the review process should use the Adaptive Management Approach of the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan, which is to: 

Continuously improve and adapt our approaches, policies and management by incorporating new knowledge and innovative design, practices and technology from ongoing science and monitoring. This will allow the plan to evolve and improve over time based on new science and implementation experience.

It is not easy to do adaptive management. Monitoring data and implementation analysis must precede proposals to change management actions or policies.

And finally, despite budget crises and competing views on economic recovery, the health and prosperity of communities across the Lake Simcoe watershed still depends on a healthy environment. Indeed, the watershed’s sustainable recreation sector generates $420 million per year. Luckily for us, the LSPP’s first objective is to “protect, improve or restore the elements that contribute to the ecological health of the Lake Simcoe watershed, including, water quality, hydrology, key natural heritage features and their functions, and key hydrologic features and their functions.”

If we achieve this objective, Lake Simcoe will be a model for living within the limits of nature, which is ultimately the challenge of our time.

Written by Claire Malcolmson, the executive director of the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition.

Barillia Beach Park Association makes shoreline improvements look easy, because it is

If you lament that you want to improve Lake Simcoe’s health but don’t know how, then read this  pick me up! 

Barrillia Park Beach Association in Oro-Medonte, on the north shore of  Lake Simcoe, recently applied for and was granted almost $2,000 worth of native shrubs and trees. This program, called LEAP, offered by the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority, is available to any Lake Simcoe lakefront property holder wishing to plant native shrubs and trees. 

Our community of 40 families co-own our beach access common lot. The property bakes in the afternoon sun and has a flat grass lawn leading to the minimal sandy beach area and is needing a bit of privacy. We are ripe for beautifying, naturalizing and shade providing to create beauty, help pollinators, provide food for birds and feed our souls.  We will also be cleaning the air, stopping erosion and increasing soil fertility.

During a work week in September, eleven neighbours cleared the sides of the lot of bindweed, unruly non native scrub and old cedar hedges that had grown through our fences. In the process we gained about 12 feet of width that will receive most of the trees and shrubs. We chose 3 species of tree: Tulip, Bur Oak and Hackberry. The shrubs include Chokeberry, Amelanchier, Nannybush, Ninebark and Fragrant Sumac. All will grow well in our sandy soil plus they produce flowers in spring, berries and fruit in summer and gorgeous reds and oranges in fall. They were all chosen from a list provided by  the Restoration Specialist for Simcoe County, Peter Shuttleworth. Peter was super helpful and will bring the plant material to our community planting date in November. 

So Lake Simcoe shoreliners take a look around your property and imagine how beautiful your property would look with a boost of native shrubs and trees. Bravo Conservation Authority for supporting the watershed in this way!

Written by Linda Wells, Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition Board member

Identifying priority lands for protection in Simcoe County

Through the summer of 2019, the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition undertook an important project: to map the parts of Simcoe County’s landscape that are protected, highlight vulnerabilities, and make recommendations on how to further protect them for future generations, with strengthened policies, property acquisitions and conservation easements.

The maps and report are timely, as the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan is up for review late in 2019, and there is a consultation underway on proposed changes to the Provincial Policy Statement. Both provincial policies could be strengthened to increase the amount of land that is protected from land use changes. 

The cartographers employed in the research found that just 14% of the total land area in Simcoe County is in the “best protected” category, and 58% is “somewhat protected.” Some of the “best protected” areas are vulnerable to permits for aggregate extraction.And 99% of the area in the “best protected” category is protected by the Province’s natural heritage protection policies. If these policies were weakened, we would be left with a much smaller and weaker Natural Heritage System in Simcoe County.

While all involved in the business of protecting natural areas understand that the policies that protect natural features may change, the Coalition suggests that linkages between the patches that are well-protected by policy are the top priorities for protection. These linkages create a cohesive, protected network through which water and wildlife can move, rather than disconnected patches. It is a “death by a thousand cuts” to the Natural Heritage System that worries the Coalition; those cuts tend to occur in areas identified as “somewhat protected” in the report. These include the crucial linkages between well-protected patches of forest and wetland.

The Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority updated their Natural Heritage System and Strategy in 2018; it includes these linkage areas, but does not change the policies applied to the landscape unless a municipality adopts the NHS in their Official Plan. This is our recommendation to all Simcoe County municipalities that have not done so already. 

Protecting greenlands is good for our water, our economy, and our way of life: wetlands regulate water flow, filter water, help control flooding, and provide wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities. Forests also help filter water and regulate water flow, create oxygen, and provide habitat for wildlife. And healthy, naturalized shorelines and river banks shade and cool the water while also protecting from soil erosion, slowing erosion’s contributions to the lake’s phosphorus pollution problem.

RLSC’s report also contrasts Environment Canada’s “How Much Habitat is Enough?” recommendations for Southern Ontario with Simcoe County’s current wetland and forest cover. While wetlands coverage is within Environment Canada’s recommended range, wetlands are being lost, and forest cover of 22% is nowhere near the forest cover target for healthy aquatic ecosystems of 50%. Further, forest cover is unevenly distributed across the County. Developing local and specific targets for forest cover and wetlands would be a good next step towards increasing the resiliency of Simcoe County’s landscape and water quality. 

There is absolutely reason for hope: because Simcoe County’s Natural Heritage System is so big, there is ample opportunity to increase the amount of land that is permanently protected, if the County, municipalities or the province go beyond what today’s Natural Heritage protection policies require. The report provides recommendations for the province, municipalities, and landowners, ranging from expanding the Greenbelt into Simcoe County, maintaining or strengthening the provincial policies that protect wetlands, forests, and shorelines, developing strong tree-cutting bylaws and exploring land trust options.

The opportunity to get it right in Simcoe County should inspire engaged citizens, planners, and our governments, to develop an approach to land use planning that permanently protects an adequate amount of green space, and prepares us for an uncertain future. 

The Coalition hopes its maps and research will be useful for land trusts’ identification of priority areas for protection. The Coalition is presenting the results of its research to land trusts on November 7, 2019, by Zoom webinar. Please contact us if you would like to be included. We want to collaborate with land trusts and share our results.

The report and maps are available for download here. 

Written by Claire Malcolmson, Executive Director, Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition

The Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition is a lake-wide member-based organization, representing 22 groups in the Lake Simcoe watershed, that provides leadership and inspires people to take action to protect Lake Simcoe. www.rescuelakesimcoe.org

The Real Lake Monster

‘Can we conquer Lake Simcoe’s phosphorus monster?’ Philip Brennan asks on the 10th anniversary of the Lake Simcoe Protection Act

Reprinted with permission from the July 2018 Lake Simcoe Living magazine

We all know how important water is to life itself and many of us take for granted that it will always be plentiful and of good quality. Others are shocked and dismayed at how much water we waste on such processes as bottling water and washing gravel. There are significant indications that we are not doing enough to protect our precious water and the benefits it provides.
In a 2016 review of the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH) in 2016, Kevin Eby, from Friends of the Greenbelt, noted that the GGH is forecast to grow by almost four million people over the next 25 years, many attracted by the high quality of life — a quality of life that depends on a sustainable supply of clean water. A great place to look for clues regarding the health and nature of our water supply is the Lake Simcoe Watershed, home of the “gold standard” in watershed planning in Ontario.
Lake Simcoe is the fourth-largest lake wholly in the province of Ontario. For many, it is our summer and winter playground; for the very fortunate among us, it is home. But here is the kicker: studies say that new development in the Watershed could add 18-percent to 25-percent more phosphorus to the lake by 2031. If that is not chilling enough, the Five-Year Review of the Lake Simcoe Plan notes that chloride concentrations (primarily from road salt) have increased four-fold since 1971.
Pollution problems in Lake Simcoe were already severe in the 1970s, and scientists determined then that the most likely cause was eutrophication — excess nutrients, mostly phosphorus, entering the lake. Because the lake was so important to the many people using it, the Ministry of the Environment started monitoring the water in 1971. The Lake Simcoe Environmental Management Strategy program, which started in 1981, contributed to lowering phosphorus inputs. Phosphorus levels decreased further after 1989 when the Canadian Environmental Protection Act set limits on phosphate concentration in laundry detergent.
The next major step toward protecting Lake Simcoe’s health came with the development of the 2008 Lake Simcoe Protection Act — the first lake-specific legislation of its kind in this country. The act led to the creation of the 2009 Lake Simcoe Protection Plan for the almost 3,000-square-kilometre Watershed. Responsibility for implementation is shared between the province, the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority and the municipalities. The Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation also strongly support the Plan and its initiatives. In addition to the policies, regulations, monitoring and studies that were developed to improve the health of the lake, the value of acting locally has been critical to the success of the plan, with 35 of the policies being the responsibility of Watershed municipalities. At the local level, through stewardship activities, hundreds of restoration and on-farm projects have been completed to reduce nutrient loading to the lake.
The Phosphorus Reduction Strategy Implementation Plan was released on July 7, 2010, and a new strategy will formally begin in June 2019. The strategy states that for the period 2004 to 2007, the average annual phosphorus load to the lake was approximately 72 tonnes per year(T/yr), coming from several sources. The strategy notes that prior to major settlement and land clearing in the 1800s, the annual phosphorus load going into the lake was about 32 T/yr. The Lake Simcoe Phosphorus Load Update for 2012/13 to 2014/15 by LSRCA notes a five-year average of 85.5 T/yr. The strategy calls for a long term goal of 44 T/yr to support a naturally reproducing and self-sustaining lake trout population. In his 2016 Annual Report, Glen Murray, then-Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, reported that between the 1980s and 2016, water quality showed signs of improvement with springtime phosphorus levels decreased, while the end-of-summer deepwater dissolved oxygen level increased.
Phosphorus levels, however, have been rising overall, and should serve as a warning that we need to do much more to improve water quality in the Lake Simcoe Watershed. The bottom line is that even with the “gold standard” in watershed planning, Lake Simcoe’s phosphorus monster is a challenge to conquer. At stake are millions of dollars in tourism business, tens of thousands of jobs, safe, clean drinking water for local communities, and our quality of life.
Let’s review where the phosphorus strategy and our changing landscape have taken us. What battles are we winning? Where are we losing ground? Some great work has been done to improve the health of the Watershed. In addition, new science and technology is emerging that promises to make a significant contribution. But a close look reveals that we need to be very careful and determined to have the Watershed we all hope for.
To begin with, let’s look at the information that we have on hand from the Phosphorus Reduction Strategy.  We know that when the volume was 72 T/yr, 31-percent was from urban runoff and stormwater; 27-percent from the atmosphere; 25-percent from rural and agricultural sources; 7-percent from sewage treatment plants; 5-percent from septics; and 4-percent from the Holland Marsh and smaller polders. The best success story in implementing the Phosphorus Strategy to date has been the reductions in loads from sewage treatment plants, as reported in the 2016 Annual Report on Lake Simcoe. Improvements in treatment technology and upgrades to existing plants have resulted in a significant decline in the phosphorus load generated by these facilities.
Another tool that seems to have made a significant contribution to reducing phosphorus is the new building code regulation that requires the inspection of septic systems every five years. These systems were estimated to contribute 5-percent of the phosphorous load (there are almost 4,000 septic systems within 100 metres of the lake). There is also an associated incentive program to repair, upgrade and replace faulty systems.
Then there is the Holland Marsh, which contributes 4-percent of the phosphorus going into the lake. It consists of five polders that are about 3,000 hectares of former wetlands drained between 1925 and 1930 for agricultural use. As part of the Phosphorus Strategy, a significant effort has been made to ensure that farmers and vegetable washing operators wash, process and discharge the water according to the requirements of the Ontario Water Resources Act.
The Holland Marsh this year played a part in one of the most innovative approaches ever for dealing with phosphorus management when it hosted the top 10 contenders in a global water contest that pitted successful phosphorus reduction technologies against one another. The team that demonstrates the safest, most affordable and scalable means of removing phosphorus from waterways will be awarded $10-million. Now that is motivation!
So, what about the estimated 25-percent of phosphorus loading from rural and agricultural sources? The Five-Year Report Card on Lake Simcoe does not provide a quantitative conclusion on this matter so it is prudent to assume that this is still a serious problem.
There is a surefire way to have clean water and healthy soil. That is to follow through on the Ontario Federation of Agriculture’s election campaign priority — Producing Prosperity in Ontario. The thrust of the document is to secure greater access to infrastructure investments for rural communities and farmers. This vision for prosperity, however, is missing a key ingredient as presented. If we want to move forward with infrastructure investment we should be planning to protect our good farm land above all else. Protecting farm land will enable a healthy sustainable agri-food sector and provide multiple environmental benefits. For instance, if farm land is protected through the extension of the Greenbelt into the rest of the Lake Simcoe Watershed, our farmers will have incentive and confidence to invest in farm infrastructure.
A Greenbelt designation forces others to work with existing agriculture operations rather than forcing farmers to adapt to development, aggregate operations or infrastructure, potentially negatively impacting their farms’ viability, as has been the case in the past. Losing good agricultural land to urban sprawl is not consistent with a healthy Watershed. We need to give farmland the respect it deserves. We need to protect farms and the important contribution good farmers make to a quality environment.
There are two more sources of phosphorus to consider in looking at the future of Lake Simcoe: the 27-percent that comes from the atmosphere and the 31-percent from urban runoff and stormwater. Major sources of atmospheric phosphorus come from unpaved roads, construction sites, agriculture, aggregate operations, burning fossil fuels, pollen and generally exposed soils. The Report suggests there is significant room for improvement in this area.
Finally, the 31-percent that comes from urban runoff and stormwater may be the most offensive chemical cocktail that washes into our creeks, rivers and Lake Simcoe. New development, poor and inadequate stormwater infrastructure, improperly maintained stormwater ponds, significant increases in the amount of paved areas, loss of vegetation along streams, loss of wetlands and forest areas, and the failure to plan for the challenges of climate change make this the single biggest challenge for the survival of Lake Simcoe. The good news is that lots of good work has been done to deal with urban runoff and stormwater management. The LSRCA has been working to incorporate low impact development practices into new developments. The goal is to reduce the amount of stormwater by minimizing impervious surfaces, treating stormwater as a resource rather than a waste product.
The final piece of the war chest available to reduce runoff from urban, rural and agricultural sources is to protect and enhance the natural cover in the Watershed. The Lake Simcoe Plan establishes a target of 40-percent quality natural vegetative cover in the Watershed. Ideally, this would be proportioned into each of the 21 sub-watersheds that make up the whole system. Eight sub-watersheds have low levels of cover, however, and there is a need to improve and protect wetlands that can filter out phosphorus.
There is also a great need to rehabilitate natural cover in developed environments. This natural cover is critical for mitigating the effects of intense storms that we are already experiencing as a result of climate change. It is a fundamental requirement for protecting our cold water streams that are critical to having a healthy ecosystem. The pre-election proposal by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs to study the possibility of extending the Greenbelt was an exciting and timely one. This would be strong legislation — far better than any of the existing greenland designations now in place.

Philip Brennan retired from public service after 35 years, including 14 years with the Ontario Ministry of the Environment where he managed a team to implement the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan. He is a volunteer with the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition. Read his complete article at lakesimcoeliving.com. He can be reached at pbrennan@rogers.com.
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Johanna Powell
Publisher, Lake Simcoe Living
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