‘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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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