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Updated: 21st July 2019 03:01Hamilton

Why we need to spend $1B over next 10 years to save the Great Lakes: Gord Miller

A former environmental commissioner of Ontario says that over the next decade there's an urgent need to spend a billion dollars to protect the Great Lakes. Gord Miller is part of a group that has recommended solutions to what they see as the key problems facing the lakes.

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Miller's group looked at key problems including climate change, beaches, toxics and nutrients

The Great Lakes-St Lawrence Collaborative has released, at a conference in Milwaukee, its 10-year action plan to protect the Great Lakes. (archive.epa.gov)

A former environmental commissioner of Ontario says that over the next decade there's an urgent need to spend a billion dollars to protect the Great Lakes.

Gord Miller is the co-chair of a group, the Great Lakes-St Lawrence Collaborative, that has come together to recommend solutions to what they see as the four key problems facing the fresh water lakes.

A former environmental commissioner of Ontario says that over the next decade there's an urgent need to spend a billion dollars to protect the Great Lakes. Gord Miller is part of a group that has recommended solutions to what they see as the key problems facing the lakes. 9:17

Miller spoke with the CBC's Conrad Collaco about the challenges facing the Great Lakes and what the solutions might be. You can read an abridged and edited version of the interview or listen to the full audio interview by hitting the play button above.

Gord Miller, Great Lakes-St Lawrence Collaborative

        

Why should we be worried about the Great Lakes right now?

The Great Lakes are a tremendous resource for all Canadians. They are still wonderfully healthy but they're not as healthy as they were. There are some challenges facing the Lakes. Some problems have been hanging on for a long time. Some are developing more seriously. We've got to tackle some of these problems and make things better. There are many issues. We just chose four. We said 'here are some innovative solutions in these four problem areas.'

What are the four problem areas?

Climate change — It's a very big and wide area of concern. In climate change we focused on one issue, high water levels. That was somewhat prescient because nine months ago we didn't realize 2019 was going to be yet another high water and flood year. That's one aspect of climate change that has to be addressed. We know there are lots of shoreline problems with erosion and the damage and flooding that are occurring. 

A billion dollar plan over a decade, which sounds like a lot of money but there's a lot at stake here.- Gord Miller, Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Collaborative

Toxics and other harmful pollutants — We've talked in recent years a lot about one toxic substance or another. What about the cumulative effects of these things? We're recommending some bio-monitoring and surveillance of the combination of toxics that are being loaded into our lakes and ultimately into ourselves and then an appropriate response to these exposures should be prepared. People should be notified of what's happening. We need a strategy to promote the changes and creation and release of these harmful substances. 

Nutrients — Nutrients are a big issue, particularly down in Lake Erie. Nutrients cause algae problems and algae causes ecological effects, fish kills and contaminates drinking water. We looked down in the states and we found something called a precision conservation approach they're using down at Chesapeake Bay. They look at the landscape with sophisticated data management tools to determine where the sources of the contamination of nutrients are coming from and allow us to focus on solutions. That's an innovative new approach to dealing with nutrients.  

Beaches — One of the ways people associate with the lakes is through beaches. We're lucky that we have a lot of good quality beaches. We're also aware that some of our beaches are bacterially contaminated more than they should be. If the beaches don't pass their bacteriological standard 20 percent of the time we think they should be declared impaired. A new category. An impaired beach would require an action plan to identify the sources of that bacterial contamination. Let's get serious about beaches. Just the ones that are seriously impaired and let's get on to forming a solution. 

What's the most urgent issue we're facing?  

There's urgency involved in all four of them. Climate change, we have to respond to. It's getting worse. We have to start looking at infrastructure because our water levels are not going to be consistently low as they were for several decades. The challenge extends beyond our lakes down into the St. Lawrence. The St. Lawrence is the second half of this initiative which is just starting in May of this year. That is an overwhelmingly challenging problem because it affects, not only our upper lakes, but also our neighbours in Quebec who have experienced a very severe flooding situation.

What has it been like working with the U.S. as a partner on protection of the Great Lakes?

We have to give credit to the Americans because they have something called the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative which they have funded to the tune of $2 billion in recent years. I have been in environmental protection for a very long time. Back in the 80s when I was a scientist working on acid rain a lot of the source of acid rain was coming from America. We started focusing on the Canadian side. We tackled our problems. We put control letters on Inco and fixed our coal plants. Once we tackled the problem on our side of the border we went to the Americans and said 'we've done this. We need your cooperation for trans-boundary contaminants and such things, or nutrients coming from Ohio into Lake Erie in this case. We got the cooperation we needed. 

If you go the Americans having cleaned up your own problems, or at least addressed them the best you can, you find that people on the other side of the lake are more than willing to cooperate.

What solutions are your group recommending?

We've done a rough costing. We're primarily focused on the federal government because this is a federal initiative, though there is clearly a role for Ontario. It's a $100 million per year for ten years. A billion dollar plan over a decade which sounds like a lot of money but there's a lot at stake here and there are a lot of different problems being addressed. That's the magnitude of commitment we'd like to see from the federal government. We're welcome to participation from Ontario and even private foundations — anyone who wants to help contribute. Our job is to identify the problems, come up with solutions. As a people in Canada and Ontario let's turn our attention back to the lakes and address these problems. 

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