Lindsey Cole from Ontario Sailor Magazine writes:
Great Lakes Chart Catalogue
Michael Lavelle says he’s seen everything from chunks of sewage to algae plumes in his trips sailing along the Great Lakes.
“I spent my entire life on Lake Ontario,” he says, adding he’s sailed three of the Great Lakes in their entirety having gone from Goderich to Gananoque. “I remember sailing across Lake St. Clair and connecting to the Detroit River. The water had a taste and stink of sulphur.”
Just last year, the marsh near his cottage on Howe Island was completely dried out.
“There were no fish,” he says. “Lowest water levels ever.”
Over the years, Lavelle says the lakes have certainly improved from conditions in the ’80s, however, that doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done.
“I’ve certainly seen it improve, I will say that. I don’t think I would have ever considered eating a fish (in the 1980s),” he explains. “But there’s certainly still threats.”
Lavelle, who is also the executive producer and host of a program called Going Green For Green, says there are “hot spots” when going along Lake Ontario that sailors are usually aware of when it comes to pollution. Those spots include areas around Pickering and the Hamilton Harbour.
“The closer you get to Hamilton Harbour the more concerned I am. If you’re catching a bass 30 feet off Hamilton Harbour, I wouldn’t eat it.”
Lavelle is also a member of the Toronto Hydroplane Sailing Club (THSC) and the Trident Yacht Club and owns a Bristol 31 that is currently being retrofitted. He says despite the THSC being situated right beside the sewage treatment plant, on one of the “filthiest” parts of Ashbridges Bay, “everyone at the club makes the most out of Lake Ontario. It’s an amazing club.”
But making the most out of the Great Lakes could become challenging with pollution and climate change impacting water quality for a variety of species, including humans.
The Great Lakes contain nearly 20 per cent of the earth’s fresh surface water.
“Scientists tell us that Lakes Huron, Erie and Ontario are in decline,” states the Ontario Ministry of the Environment (MOE). “New challenges are overwhelming old solutions. Population growth and emerging issues, including new chemicals of concern, invasive species, pollution and climate change are stressing the Great Lakes.”
Climate change is expected to continue to affect both average and extreme weather conditions in the Great Lakes basin, states Pollution Probe, a Canadian not-for-profit environmental organization in its Great Lakes Fact Sheets. Recent predictions indicate that by 2050, average temperatures could increase anywhere from 2.5 to five degrees Celsius. An increase of more than two degrees Celsius will result in significant environmental, social and economic disruption. The number of days with temperatures exceeding 30 degrees Celsius will likely double by the year 2050, it reads. Climate change is to some extent already causing water levels to decrease among the Great Lakes because warm temperatures can lead to evaporation.
According to Pollution Probe, climate change, invasive species and changes in land use and agricultural practices have resulted in an algal resurgence.
In 2011, Lake Erie had the worst algal bloom in decades and excess algal growth remains an issue throughout the Great Lakes.
Lake Erie has a surface area of about 25,700 square kilometres and is the shallowest of the Great Lakes. Is it the most biologically diverse of all the lakes and faces challenges because of development and urbanization, states the environmental organization. In the 1970s Lake Erie was said to be “dying” as a result of water quality issues with fouled shorelines, rotting algae and dying fish.
At approximately 18,960 square kilometres, Lake Ontario is smaller in surface area than Lake Erie, but is much deeper, with an average depth of 86 metres.
However, both are experiencing algae growth that is worrying environmentalists and boaters alike.
“When you see heavy weed beds you just know something is not right,” says Lavelle.
“It’s not great for sailing. You don’t want to be in and out of the water,” adds Mark Mattson, president and waterkeeper of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. “Many beaches are still closed (in the summer months). Lake Ontario and all the Great Lakes people are really, really worried. People are even starting to question it as a water source.”
The toxins associated with harmful algal blooms can be of concern for the health of humans, wildlife and livestock, Pollution Probe states. For humans this can include skin rashes, blisters, sore throat, difficulty breathing and other reactions.
Currently, there are two types of algae growth that are of particular concern for the Great Lakes. One type is blue-green algae and is sometimes referred to as harmful algal bloom because the organisms contain toxins or other noxious chemicals, Pollution Probe explains.
The second type is cladophora. It is a long, hair-like algae that grows on hard surfaces. It is found largely near shore and also causes foul-smelling beaches when it washes ashore. Scientists have said it needs both phosphorus and sunlight to grow.
This type of algae isn’t a new phenomenon. According to the fact sheet, by the mid-20th century, the phosphorus compounds entering the Great Lakes from agricultural and urban runoff, industrial discharges, untreated sewage, detergents and atmospheric deposits had helped create ideal conditions for algae to flourish.
Between 1968 and 1985 Canada and the U.S. reduced annual discharges of phosphorus to the Great Lakes from 28,000 to 11,000 tonnes by limiting the amount of phosphorus allowed in detergents, investing in improved municipal wastewater treatment and encouraging soil conservation and management practices on farms.
However, cladophora has also resurfaced on the shores of Lake Ontario, in Ajax and Pickering, which is raising eyebrows.
Overall, Lavelle says more needs to be done to protect the Great Lakes.
“We are going to need to mobilize. We need to continue to defend it (pollution on the Great Lakes),” he states. “When it comes under threat we should stand up.”
For the first time since 1987, Canada and the U.S. did update the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 2012. Under the new agreement, the governments state the “best means to preserve Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem and improve water quality” is to adopt common objectives and programs. Some of these objectives include assessing the progress of restoring the Great Lakes and engaging people and communities about water quality.
The Ontario Ministry of the Environment (MOE) is also proposing a Great Lakes Water Protection Act, which was introduced in February and is currently before the legislature, says Spokesperson Kate Jordan. If passed, the act would provide new tools for the government to protect beaches, wetlands and other coastal areas of the Great Lakes and the waterways that flow into them. The idea is to make the lakes, “drinkable, fishable and swimmable.”
While Mattson says the act does recognize the concern along the Great Lakes, it leaves it in the hands of communities to come up with solutions.
“I think we’re at a fork in the road,” he says. “The Ontario government’s Great Lakes Water Protection Act…it sets out swimmable, drinkable, fishable as its goal. They recognize the vision and the goal. We can’t go backwards. We can’t justify incremental losses any longer. It’s of the best of both worlds and the worst of both worlds. There is nothing in the act in terms of money. The framework is there, but I’m a little worried.”
Lavelle says he can’t help but feel somewhat discouraged as he remembers hearing about how Lake Ontario used to be a source of food and water.
“It went from drinkable then to now. We had a clean lake with good fishing that provided a garden,” he explains, adding his grandmother lived close to the lake and relied on it to live. “Imagine that.”
Now, he says, going out on the lake and even going for a swim carries with it a much less romantic notion.
“You dive off the boat and you want to have a look before you do it. You always look.”
Mattson shares a similar view.
“I don’t think Lake Ontario can ever consider itself a success…until the 9 million people can get food from it,” he states. “We’re on a slippery slope. The sailing community, they really understand that. They see the pollution, the loss of marinas. The sailors truly do have a different perspective and their voices need to be heard. We need to make decisions for the people. I’m worried we’re threatening future generations.”