We are all downstream - Cheryl Peach column
BY CHERYL PEACH
Although the world is immersed in COVID-19 mitigation, Canadians from coast to coast celebrated World Water Day on March 22.
With the focus on Water and Climate Change and how the two are inextricably linked, we are reminded that a staggering 748 million people live without basic access to clean water. That’s roughly one in 10 people on earth. Even in Canada our First Nations communities continue to need improved water infrastructure and access to safe, clean and reliable drinking water. “Adapting to the water effects of climate change will protect health and save lives. Using water more efficiently will reduce greenhouse gases,” according to www.worldwater day.org/
Yet, we around the Great Lakes take water for granted. We live beside a reservoir holding 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water. It is the drinking water source for millions of people, and as such, all Ontarians and those along the shores of the Great Lakes have a really big responsibility to the rest of the world to take care of that precious resource. Unfortunately, for the disproportional wealth of water that we have in this region, we have treated the Great Lakes as our personal toilet. We continue to have postings warning people not to swim in polluted nearshore waters, advisories on eating fish caught from the Great Lakes, reports of new toxins entering the Great Lakes and on it goes.
Just how important are the Great Lakes? Consider this: the Great Lakes are the largest system of fresh, surface water on earth, and as noted above, containing nearly 20 per cent of the world supply.
Only one per cent of the waters of the Great Lakes are renewed each year by snow melt and rain.
The Great Lakes Basin is home to 90 per cent of Ontario’s population and 40 per cent of Canada’s economic activity.
And here are a few Water Quality Facts about the Great Lakes.
Great Lakes beaches are closed to protect swimmers from waterborne pathogens. These dangerous microorganisms make their way into the Great Lakes from overloaded municipal sewage plants, from wildlife and polluted runoff from residences, yards, streets and farms.
All of the Great Lakes and their connecting channels are currently under fish consumption advisories for one or more toxic chemicals. In 2002, mercury, PCBs, dioxins or chlordane were at least partly responsible for 96 per cent of fish consumption advisories, while 75 per cent were issued in part due to mercury contamination.
Air pollution was once responsible for over 90 per cent of mercury contamination in the Great Lakes, largely from coal-fired power plants. But by 2019, smog alerts have become a thing of the past as a result of the closure of Ontario’s five coal-fired plants.
If there is an air quality concern, it is often a result of ground level ozone issues. This occurs due to pollution created from transportation, industry, homes, and general solvent use from chemicals and aerosol cans. ( I can’t wait to see our NASA data after weeks of COVID-19 self-isolation.)
On average, it takes a drop of water 191 years to cycle through Lake Superior (e.g. from entering as a drop of rain and exiting to Lake Huron via the St. Mary’s River). Lake Michigan’s retention time is 99 years, while Lake Huron’s is 22 years.
Mercury, PCBs, dioxins, chlordane and other toxic pollutants actually remain in the Lakes longer than water, accumulating in the food web and lake sediments.
With forest fires increasing due to climate change (e.g., 537 in Ontario in 2019 and 1,324 in 2018) air quality issues from forest fire smoke can become a further concern for youth, seniors and those with health issues like lung or cardiovascular diseases such as asthma.
Despite being banned in the late 1970s, PCBs are still linked to birth defects in Great Lakes wildlife: five per cent of cormorant eggs in the upper Great Lakes contain an embryo with a cross-billed deformity.
World Water Day was a time to pause and reflect on how magnificent the Great Lakes really are, and that we have a moral obligation to protect them. Plastic pollution, water quality concerns, invasive species and climate change are emerging as some of the most pressing environmental issues of our time. On the shores of Lake Huron, our Great Lake, we feel the impact of climate change. With extreme water level fluctuations, accelerated erosion and more frequent severe weather events, our communities are the ones bracing for impact. Now, is a time to become engaged in efforts to ensure that we pass on a legacy of clean Great Lakes water to our children.
[original article was authored by Geoff Peach in 2010, and has been updated by Cheryl Peach and Coastal Centre Staff - Samantha Ventura]