Lake Simcoe five years later: Limitless growth causes limitless problems

June 17th, 2013 by Laura Bowman

This upcoming December will mark the fifth anniversary of the Lake Simcoe Protection Act (LSPA), the passage of which led to the implementation of the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan. This legislation was the result of a lot of hard grassroots work by many people in the community.

The Ontario Ministry of the Environment claims that actions under the LSPA and the Plan have resulted in decreasing levels of total phosphorous in the spring, more naturally reproduced sport fish and increasing deep water oxygen levels. These are important steps toward a healthy Lake Simcoe, but do these claims stand up to scrutiny? How much real progress has been made toward protecting Lake Simcoe, and is there room for improvement?

Many of the Ministry’s claims about the accomplishments of the LSPA exaggerate the impact these changes have had on the ground. For example, the spring total phosphorus loading remains at levels comparable to those in the 1990s, suggesting that long-present annual variations are really behind the promising more recent numbers. Deep water oxygen levels also have had wide annual variations that dwarf the alleged trends, and the target — of seven milligrams per litre — has not been reached since the Plan was put in place. Further, the so-called promising signs of improvement in sport fish are small compared with historic catches only a few decades ago.

The Ministry established a scientific committee to report on progress, and committee members have been more cautious about their assessments of current achievements and predictions for the future of Lake Simcoe than the Ontario Minister. A 2012 report stated: “The Committee has concern that the ongoing pressures of continued human population growth and changes related to climate warming will challenge this recovery in the future.”

There is good reason to doubt that further development is compatible with the recovery of Lake Simcoe. Rural land cover produces one tonne of phosphorous loading to the lake annually, while urbanized areas produce 22 tonnes. In light of this, the scientific committee noted: “It is critical to ensure that there will be a net reduction in phosphorus loading from existing urban areas and no net increase of new sources of phosphorus from urban expansion and development.” Further, the committee noted: “There is no current solution proposed to accommodate increased P loading with population growth and with current growth projections.” Essentially — absent new technology — the phosphorus targets cannot be met under current growth projections. This is without taking into account the large portions of atmospheric contributions to phosphorus that are believed to come from construction and aggregate sites.

One potential method for improving phosphorus loadings is what is known as “water quality trading,” which is similar to cap and trade schemes to tackle climate change. However, the scientific committee expressed concern over the ability to monitor effectively and measure phosphorus loadings from each contributor, which would be necessary to implement such a program.

There are other ongoing concerns. Chloride concentrations in Lake Simcoe have increased significantly over a 36-year period, with concentrations increasing more than threefold at the lake’s outflow since 1971. Many municipalities in the watershed do not have credible road salt management plans able to address this trend. Further, several years into the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan we are still without the recommended shoreline protection regulations necessary to protect shorelines and tributary functions. The science committee recommended amending the plan to protect all wetlands, not just significant wetlands.

So in light of this, how do we take stock of the success of the LSPA and Plan? Certainly it is early days and results in some areas may take several decades to be realized since they require large-scale infrastructure changes. However, the current state of the plan’s implementation is still very troubling since there are many crucial gaps, most importantly the absence of limits on urbanization in the watershed, and no clear means to achieve the goals of the Plan.

As important as the passage of the LSPA has been, it was not the endpoint for the work needed to protect and improve the health of Lake Simcoe. Local municipalities still need to show leadership in controlling and managing growth, and managing their storm water, sewage and salt use. It remains up to individual citizens and community groups to hold their governments to account in these areas, and ensure protection of healthy lake ecosystems and clean water for local citizens are more important than the interests of developers. While the LSPA represents an important new tool, and has resulted in some interesting new information, it is not robust enough on its own to reverse the trends that led to its passage.

Fortunately, there are groups working hard on this front, such as AWARE Simcoe, who recently released their “Vision for Simcoe County”. It calls for a healthy and sustainable economic, agricultural and environmental future that ensures development is beneficial to the community. And it calls for even stronger measures to be pursued to protect the lake and control future development in the Watershed. The fate of Lake Simcoe is far from settled, and still demands a lot of grassroots effort to ensure its protection and long-term health. While we reflect on our collective accomplishments, do not forget that the task ahead remains challenging.

This post originally appeared in Lake Simcoe Living MagazineLaura Bowman is from East Gwillimbury and is a member of AWARE Simcoe.

Filed in: Environment

Tags: , , , , , ,