Quinte waters in the broader context of the Great Lakes

An examination of of some historical and contemporary aspects; shipping and the environment [*]

The Issue:

Considering society’s renewed interest in environmental issues, many people are concerned about the quality of water they consume. Water covers 71% of the Earth’s surface. Human bodies are made up of around 70% water. Civilisation could not flourish, or even survive without water. Humans need water for nourishment, transport, hygiene and recreation. But not all are treating this precious resource with respect. Humans who should be protecting the lakes and oceans are polluting them.

A Brief History:

The Great Lakes contain approximately 18% of the world’s freshwater and supply 25 million North Americans with drinking water every day 1. However, freshwater accounts for only 2.5% of the world’s water supply and only 0.01% of the 2.5% is unfrozen and available for use 2. This makes the Great Lakes only 0.0016% of the world’s available freshwater. Since the Great Lakes contain only a small amount of freshwater in relative context, it is even more integral to protect it for future use. Lake Ontario was discovered in 1615 by a young coureur de bois and Champlain’s right hand man, Etienne Brûlé 3. The Lake remained clear and majestic until population and industrialism crowded around its shores.

[Review 2020]     The Great Lakes represent 0.018% of the world’s available (non-frozen) freshwater supply [18% * 0.01%].

In 1909, the Water Boundary Treaty created the International Joint Commission (IJC). The IJC’s role is to prevent and resolve water disputes between Canada and the U.S.A., undertake scientific studies monitoring the health of the Great Lakes and take measures to ensure the Great Lakes are protected from environmental damage 4. Both the U.S. and Canadian Governments fund the IJC, but its decisions are made impartial to the Government. In cases of deadlock, the IJC must submit a joint report to each Government to decide 5. The IJC allows all parties to be heard before making decisions and emphasises science as the most important factor in making their decisions 6. The first IJC study on pollution in the Great Lakes occurred in 1918 and found Lake Ontario to be virtually free of bacterial pollution, with the exception of E. coli at the mouth of the Niagara River 7. Industrial waste was being discharged into the Lake at this time but it was not recognized as a problem, so the practice continued. The Lakes were able to absorb the waste being discharged into them at the time, but the amount of waste increased so drastically it became too much for the Lakes to handle 8. Industrial pollution was recognized as a serious health issue by the IJC in 1948 9.


[Review 2020]     E. coli bacteria is generally related to faecal coliforms (untreated sewage). This text focuses on industrial pollution, but the worst of the industrial pollution began post WWII.

DDT was used as an agricultural pesticide starting in 1939 and evidence it was polluting Lake Ontario surfaced in the late 1960s 10. Around the same time, eutrophication (scientific term for nutrient enrichment) was noted in the Great Lakes. In 1968, high concentrations of toxic mercury were detected in Lake Ontario’s sediment 11. The amount of pollution in the Lake was alarming, so Canada and the U.S. signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) in 1972, calling for pollution prevention. The agreement aimed to reduce toxins, improve ecosystem health and clean up identified areas of toxic contamination. By 1977, phosphorus discharge had reduced and eutrophication had declined, but not by enough 12. The GLWQA was renewed in 1978 and called for restoration of the Great Lakes. The new Agreement set the maximum load of phosphorus for each individual lake and called for the virtual elimination of toxic discharge in the Great Lakes 13.

[Review 2020]     The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement has been renegotiated 4 times. The Original Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (1972) focussed on phosphorous, the 1978 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement added persistent organic pollutants (PCBs, etc.), the 1987 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement added areas of concern (as noted) in addition to biological pollution (e.g. invasive species), and the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement shifted to an ecosystem focus (functional connection between chemical, physical and biological stresses). The most recent amendment (2019) to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement puts greater emphasis on reporting and public accountability However, the ecosystem focus organised under 10 annexes remains.

Bay of Quinte, northwestern portion.

In 1985, the IJC designated forty-three "areas of concern" throughout the Great Lakes. The Bay of Quinte was named one of these areas. Overall, four potentially serious ecosystem problems were identified in the Bay: "excessive nutrient enrichment, destruction of fish/wildlife habitat, bacterial contamination and persistent toxic contaminants" 14. In order to restore the Bay’s health, a Remedial Action Plan called "the Big Cleanup" began in 1993. Major effort has been put into cleaning the Bay of Quinte, but some still criticise the Big Cleanup. Barry Jones, Implementation Manager of the Big Cleanup states that the project is ". . . going too slowly. Funding changes and we can’t count on a steady, adequate amount of funding delivered on time" from the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Environment Canada15. The inconsistency in funding makes it difficult to complete certain projects within the fiscal year, but according to Terry Murphy (Quinte Conservation General Manager), the Bay of Quinte is expected to be de-listed as a Great Lakes "area of concern" in 2010 16.

[Review 2020]While progress continues to be made, the Bay of Quinte Area of Concern remains “listed” (on-going remedial action plan) at present. The area was not “delisted” in 2010, as this paper had expected.

1 [back] John Mills, "Great Lakes 2000 – Vision for the New Millennium," Let’s Talk Green Nov/Dec. 1998: 4-5.
2 [back] Andrew L. Hamilton, Brian Harvey and Don E. McAllister, "Global Freshwater Biodiversity," Sea Wind: Ocean Voice International 11(1997): 5.
3 [back] Gail Roberts, Atlas of Discovery (New York: Crown Publishers, 1973) 74.
4 [back] The IJC and the 21st Century (International Joint Commission, 1997) 1.
6 [back] The IJC and the 21st Century, 4.
7 [back] N.J. Campbell, ed. Pollution of Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and the International Section of the St. Lawrence River, Volume 1 (International Lake Erie Pollution Board, International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Water Pollution Board, 1969) 1.
8 [back] James P. Barry, The Fate of the Lakes: A Portrait of the Great Lakes. (Toronto: G.R. Welch Company, 1972) 158.
9 [back] Campbell 1.
10 [back] Toxic Chemicals in the Great Lakes and Associated Effects (Environment Canada, 1991) 13.
11 [back] Toxic Chemicals 13.
12 [back] The Great Lakes: An Environmental Atlas and Resource Book (Toronto: Environment Canada, 1987) 37.
13 [back] The Great Lakes: An Environmental Atlas 37.
14 [back] The Big Cleanup Stage 2 Report: Time to Act (Belleville: Bay of Quinte RAP Co-ordinating Committee, 1993) 2.
15 [back] Barry Jones, personal interview, 09 Oct. 2007.
16 [back] Samantha Craggs, "Official says Bay’s condition not perfect but . . .," The Intelligencer 19 Jul. 2007.

* [back] - This project was developed by Isabel Slone (one of the Society's 2007 "summer students") and was in part funded with a grant from Young Canada Works, in part with a grant from the Municipality of the County of Prince Edward, and in part with this Society's research funds.