Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative waiting for Liberals to make good on $1 billion commitment
Feature image Alexis Wright/The Pointer

Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative waiting for Liberals to make good on $1 billion commitment

The Great Lakes hold 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater, which sustains life on Earth.

In Canada, most residents take clean water for granted; although in some First Nations and other Indigenous communities the ongoing neglect by provincial governments and Ottawa continues to put people at dire risk of poisoning from mercury and other pollutants, while residents are forced to either boil water or find other sources to survive, despite access to clean water being recognized as a fundamental human right by the United Nations. The privileges of most Canadians assure most of the population will never have to live with a boil water advisory—in Ontario 21 Indigenous communities across the province remain under boil water advisories.

Other locales have experienced the consequences of taking clean water for granted. The 2000 Walkerton E.coli tragedy, when seven Ontario residents died and another 2,300 became very sick, was a sobering reminder of the human cost when complacency around clean water settles in.

In mid January, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, a binational coalition of over 230 members working toward environmental and socio-economic health of communities along the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River basins, communicated with its partner municipalities. They were asked to pass a resolution to remind the federal government of its promise to invest $1 billion toward a Freshwater Action Plan. In 2021, ahead of that year’s election, the Liberals made a campaign promise of $1 billion over ten years toward the development and implementation of a Freshwater Action Plan. But immediately after winning the election, support for freshwater action began to wane. When the 2022 Budget was released, it only included two percent of the promised funds ($19.6 million) for freshwater action.

Lake Ontario

(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)


“We were quite pleased when we saw the Liberal Party of Canada commit to an investment of a billion dollars over ten years, in what they call a strengthened Freshwater Action Plan and are continuing to support those efforts,” Phillipe Murphy-Rheaume, Canada Policy Director with the Cities Initiative, said. “That said, with the 2022 budget we didn't see a long-term commitment or funding commitments to the Freshwater Action Plan.”

The Pointer reached out to the federal government. Environment and Climate Change Canada was asked why the Freshwater Action Plan, which the Liberals committed $1 billion toward over ten years, has only received two percent ($19.6 million) in approved budgets.

A spokesperson provided an emailed response.

“As part of the Government of Canada’s commitment to protecting freshwater, Budget 2022 proposed to provide $88.1 million over 5 years in new funding for Environment and Climate Change Canada, which includes:

  • $43.5 million over five years, starting in 2022-23, to create a new Canada Water Agency. 

  • $19.6 million in 2022-2023 to sustain the Freshwater Action Plan. The future of this initiative will be communicated at a later date. This funding will support clean-up efforts in the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River, Lake Winnipeg, Lake of the Woods, the Fraser River, the Saint John River, the Mackenzie River, and Lake Simcoe.

  • $25.0 million over five years, starting in 2022-2023, for the Experimental Lakes Area in northern Ontario to support international freshwater science and research.”

Of the $88.1 million detailed in the response to questions specifically about the Freshwater Action Plan, only $19.6 million appears to be part of the promised initiative, which is supposed to receive $1 billion of funding over ten years. It’s not clear when the nearly $20 million will be put to use, where it will go and for what. Some of the “clean-up” efforts mentioned, while crucial, are outside the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River areas, in other provinces.

The Pointer sent follow up questions to Environment Canada, to clarify that the remaining $68.5 million outlined in the email, is not actually part of the $1 billion commitment to the Freshwater Action Plan which the department was asked about. No response was provided.

With the apparent lack of action to live up to Liberal promises, the Cities Initiative has taken it upon itself to draw support, so that critical freshwater systems will be protected for many generations to come. 

As more and more parts of the world suffer droughts and face other issues causing significant threats to water bodies, conservation of existing systems is more important now than ever.

With some of its major lakes rapidly shrinking, late last year, Utah brought forward one of the most comprehensive plans in the world to preserve its critical natural water systems.

“Rapid growth and new challenges, including climate change, means that Utah must take a comprehensive, proactive approach to conservation and planning for our future,” a report titled Utah’s Coordinated Action Plan for Water communicated in November.

“These efforts have generated a list of over 200 recommendations and actions to safeguard and improve the state’s water resources for a healthy and prosperous Utah.”

Under the plan, last week the state legislature passed almost $500 million (US) in spending on water sustainability, “for generations to come.” 

Utah’s population is less than 3.5 million; the Great Lakes St. Lawrence River area has a population of about 60 million.

According to Ducks Unlimited, “The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence region of Canada and the United States supports one of the largest economic systems in the world, valued at close to $5.8 trillion in 2014. Besides providing drinking water to more than 8.5 million Canadians, the lakes support a quarter of our Canada’s agricultural capacity and close to half of our industrial capacity. Commercial and recreational fishing industries are valued at close to half a billion dollars. Agriculture, industry and trade provides more than 50 million jobs to North Americans.”

Protection of the region’s water, which is under increased threat, is one of the most important conservation issues in Ontario, and stakeholders are warning elected officials about the consequences of inaction.      

The ask from the Cities Initiative was on the agenda for Peel Regional Council on February 9. The item was recommended for receipt, but elected members chose not to discuss the matter. Following the council meeting, The Pointer reached out to the nine Peel Regional Councillors who sit on the Board of Directors of one of the two major conservation authorities within the Region, the Credit Valley Conservation Authority (CVC) and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA): Matt Mahoney, Dipika Damerla, Stephen Dasko, Dennis Keenan, Christina Early (CVC); and Navjit Kaur Brar, Rowena Santos, Chris Fonseca, Mario Russo (TRCA; according to the websites, Dasko sits on both boards. He represents Mississauga’s lakefront community). They are paid to sit on each conservation authority board.

None of the nine councillors responded.

Despite the unwillingness of Peel Regional councillors to discuss the issue of freshwater protection, a matter conservation authorities are mandated to deal with, the Cities Initiative has found success with other partners. Over a dozen municipalities located within the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River basins have passed, or have committed to pass the resolution recommended by the group.

The lack of engagement by Peel Regional Councillors mirrors the lack of action by the federal Liberals now being called out by the Cities Initiative.

Since 2017, the federal government has invested $45 million in the Great Lakes Protection Initiative. The United States has invested $1.8 billion in the same period into its Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Recognizing this gap, the Cities Initiative has taken part in campaigns and projects to support source protection of freshwater.

It helped lead the process of developing the Action Plan 2020-2030 to protect the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. The report contains a series of recommendations for the federal government touching on different aspects of managing freshwater resources and maintaining coastal resilience. Pivoting to work with a variety of organizations, the Cities Initiative has launched the $1 Billion Booster for Freshwater Health Campaign to encourage the federal government’s renewed investment in freshwater health and sustainability. 

Declining water quality in the Great Lakes not only impacts humans, but the more than 3,500 species of plants and animals that live in the basin.

(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)


The Great Lakes make up the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem and are the foundation of surrounding natural biodiversity and the existence of unique flora and fauna. With the world’s largest source of freshwater under its control, Canada and the United States have a unique responsibility to ensure the precious resource is protected. In 1972, they signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) which determines how the two nations work independently and together to protect and restore the Great Lakes and the ecosystems that rely on them. The agreement sets out how to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Great Lakes System.” It was modernized in 2012 to adapt to current issues affecting the Great Lakes. In the late 1980s, Canada and Ontario committed to fulfilling responsibilities under the GLWQA through the Canada-Ontario Agreement (COA). It was most recently updated in 2014.

Growth has spread rapidly around the Great Lakes which provide transportation routes for intermodal shipping and rail lines connected by the vast highway network that criss-crosses the entire region. Industrial and recreational human activity as well as discharge of effluent, has put unprecedented stress on the lakes, while many of the impacts of climate change are still being studied to determine the future of the five massive freshwater lakes.

“Watershed stressors such as population growth, habitat loss and degradation, land-use activities, as well as climate change, can impair Great Lakes water quality and ecosystem health,” the 2022 State of the Great Lakes report warns.

Murphy-Rheaume noted there are a number of areas on both the Canadian and United States sides of the Great Lakes that are “heavily polluted” and have “beneficial use impairments”.

One of the most significant impacts of climate change is declining water levels which have steadily decreased since 1986.

Environment Canada scientists David Fay and Yin Fan calculated that Lake Ontario’s water levels could decrease between 0.08 and 0.47 metres by 2050.

It is estimated that increased evaporation due to warmer temperatures is likely to outpace increased precipitation leading to further decline in water levels. As water levels are decreasing, the projected demand for water will continue to increase with a growing population.

As water levels decrease, there will also be an increase in contaminants that make their way into the basin. The main causes of poor water quality are E.coli, phosphorus, sediments from septic systems, manure and urban stormwater. 


An increase in the volume of nutrients — most commonly nitrogen and phosphorus — can lead to the production of algae blooms common in Lake Erie and sometimes seen in Lake Superior.

(Liz Harrell/Unsplash)


Wastewater systems treat human waste to control levels of nutrients, pathogens and solids, and according to the Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks, wastewater treatment plants within the province must have a minimum level of secondary treatment — to remove organic matter as well as nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus — with many that have tertiary treatment or other advanced technologies to remove toxins.

The more the population around the Great Lakes grows — according to the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, the Greater Golden Horseshoe population is expected to increase by 45 percent, to 14.8 million by 2051 — the more wastewater will reach the Great Lakes.

Twenty years after the Walkerton tragedy, which saw E.coli bacteria contaminate drinking water through runoff from a nearby cattle farm, environmental advocates continue to warn that if strict environmental protections aren’t followed, tragedies like Wakerton are bound to reoccur.

The closer developers build to our critical waterways — houses, roadways and sewer systems — the greater the chance toxins will enter municipal water systems.

“If you're pulling in sediment from the ground or, even worse, if you’re pulling infrastructure, cottages, houses into our lakes and rivers, obviously that will have a water quality impact,” Murphy-Rheaume said.

A previous investigation by The Pointer of the 11 monitoring stations maintained by the Credit Valley Conservation authority found in June and July, when concentrations of chloride, a component of road salt, are often lower, found levels at the majority of the stations were above those that cause acute harm to aquatic life: 640 milligrams per litre. Some of the figures were nearly three times as high.

The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative is calling on the federal government, which has authority over freshwater systems such as the Great Lakes, to take proper action to protect our water. The Initiative’s key stakeholders are working closely with the municipalities of Mississauga, Toronto and Montreal, all major centres along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. Murphy-Rheaume said he is hopeful that action at the municipal level will encourage the federal government to invest proper resources for freshwater protection.

“We're hopeful to see a longer term,” he said. “And of course, a much larger commitment from the federal government in this year's budget.”

The Environment and Climate Change Canada spokesperson gave no indication of investments for the Freshwater Action Plan in 2023 and beyond, with less than $20 million of the promised $1 billion over ten years currently committed. 


Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @rachelnadia_

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