Scientific Institute of the Month: School of Freshwater Sciences

By Jeff Kart

The School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee prides itself as the only graduate school in the North America solely dedicated to freshwater issues. For 50 years, it’s maintained the largest water-focused academic research institute on the Great Lakes.

“What sets us apart from your average school is that we tackle water from an interdisciplinary perspective,” says Eric Leaf, assistant dean for advancement. That means integrating a wide variety of scientific disciplines, as well as engineering, urban planning, policy and public health. “The networks of inputs (to the Great Lakes) is so complex that you need every discipline to understand it.”

Emily Tyner, a graduate student in the School of Freshwater Sciences, dives while working with the National Park Service to study benthic oxygen dynamics at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and how they may trigger avian botulism outbreaks. Credit: Harvey Bootsma/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Emily Tyner, a graduate student in the School of Freshwater Sciences, dives while working with the National Park Service to study benthic oxygen dynamics at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and how they may trigger avian botulism outbreaks. Credit: Harvey Bootsma/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

The school is located in Milwaukee’s urban harbor near the shores of Lake Michigan, giving researchers and students a unique vantage point.

“It’s everything about our culture,” Leaf said. “We can walk out the back door, get on a boat and go do research.”

The Neeskay in the Milwaukee River. Credit: Troye Fox/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
The Neeskay in the Milwaukee River. Credit: Troye Fox/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

The school focuses on four areas: Ecosystem dynamics with an emphasis on large lakes, human and ecosystem health, water policy, and water technology. Overall, there are 120 people in the organization, including 20 faculty and senior scientists and 60 master’s and Ph.D. students. In addition, the school maintains close ties to water-focused groups in engineering, geosciences, atmospheric sciences, architecture, and urban planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“Student success, research excellence and university engagement are the main themes of UWM,” Leaf said. “At the school I can’t separate those things. The students are working on real research projects that affect the community.”

The School of Freshwater Sciences was founded on the idea that policy decisions that affect the lakes should be driven by science. “That’s what our students are learning,” Leaf said, “how they as scientists can affect policy, how to communicate science and how to communicate with decision makers.”

The school operates a research vessel called the Neeskay — a named derived from a Ho-Chunk Native American word that means “pure, clean water.” Leaders are in the early stages of planning and fundraising for a next-generation ship that will operate as a research vessel and floating classroom.

See also: Milwaukee to Host Second Public Meeting on Progress to Restore Great Lakes

Students from the school conducting research on Lake Michigan aboard the Neeskay. Credit: Peter Jakubowksi/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Students from the school conducting research on Lake Michigan aboard the Neeskay. Credit: Peter Jakubowksi/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Since the Great Lakes are a shared resource with Canada, collaboration with agencies in that country also are routine — and valuable, says Associate Professor Harvey Bootsma.

Bootsma grew up in Canada and studied at the University of Manitoba and the University of Guelph. He conducts nearshore work related to problems like Cladophora, a type of algae that grows to nuisance levels, and invasive species like zebra and quagga mussels.

He says working with colleagues at the University of Waterloo has been especially helpful. Workshops between the Milwaukee school and the Ontario university have allowed scientists to compare notes and helped jumpstart several areas of research.

“We have similar problems in a number of the Great Lakes, especially nearshore issues,” Bootsma said. “It’s really beneficial for groups of scientists from different lakes to get together.”

What is the school trying to discover?

“It’s more of a lab-by-lab thing,” Leaf says. “From a broad perspective, the school wants to investigate how the Great Lakes and other water systems function—and how we as humans impact them—so that decision makers and managers can make informed decisions to manage our most precious water resources.”

That includes work such as developing a model of nutrient contamination to help water managers reduce the size and duration of “dead zones” in Green Bay.

“We do a tremendous amount of work collaborating with the community in southeast Wisconsin and around the Great Lakes,” Leaf said. “That’s one of the points we take pride in: Our work is not theoretical, it is applied science.”

Leaf notes a movement in Milwaukee to revitalize its inner harbor. The school recently received a grant to conduct an extensive aquatic survey of the harbor.

“In addition to revitalizing land use of the harbor and making it a stronger part of the community, (organizers) want a harbor that’s environmentally clean, that supports recreational fishing, that supports birds and wildlife, that becomes a natural refuge in the city,” he said.

School researchers are working with partners including the Harbor District Inc. and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to assess existing fish forage and spawning habitat and develop a map to inform strategic development.

“It’s a really interesting project because it’s being done in Milwaukee but the way we’re doing it could theoretically be done in almost any harbor,” Leaf said. “It’s science to inform policy decisions and drive economic activity.”

Jeff Kart is executive editor of the IJC’s Great Lakes Connection and Water Matters newsletters.

Safe Drinking Water Requires Several Steps

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

Credit: US EPA
Credit: US EPA

One of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement’s objectives is to make sure that the lakes are a source of safe, high-quality drinking water. The safer that source water is, the less money and effort needed by local utilities for treatment. To inform people who consume Great Lakes water, Canada and the US have rules on the books requiring water utilities to report on the quality of the drinking water they provide.

Municipal water systems in Canada and the US are required to make sure water is safe after its been treated, but protecting water at the source is just as important. Some potential contaminants can’t be easily removed at treatment plants, and water treatment is generally an expensive procedure. As a result of active efforts to protect water sources and treat incoming water, however, public utilities in both countries provide safe drinking water except in cases of rare, well-publicized disasters, such as recent lead in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water, or Walkerton, Ontario’s E. coli outbreak in 2000. Part of the International Joint Commission’s task under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement is to assess whether those sources of water are being protected. The Commission has found “that drinking water in the basin was very likely to be safe given present treatment measures for presently identified biological, chemical and physical contaminants.”

Under the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Safe Drinking Water Act guidelines, all community water systems across the United States must prepare an annual “consumer confidence report.” If the utility serves more than 10,000 people, the report must be mailed out. Otherwise it can be mailed, posted publicly or made available in a local newspaper. For example, see 2015 reports here on the Eastpointe, Michigan, water system and here on the Rochester, New York, water system.

These reports explain where a system’s drinking water comes from, testing done for contaminants like nitrates, barium, chlorine, copper and lead, and testing results. Not all contaminants are necessarily harmful – some, like sulfates or iron, only impact the taste or appearance of water. But some, like lead, can have major impacts on human health. The EPA sets minimum safe standards for drinking water, though states can adopt stricter standards.

“The information contained in (these) reports can raise consumers’ awareness of where their water comes from, help them understand the process by which safe drinking water is delivered to their homes, and educate them about the importance of preventative measures, such as source water protection, that ensure a safe drinking water supply,” the EPA wrote in the summary of its final approved rule in 1998.

Under the Ontario Safe Drinking Water Act, the Ontario Ministry of Environment requires annual reports – such as these from Toronto – from every drinking water plant that serves more than 100 people. These reports are not necessarily sent to every resident, but are typically found on the city website of the municipality providing the water. Ontario also requires that owners of community drinking water systems test water in the plumbing inside a home or building and in distribution pipes throughout an area to make sure there is no contamination between the water plant and the water coming out of your faucet.

The R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant is one of several that serve the Toronto area. Credit: r h via Flickr
The R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant is one of several that serve the Toronto area. Credit: r h via Flickr

Every year, Ontario also releases a Minister’s Annual Report on Drinking Water, which includes a section on provincial efforts to protect drinking water. Topics include climate change, First Nations-specific issues, source water protection and other concerns specific to the Great Lakes. The province also regularly releases the Chief Drinking Water Inspector Annual Report, which focuses on source water protection, the quality of drinking water across the province, and water test results at the point of use (including for substances like lead).

Water and its protection and safety is an issue that unites people in both countries, particularly around a watershed as massive as the Great Lakes. The safeguards in place to protect source waters – and public reporting of testing results – provide important assurances that we can continue to enjoy a cool drink of water.

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

Milwaukee to Host Second Public Meeting on Progress to Restore Great Lakes

By Sally Cole-Misch, IJC

The Lake Michigan waterfront and Milwaukee skyline. Credit: Todd Bragstad
The Lake Michigan waterfront and Milwaukee skyline. Credit: Todd Bragstad

The IJC’s primary role under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement is to determine and report on the effectiveness of progress by Canada and the United States to restore and protect the Great Lakes. This includes obtaining public input on that progress and recommending further actions the two countries should take.

Our upcoming meeting in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Tuesday, Oct. 18, is part of efforts to talk with citizens about their perceptions of the successes, challenges and opportunities for Great Lakes restoration. The governments hosted a Great Lakes Public Forum in Toronto on Oct. 4-6 to highlight their work and present a progress report. The IJC held a public comment session as part of the Forum as well as an evening public meeting to talk about the greater Toronto region and Lake Ontario.

You can watch that conference and share your thoughts and questions with others by going to the IJC’s online democracy site, ParticipateIJC, and read a summary of those meetings in November’s Great Lakes Connection newsletter.

Why come to Milwaukee? First, the IJC wants to provide the same opportunity to residents on the western side of the basin to comment on progress as those on the eastern side. Second, because the city and surrounding communities have dealt with several issues relevant to the Agreement’s goals and objectives, we want to learn more about the successes, challenges and opportunities they’ve faced. Our host, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences, houses much of the latest research being completed on key topics relevant to the Agreement.

Everyone is welcome to participate in the meeting, which will start at 6:30 p.m. CST at the School of Freshwater Sciences. After local organizations, scientists and citizens summarize the key issues they’re addressing in the greater Milwaukee region, we’ll broaden the discussion to consider how these local successes and challenges can be applied to Lake Michigan and beyond. We’ll finish with time for general comments about progress under the Agreement.

In addition to talking with the IJC, all of our public meetings also provide the opportunity to connect with other citizens, organizations, scientists and policymakers who are concerned and committed to restoring and protecting their part of the Great Lakes.

Register for the meeting today and join us for an informative conversation about Milwaukee, Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes.

See also: Scientific Institute of the Month: School of Freshwater Sciences

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences will host the IJC’s public meeting on Oct. 18. Credit: UWM
The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences will host the IJC’s public meeting on Oct. 18. Credit: UWM

Sally Cole-Misch is the public affairs officer at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.

One Water: A New Way to Think about Water Systems

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

Rain barrels are a way to capture precipitation and keep it from becoming runoff. Credit: Winooski Natural Resources Conservation District
Rain barrels are a way to capture precipitation and keep it from becoming runoff. Credit: Winooski Natural Resources Conservation District

Cities and other communities tend to disrupt the natural water cycle of an area. In natural environments, water falls as precipitation, seeps into the soil and eventually enters the groundwater system, connecting to surface-level waterways. When an area has been developed, more water runs off of hard surfaces like pavement and roofs into storm sewer systems before being dumped into a river or lake, along with any garbage and contaminants like oil or grease carried along by the water.

A new approach known as One Water is aiming at a more holistic system between standard city development and nature for communities to manage their water, from water withdrawal and use to sewage disposal and stormwater management.

“We have to look at the entire system and the entire way in which we use and move water as one integrated cycle and integrated system,” said John Jackson, projector coordinator for the Greater Lakes project with the Great Lakes Commission. “We’re not doing (water reuse and recycling) so much here in the Great Lakes because we have this myth of an endless supply of water because of the lakes, but it’s still very precious.”

More intense storms due to climate change are expected to exacerbate sewage overflows and stormwater runoff contamination to water systems. In addition, over-pumping underground aquifers pulls water from surface water areas that rely on those aquifers to replenish and recharge. This can destroy habitat for fish, wildlife and plants.

A “Greater Lakes” report by the Great Lakes Commission found that in six Michigan and Ontario communities, outdoor water use has the biggest impact on groundwater recharge rates, since changes in water use restrictions and plumbing codes have already helped conserve water.

Storm drains can lead to major erosion issues along waterways, and can back up if there’s too much water from major storms. Meanwhile, small wastewater lines and too much use can lead to capacity problems at treatment plants.  Jackson said it is “wasteful” to do something like use water once to flush a toilet and then discard it from the system entirely.

By managing the system as a whole through water conservation practices (like rain barrels) and replacing infrastructure like combined sewers, cities could be saving money and healing the water cycle. There are other benefits, too – fewer greenhouse gas emissions and less energy used from distributing water for long distances, according to a “Greater Lakes” fact sheet.

A rain garden can help soak up rain and hold onto the water until it seeps into the ground, while also helping plants. Credit: MA Watershed Coalition
A rain garden can help soak up rain and hold onto the water until it seeps into the ground, while also helping plants. Credit: MA Watershed Coalition

For example, one way to make these systems more effective is to reduce the amount of water running off into storm drains, Jackson said. Municipalities can make sure there are drainage ditches alongside applicable roads that will hold onto the water until it can seep into the ground.

Rain gardens can accomplish the same task on residential scales, while using rain barrels and cisterns to capture water from a home’s roof for other uses reduces runoff and the need to use more water from the tap.

Jackson said the barrels are typically used for gardening as an alternative to using a hose, while a cistern can provide water for toilets or washing machines. In either case, such practices reduce the amount of water going into expensive wastewater treatment systems. In some communities in places like Australia, Singapore and California – where water is becoming a scarce resource – water managers have started recycling wastewater to reuse elsewhere in the home, including as drinking water. Jackson notes this already happens for people who live downstream of another community and throughout the Great Lakes – where treated wastewater is put back into the water supply and used again – but the idea makes it a hard public sell.

Retrofitting existing buildings and sewer systems isn’t cheap, though. Jackson said communities replacing aging infrastructure should consider water-saving approaches and new development should automatically use these approaches – communities could even adjust building codes to make them mandatory for new construction.

The Great Lakes Commission’s Greater Lakes project has released a number of tools and informational packets, most notably the Green Infrastructure Optimization Tool, which can calculate the impact of different types of development, soil and rainfall on an area. While these are geared toward governments, Jackson said residents interested in green infrastructure should consider bringing it up to local leaders during planning or infrastructure discussions. In a matter of years, green infrastructure has become more of a mainstream concept, with more civil engineers and officials interested in considering it, and more community residents asking about it.

Permeable pavement, such as porous asphalt on the right side in this photo, allows water to seep into the soil beneath while filtering out pollution. Credit: EPA
Permeable pavement, such as porous asphalt on the right side in this photo, allows water to seep into the soil beneath while filtering out pollution. Credit: EPA

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

 

Protecting Our Sources of Drinking Water: Implementation of Source Protection Plans across Ontario

By Chitra Gowda, Conservation Ontario

Ontario’s 2006 Clean Water Act is part of the province’s multi-barrier approach to ensure clean, safe and sustainable drinking water by protecting sources including lakes, rivers and wells.

A multi-barrier approach to safe drinking water. Credit: Conservation Ontario
A multi-barrier approach to safe drinking water. Credit: Conservation Ontario

Under this legislation, the drinking water source protection program was established with funding from the Ontario government. This resulted in the development of science-based assessment reports and local source protection plans by multi-stakeholder source protection committees, who are supported by conservation authorities, the Severn Sound Environmental Association and the Municipality of Northern Bruce Peninsula. Conservation authorities operate on a watershed basis and bring together stakeholders across different political boundaries to contribute to the health of our rivers, lakes, and groundwater, supporting public health as part of their work in natural resource management.

The science-based local assessment reports identify vulnerable areas mapped around municipal wells and intakes in lakes and rivers, and identify certain activities as threats to municipal drinking water sources in these vulnerable areas.

Information on vulnerable areas is available from the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change website.

Source protection plan policies either recommend or require that actions be taken to address activities identified as threats. Action tools range from a soft approach, like education and outreach, to a strong approach such as risk management plans or prohibition of an activity.

Ontario has approved all 22 source protection plans, a significant milestone toward improved public health in Ontario.

Implementation of the 22 source protection plans is well underway across the province by various implementing bodies, including municipalities, provincial ministries and conservation authorities. There are many examples of progress in protecting the quality and quantity of sources of municipal drinking water as a result of these plans.

Through new implementation powers under the Clean Water Act, provincially trained and certified risk management officials at municipalities, conservation authorities and other agencies are implementing policies requiring risk management plans and prohibition. Risk management plans include measures to manage activities like hazardous waste chemical storage, fuel storage, manure spreading, fertilizer use, and road salt application in certain vulnerable areas. Monitoring these measures is handled by risk management inspectors.

Risk management officials and landowners working together. Credit: Ausable Bayfield Conservation Authority, Quinte Region Conservation Authority
Risk management officials and landowners working together. Credit: Ausable Bayfield Conservation Authority, Quinte Region Conservation Authority

Municipal official plans and zoning bylaws are being updated across the province to comply with local source protection plans. Municipalities are screening development and building applications for source protection plan policy applicability. Policies may apply to new or expanded development to manage activities like stormwater management pond discharge, storage of hazardous chemicals, and to maintain recharge to groundwater supplies. Some applications are flagged for local risk management officials to review.

Provincial ministries also are screening applications. The Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change developed procedures for the review and approval of permits to take water, environmental compliance approvals (for waste disposal sites, sewage works or application of untreated hauled sewage to land) and pesticide permits (for land application). The procedures will ensure that these permits and approvals include terms and conditions to protect sources of municipal drinking water.

Road signs that identify drinking water protection zones are being installed across Ontario to increase awareness of protecting valuable sources of drinking water. The installations are through collaboration with the Ontario government,  municipalities, conservation authorities, and others.

A road sign marking a drinking water protection zone. Credit: Quinte Region Conservation Authority
A road sign marking a drinking water protection zone. Credit: Quinte Region Conservation Authority

Septic systems in certain vulnerable areas are subject to mandatory maintenance inspections every five years per the Ontario Building Code. Several of these inspection programs have been initiated across Ontario in the past five years, tied to approval of assessment reports. Information on maintaining your septic system is available from Ontario’s SepticSmart! website. Tips on how to manage road salt in order to lessen damage to the environment and impacts to water sources are available from Conservation Ontario.

Some drinking water supplies in Ontario have known water quality issues, which are monitored and managed in order to ensure safe drinking water. Source protection plans include policies to address activities on the landscape that could contribute to a water quality issue. For example, for a nitrate issue in a municipal well, the policies may require that fertilizers are applied to crops at a specified rate to reduce groundwater contamination.

You also can help protect Ontario’s sources of drinking water. Brochures are available in French and English.

Chitra Gowda is source water protection lead at Conservation Ontario. Additional contributors to this article include Diane Bloomfield (project manager, Halton-Hamilton Source Protection Region), Jenna Allain (project manager, Ausable Bayfield Maitland Valley Source Protection Region), Keith Taylor (project manager, Quinte Region Source Protection Region), Rhonda Bateman (general manager, Sault Ste. Marie Region Conservation Authority), and Tim Cumming (communications specialist, Ausable Bayfield Maitland Valley Source Protection Region).

University of Waterloo Students Investigate Treatment Options for Protecting Drinking Water from Harmful Algal Blooms

By Amy Yang, Howard Tong, Gunjan Desai, Carlos Manzo
University of Waterloo

In June, the governments of Canada and the United States committed to new phosphorus reduction target loads for Lake Erie to control harmful algal blooms and protect the lake as a source of safe drinking water. The challenges of treating water contaminated with high levels of microcystin-LR, a toxin produced by blue-green algae, underscores the need to achieve the targets.

A fourth-year environmental engineering design project from the University of Waterloo examined the implications for one community by investigating how the toxin can be further treated in a drinking water treatment plant. The design team provided the preliminary technical and cost requirements needed to retrofit a medium-sized water treatment plant drawing water from Lake Erie to meet Ontario’s drinking water standard for microcystin-LR.

The fourth-year design group photo after a presentation pitch. From left to right: Carlos Manzo, Gunjan Desai, Howard Tong, Amy Yang. Credit: Shalaba Kalliath
The fourth-year design group photo after a presentation pitch. From left to right: Carlos Manzo, Gunjan Desai, Howard Tong, Amy Yang. Credit: Shalaba Kalliath

Microcystin-LR is a cyanotoxin that can be produced from harmful algal blooms (HABs). It was evaluated because it is regulated by Ontario Drinking Water Standards at 1.5 micrograms per liter (mg/L). As a toxin, it can cause symptoms such as diarrhea and skin irritation. The team took a conservative estimate of incoming toxin concentration of 100 mg/L — comparative to the largest concentrations of microcystin-LR found in 2014 when Toledo was forced to issue a “do not drink” notice to water users. It should be noted that these levels of microcystin-LR have never been found at the intake of the drinking water treatment plant examined in the design project.

Before investigating what technologies would be practical to implement in addition to existing processes at the plant, a base case evaluation was completed. That evaluation determined that existing processes would result in a concentration of about 17 mg/L of microcystin-LR in the plant’s discharge. A number of technologies were investigated through a literature review to determine which treatment method would be most ideal to reduce the remaining concentrations to an acceptable level.

A total of 14 technologies were analyzed, including powdered activated carbon (PAC), granular activated carbon (GAC), micro filtration, potassium permanganate, and nanofiltration and reverse osmosis. These independent technologies also were evaluated in combination with other technologies.

Because of the location of the drinking water treatment plant and existing infrastructure, many of the technologies researched were deemed unfit for practical use.

For example, previous studies have shown biofiltration to be effective in removing microcystin-LR. However, most of those studies were conducted in Australia. The climate of Australian waters compared to southern Ontario waters is vastly different for most of the year.

The project also considered chlorination, which is effective as an oxidant to eliminate microcystin-LR. However, high concentrations of chlorine may cause cell lysis (breaking of the cell), which in turn could release even more toxins into the water that needs to be treated within the drinking water treatment plant.

With such a complicated issue, a number of issues were examined to see which technologies would be most practical for the location studied. These included cost, sustainability, plant compatibility and simplicity.

After considering technical advice, visiting the drinking water treatment plant, laboratory work and evaluating alternatives, a top technology was determined: a combination of potassium permanganate and powdered activated carbon (which is currently being used at the drinking water treatment plant along with other processes).

Potassium permanganate acts as an oxidant, and has been shown in studies to be strong enough to oxidize the extracellular toxin without causing significant damage to the cell (which reduces the likelihood of further releasing toxins into the drinking water supply). Powdered activated carbon is porous and has a high surface area, which would allow the toxins to adsorb onto the surface of the powdered activated carbon.

This top technology would cost CDN$20,000 (purchasing a potassium permanganate injection and storage infrastructure) with an annual chemical cost of about $48,195, equivalent to a daily chemical cost of $132. These cost evaluations were made based on daily treatment (in reality, most HABs occur from July to September).

Other treatment methods that scored high in the evaluation and are considered potential options include use of potassium permanganate, a combination of chlorination and biofiltration, a combination of chlorination and PAC, as well as biofiltration.

These recommendations were specific to the drinking water treatment plant investigated. Therefore, the types of technology and dosages may change depending on the water composition coming through the plant and existing plant infrastructure. Nonetheless, they point to the fact that reducing phosphorus inputs is needed to avoid additional drinking water treatment costs for communities surrounding Lake Erie.

Amy Yang, Howard Tong, Gunjan Desai, Carlos Manzo are recent graduates from the University of Waterloo Environmental Engineering program who conducted the study with the assistance of technical advisers.

Ontario’s Invasive Species Act Targets Prevention

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

European water chestnut is an invasive species that Ontario hopes to combat with the help of a new invasive species law. Credit: Mike Naylor, Maryland Department of Natural Resources
European water chestnut is an invasive species that Ontario hopes to combat with the help of a new invasive species law. Credit: Mike Naylor, Maryland Department of Natural Resources

Ontario has the largest number of invasive species in Canada, with more than 180 aquatic invasive species, around 500 non-native plants, 39 known forest insects and 10 tree diseases. Officials now have a new tool to try and keep those numbers from ticking upwards.

On Nov. 3, a new Ontario’s Invasive Species Act goes into effect, giving officials in the province a stronger mandate to prevent new species from arriving and to control – and where possible, eradicate – those that are already here.

Jeff Brinsmead, senior biologist for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, said the act’s focus and value is in being “proactive” and preventing new invasives from getting introduced to the province. Brinsmead said the province has previously relied on several different “legislative mechanisms” to deal with invasive species, such as the Ontario Fishery Regulations and Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act.

The new law brings comprehensive invasive species legislation under one act, according to Jeremy Downe, senior policy adviser with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. The act gives officials broader flexibility to regulate pathways of invasion such as firewood, recreational boating, purchase and trade, and guard against species coming from one part of the large and ecologically diverse province to another.

The legislation doesn’t specify a list of invasive species. Instead, invasive species will be classified in regulation as either “prohibited” or “restricted” based on the outcomes of science-based risk assessments. Those risk assessments will be used as the baseline for invasive management and enforcement.

For example, Downe said the province could require recreational boaters to clean or drain livewells before leaving a lake so aquatic species can’t hitch a ride to another lake. Or officials could prohibit importing or selling certain horticultural plants that are considered invasive. They also could survey for invasive species and issue orders to keep people from doing things that could spread those plants and animals. As of Aug. 17, 2016, no policies or regulations have been finalized to roll out with the act.

A stand of invasive phragmites plants measuring taller than five meters (more than 16 feet). Credit: Janice Gilbert, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry
A stand of invasive phragmites plants measuring taller than five meters (more than 16 feet). Credit: Janice Gilbert, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry

The act also closes existing gaps left by previous laws and regulations. For example, the ministry has had limited powers to address invasive species on private land, but once the law goes into effect officials will have the authority to access and control invasive species on private land when required, or otherwise compel the property owners to address the invasive species if necessary.

The financial penalties are significant for breaking the new law, which Downe said was intentional due to the cost of dealing with invasive species. The province estimates that it spends CDN$3.5-4 million a year on invasive species control, research, awareness and education programs. These fines can go as high as $250,000 for an individual or $1 million for corporations. There also are multipliers for the number of an invasive species found and actions by individuals and businesses, such as selling or releasing harmful exotic plants and fish.

The act has been largely well-received, Downe said, though there has been “angst” in some quarters about the provisions to enter private land, particularly among the agricultural community.

Downe said the ministry intends to work with cooperatively with private land owners and Indigenous communities to address the impact of invasive species on their lands and activities.

Invasive round gobies have been found in Ontario waters such as Lake Simcoe for years. Credit: Center for Great Lakes and Aquatic Sciences Archive, University of Michigan
Invasive round gobies have been found in Ontario waters such as Lake Simcoe for years. Credit: Center for Great Lakes and Aquatic Sciences Archive, University of Michigan

“Generally it’s easier (to get support) with invasive species because everyone recognizes they’re bad and an issue, so when the issue came up it was widely recognized that more needed to be done,” Downe said. “The intent is not to (have) a huge impact on individuals; the initial focus will be on education, prevention and awareness.”

Some of the lessons learned from creating Ontario’s Invasive Species Act could be copied by other provinces, Downe said. If Ontario’s law proves successful at managing invasive species, it could end up being the vanguard to similar laws across the country.