Invasive species. Algal blooms. Water diversion. Microplastics. Rising concentrations of pharmaceuticals. Risk of pollution from oil pipelines.
When asked, “In your opinion, what is the single biggest threat to the Great Lakes?” Ashley Wallis responded with an intimidating list.
Ashley, the Water Program Manager at Environmental Defence, and her colleague (and OLIP alumnus) Patrick DeRochie, Energy Program Manager, sat down with us last week to tell us about their work and the environmental challenges they see Ontario facing.
Environmental Defence is a non-partisan, non-government organization pursuing action by the public, businesses, and the government on four sets of issues: freshwater protection, climate change, healthy urban planning, and protecting consumers from harmful chemicals.
There is no single solution to all the threats faced by the Great Lakes, according to Ashley. She described how inter-jurisdictional collaboration among federal governments, states and provinces, and municipalities on both sides of the Canada – United States border is a necessary starting place, as is ensuring that Indigenous nations – who have relied upon the Great Lakes for food, drinking water, and transportation since time immemorial – are able to participate fully. In 2016 the governments of Canada and the United States committed to a 40% reduction in the amount of phosphorous – a driving factor causing algal blooms – entering Lake Erie, though the success of this initiative remains to be seen.
Microplastics are another issue of concern for the Great Lakes, as they may impact human wellbeing as well as the health of marine animals and ecosystems. Ashley described how Ontario has the lowest plastic bottle recycling rate in the country, and alongside Manitoba is among the only two provinces without a deposit return system for plastic bottles. Environmental Defence is advocating for the creation of such a system in Ontario, with the dual goals of reducing the amount of plastic waste ending up in marine ecosystems and generating revenues (from unclaimed deposits) that can be directed towards environmental remediation efforts.
Like Ashley, Patrick’s work takes place on multiple fronts. In his role as Energy Program Manager, Patrick helped governments across Canada adopt carbon pricing systems, including the cap and trade program here in Ontario. He participated in the political opposition to the Energy East pipeline, and is currently exploring ways in which environmental law can be reformed. Lastly, he is involved in initiatives that bring together blue collar workers and climate advocates, for the purpose of highlighting areas of joint interest.
This search for common ground also occurs in the political realm. Patrick described how he meets with political leaders from across the political spectrum, and that common cause may be found because of issues like local food, greenspace, and hunting.
This meeting left us with much to think about, from the state of Ontario’s environment to the best way to build coalitions around particular issues. Thank you again to Ashley and Patrick for sharing their insights!