Great Lakes health, economic value taken for granted, forum told
Written by Stoney Creek News   
Friday, 08 December 2006 13:07

A councillor for the Walkerton community devastated by a drinking-water tragedy says Ontarians need to wake up to the value of one of their greatest natural assets. Dan Gieruszac told a Hamilton forum on the future of the Great Lakes that the province's ground and surface water is worth trillions of dollars and yet is often taken for granted.

He urged people to consider water a competitive advantage on par with Ontario's health care system.

"Obviously there are values associated with water that are difficult to identify," Mr. Gieruszac told the forum, held at city hall.

"However, if you take a look at our industry throughout the province, if you take a look at the replacement value of our ground and surface water, there's trillions of dollars of assets there. So how much is it worth to the people of Ontario to protect that trillion-dollar asset? Somebody needs to ask that question."

Mr. Gieruszac -- whose community garnered world attention after seven people died from E.coli contamination of its drinking water in 2000 -- struck a familiar chord among the 70 people on hand for the forum, hosted by Ontario Environment Commissioner Gord Miller and public advocacy group Pollution Probe.

Participants criticized governments for not doing enough to monitor and protect the Great Lakes from pollution and those who wish to exploit its resources.

Hamilton resident Joseph St. George said although he's happy to see efforts to clean up Hamilton Harbour, he's pessimistic about the future of the lakes because of increasing pollution and the likelihood that Canada won't "stand up and fight" U.S. efforts to siphon off water to southwestern states.

"It's not going to be beneath them, in one way or another, whether by nice treaties or free trade, to take the water we have," he said.

"We have a large neighbour to the south which very much depends on industry in the southern states and desperately needs water. It won't be 10 years before we're either selling it off to them or they will be coming and taking or demanding it."

Former Halton councillor Mike Lansdown said he's concerned the province isn't coordinating efforts to protect the lakes or monitor the potential impacts of runoff from development along their shores.

He also criticized the Ministry of Environment for not pushing municipalities to follow Toronto's lead in adopting more stringent sewer-use standards.

Mr. Lansdown said Burlington's successful efforts to cut phosphorous emissions from its Skyway sewage treatment plant are undermined by many other Ontario plants that bypass sewage.

"It seems to be totally Alice in Wonderland for a region like Halton to be worrying about decimals of phosphorous when you've got raw sewage being put into the lake by other municipalities," he said.

"There has to be a coordinated effort at the government level to say to municipalities, 'This stops.' And if they haven't got the funds to make it stop, then somehow the Government of Ontario has to come forward as they did in Walkerton."

Mr. Miller, the environment commissioner, said he has regularly taken the province to task over sewer-use bylaws and sewage treatment.

He said the ministry has "all the power in the world" to deny approval of new subdivisions if they overload sewage treatment capacity, but doesn't exercise it.

Even so, Mr. Miller said criticism of the ministry must be tempered by an appreciation of its funding and the wide range of air, water and land issues it must address.

For every dollar of government spending, health care receives about 42 cents, education 20 cents and the environment ministry just 0.35 cents, he said.

"That's how much we invest in protecting our environment," Mr. Miller said. "Within that (budget), if you accept that, it dulls the criticism of the Ministry of Environment, although as I said I will continue to criticize (it)."

Rick Findlay, director of Pollution Probe's water program, said the forum is one of four being held across the province and designed to draw public focus as Canada and the United States negotiate renewal of the Great Lakes water-quality agreement.

He said there is growing attention to the value of the lakes to Ontario, Quebec and eight bordering states -- the third largest economy in the world.

"Clearly we have the resources. We have tremendous human capital in terms of our universities and our ability to do things," Mr. Findlay said.

"We have knowledge. We have understanding. If we can't get it together in the Great Lakes Basin with all of these assets and all this richness that we have, where in the world can we do it?"
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