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HABITAT: Water Rescue

author: Norm Wagenaar

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Concerted action has brought the Bay of Quinte back from the brink

PEA SOUP. THAT’S WHAT THE BAY OF QUINTE looked like back in the ‘70s. As those in Watershed country know, the bay is a Z-shaped body of shallow water along Lake Ontario’s north shore that almost makes Prince Edward County an island. It’s a fecund environment, rich in aquatic, avian and terrestrial life. But like so many of the world’s shallow waters, it has been profoundly affected by human activity. Scott Millard, a retired Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientist who spent much of his career on the bay, remembers it nearly a half-century ago, when he was a student monitoring its waters. “On a calm day, it was like someone spilled green paint.”

The prime culprit was phosphorus, a nutrient plants require but which, in a freshwater system, can quickly become too much of a good thing. Excess amounts lead to an explosion of algae in a revved up cycle of growth and decomposition that blocks the sun from reaching plants and robs the water of life-giving oxygen. Hence the pea soup description.

The cascading effects include reduced biodiversity, fewer fish and changes in plant and animal communities in the water, on the lakebed and even in the soils beneath. In the case of the Bay of Quinte, a main contributor to eutrophication was sewage from cities and towns along its shores. During a period in our history when the solution for pollution was usually dilution, the cure for ills associated with human sewage was often to build a longer outlet. Human waste wasn’t the only problem. Industries along the waterfront could be as cavalier with their waste as municipalities were with sewage, adding toxic chemicals to the stew.

Fertilizers from fields around the bay added to the nutrient overload, and the problem was compounded by destruction of an estimated 12,000 hectares of shoreline wetland. Much of it was drained for farming, and some of it was filled and the shorelines were armoured for community harbours and recreational properties. The loss of wetlands robbed the bay of vital plant systems that could have soaked up some of the extra nutrients.

Quinte was not alone, of course. At about the same time Scott Millard was seeing green paint on the bay, Lake Erie was declared biologically dead due to hypoxia – a deficiency of oxygen – and chemical fires on Detroit’s rivers had become familiar American TV news fodder. The alarm went off, and suddenly governments began to take action. The Canada Water Act of 1970 ordered soap manufacturers to slash their use of phosphate – a significant source of phosphorus in the sewage stream. President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau signed the Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1972. It established water quality objectives and committed both nations to cleaning up the lakes.

Early activities included Project Quinte, the multi-jurisdictional water-monitoring program that Scott Millard recalls from his student days. “We had a head start on the Bay of Quinte,” he says, adding that the early work made the bay “a poster child” for water quality science on the lakes. A few years later came considerable capital investment in technology to clean up the offending sewage treatment plants. In 1987, Canada and the United States amended the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement to identify 43 locations in the Great Lakes, including the Bay of Quinte, as official Areas of Concern (AOC) due to water quality issues. Other areas included Hamilton, Toronto and, not surprisingly, the Detroit and Rouge Rivers on Lake Erie. Port Hope earned its own AOC with one very specific problem – radioactive sediments running off into the harbour from Eldorado Nuclear’s stockpiles of contaminated waste.

The road to recovery for each AOC involved an individualized Remedial Action Plan (RAP) which, in the case of the Bay of Quinte, recruited government ministries, conservation authorities, municipalities, health units, universities and community organizations to work together for the bay’s benefit.

For the Bay of Quinte, these targets include stable, healthy and diverse fish and wildlife populations, reduced nutrient loading, fewer tumours and other deformities in fish and wildlife, improved drinking water quality and a positive trend in the communities of benthic invertebrates, phytoplankton and zooplankton – those tiny creatures that provide researchers with much valuable information about the health of aquatic ecosystems.

Target lists and acronyms may not be universally popular in these days when skepticism about government intervention is high fashion among some. But nearly 50 years of coordinated effort to save the bay add up to a clear record of success.

PERHAPS THE BEST TESTAMENT TO THE BAY OF QUINTE’S RECOVERY IS THAT IT COULD BE DELISTED AS AN AREA OF CONCERN WITHIN THE NEXT FEW YEARS

Numbers tell part of the story. Habitat projects have rehabilitated or protected 800 ha of wetland and planted native trees, shrubs and grasses along 40 kilometres of the bay’s shoreline. Examples include wetland habitat restoration work done by Quinte Conservation in the Sawquin Marsh in Prince Edward County in the 1990s and, more recently, in the Big Island area – a project supported by a $2.3 million gift from an anonymous corporate benefactor. Lower Trent Conservation is active through its Healthy Lands-Clean Water Stewardship program that offers free site visits, consultation and grants to landowners who want to naturalize their shorelines.

The upgrades to sewage treatment plants around the bay reduced phosphorus loading from 215 to 15 kilograms per day. Farmers have adopted conservation tillage practices to 27,000 ha of farmland to reduce nutrient runoff by more than 16,000 kg annually. Municipalities invested in stormwater management infrastructure. Conservation authorities encouraged farmers to plant cover crops and rural homeowners to fix their septic tanks.

The bay has been transformed by all of this effort. Sarah Midlane-Jones, outreach specialist for the Bay of Quinte Remedial Action Plan (BQRAP), recalls her youth in Belleville when the bay was a green slurry. Now, she says, the waters are clear, biodiversity has increased and the walleye and bass fisheries are world class.

Perhaps the best testament to the Bay of Quinte’s recovery is that it could be delisted as an Area of Concern within the next few years. That would mean that remediation work is considered complete, with future activities focused on monitoring.

Going into the next phase of the Bay of Quinte RAP will require public consultation. Anne Anderson, special projects coordinator for Lower Trent Conservation, says the public process is scheduled to start this spring. Although it might look as if the restoration job is nearly done, Scott Millard draws on long experience to promote the virtue of eternal vigilance. An ongoing challenge is the creep of invasive species, such as zebra mussels and round gobies, which have already radically altered the ecosystems of the Great Lakes. And then there are Asian carp moving north through U.S. river systems. You can never let your guard down.

To learn more about the BQRAP, check out their website: bqrap.ca. There are many ways to participate in the remediation work – stewardship programs, volunteering as a Citizen Scientist, stormwater management and more.

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