Vital resources

Covering a total area of more than 94,000 miles and holding 5,500 cubic miles of freshwater (18 percent of the world’s supply), the Great Lakes provide drinking water to a staggering 40 million people, including 25 percent of Canadians and 10 percent of Americans. But the sad truth is that the Great Lakes are currently facing some serious environmental threats caused by human behaviours, including climate change, degraded water quality, invasive species and habitat loss, explains David Sweetnam, Executive Director of Georgian Bay Forever, a charity dedicated to scientific research and public education on the Bay’s aquatic ecosystem.

We don’t only rely on the Great Lakes for our drinking water; our food system relies on it too. Of the 174,000 square miles that covers the Great Lakes basin region, 37 percent is devoted to agriculture, 126,000 farms producing the food that we purchase without a second thought at our local supermarkets. Sweetnam believes that people take the Great Lakes for granted; that as a society we don’t appreciate just how reliant we are on them.

A place called home

Allowing this vast, beautiful natural resource to be taken for granted and degraded, like other parts of nature have, shouldn’t be an option. For economic, aesthetic, and ecological reasons, we need the Great Lakes to remain healthy, unpolluted and productive. “Life in the Great Lakes deserves a place to live and it should be protected,” says Sweetnam.

“The health and well-being of the Great Lakes are in our hands.”

Serious issues

Approximately 25 percent of Canadian agriculture production occurs in the Great Lakes basin, and the Lakes themselves are home to 250 species of fish, from which 30 million kilos are harvested for human consumption each year. These figures look impressive now, but if climate change continues to occur at its current rate and new forms of bacteria are attracted to the warmer waters, the ecosystem will become an inhospitable environment for these fish that many people rely on for their daily food and income.

“You need a healthy ecosystem to support a healthy economy,” explains Sweetnam. “You can’t have lakes full of toxic waters and expect people to live their lives and base their businesses in the surrounding areas.”

In certain parts of the Great Lakes, areas that were historically damaged, people are recommended to eat only eight meals of fish from those waters a month, a precaution that has devastating effects on the First Nations communities who live in those areas and historically relied on the fish as an essential source of protein.

Bad for business

Over the past 15 years, increased temperatures, brought about by climate change, have led to declining water levels due to increased rates of evaporation. All of the evidence suggests that over the next 30 years there will be a continuing ongoing decline in water levels, which could cause further damage to the region.

“It could technically get to a point where the declining water levels have a permanent impact on shipping, which could then have significant negative impacts on the $5.1 trillion regional economy,” says Sweetnam. “This requires a comprehensive investigation of how to protect the entire integrated system by building in some climate change resilience.”

As with so many of the world’s environmental issues, the health and well-being of the Great Lakes are in our hands. Changing the way we relate to energy and fossil fuels is the only thing that can prevent the Great Lakes from facing disaster. “We have huge percentages of our population that rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water, food and the transfer of commodities,” says Sweetnam.

“If that whole engine came to a standstill, people would really get a sense that everything in their lives is dependent on the Great Lakes.  But, sadly, I don’t think people think about it that much right now.”