BY GARY MAY
You can hear the excitement in Conrad de Barros’s voice as he talks about the five osprey nests discovered at Lake St. Francis last year. The fact that the birds can reproduce is a “great keystone indicator” that the lake, and the St. Lawrence River that runs through it, are returning to a healthy state, says de Barros, who oversees Great Lakes cleanup for the Ontario Environment Ministry.
Lake St. Francis is just downstream from Cornwall, a city that was once noted for the pungent smell of its paper plant and for industries that contributed to the degradation of the river.
“Cornwall is no longer one of the most degraded areas on the Great Lakes,” de Barros tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “It’s better than many. It’s come a long way.”
“The strength of the plan has been the community involvement in the remedial action that’s taken place. That’s something that needs to be celebrated. It’s been a huge turnaround.”
A quarter of a century ago, Canada and the United States set standards for environmental quality on the Great Lakes, then drew up a list of 43 areas that failed to meet those standards. Of these “hot spots,” 17 were in Ontario waterfront communities, while 26 were in the U.S. Five of them fell into the category of shared responsibility.
A plan was agreed upon for making sure each of those areas would eventually be brought up to those standards and up until this year, three areas had been delisted, including two in Canada — Collingwood Harbour and Severn Sound, both on Georgian Bay. Then in April, Wheatley Harbour on Lake Erie was delisted and now, says de Barros, Cornwall is so improved that serious consideration is being given to taking it off the hot spots list, too.
Trees planted, wildlife habitat improved
Areas were deemed degraded for a number of reasons — excess nutrients in the water, bacteria or chemical contaminants, or loss of fish and wildlife habitat, for example. Under a joint Canada-United States plan dating back to the 1980s, the problems were identified, a plan was created and then implemented.
In the case of the plan for the St. Lawrence at Cornwall, pollutants flowing into the river were controlled — through industrial restricts and septic tank inspections — more trees were planted and wildlife habitat was improved.
Interestingly, the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which reduced fluctuations in the river’s levels, had contributed to habitat degradation, because marshes — home and breeding ground to many species of birds and mammals — were no longer being replenished by spring flooding.
Cornwall’s plan has been fully implemented, says de Barros. Now it’s up to the environment to cleanse the area of remaining pollutants. The question remains only whether the region should be redesignated as an area in recovery, or whether it should simply be removed from the list altogether.
Either way, the stigma of a polluted community that Cornwall has lived under for many years is being lifted.
For those who observe the river regularly, the difference might seem small or irrelevant. Paul Emond, who is co-owner of Paulies Bait and Tackle in Cornwall, says sure the perch are looking bigger and better than they have in a decade, and bass, pike and walleye are growing better than ever, but he attributes that to the accidental introduction of the goby, an invasive species introduced in ocean-going ships’ ballast water about 1990. Other species are growing bigger and fatter by feeding on them.
And Roy Lefebvre, co-author of the book The Rivermen: Echoes of Lake St. Francis
, says the water’s improved health is no more evident to him and other recreational users than was its declining health in an earlier time.
Delisting important for city's image
The scientific findings, however, could have far-reaching effects on the community’s self-image, to say nothing of the opinion of outsiders, whom the city is trying to attract.
“My view is that Cornwall has too long had a black eye and it has come a long way,” says de Barros, whose office is in Kingston. “I don’t think it should be marked any longer. But that’s my personal view.”
That kind of progress represents a major victory for those who are working to remake Cornwall’s image, from a mill town to one that offers plenty of reasonably priced housing, parkland and recreational opportunities for families and the active living 50-plus.
A final decision on whether to delist Cornwall will be made after a summer of public consultations by the provincial and federal environment authorities.
Meanwhile, in southwestern Ontario on the shores of Lake Erie, they’re celebrating the clean bill of health awarded to Wheatley Harbour, where fish and wildlife are benefiting from the two-decade-long effort to clean it up. Others are about to follow.
De Barros points to Jackfish Bay on Lake Superior where he expects an announcement in September that it has been redesignated as an area in recovery. The Bay of Quinte near Belleville and the Niagara River are close to reaching the standards set for cleanup, he adds.
“This is incredible news because we’ve made such good progress. We are now seeing the horizon. Five or six years ago, we didn’t see it at all.”