Over the past month, two urgent problems have sprung up in the Great Lakes Basin:

  • extremely low water levels in the upper Great Lakes; and
  • extremely high water levels in various parts of the Trent-Severn Waterway.

How can we offset these two extremes? Increasing our commitment to protecting and restoring our green infrastructure is one possible solution.

What’s green infrastructure?
Green infrastructure includes urban forests, green roofs, rain gardens, green spaces, community gardens and wetlands — all the leafy green stuff.

Contrasting water levels
When my parents retired, they moved to a riverside property near the Township of Minden Hills, one of the Great Lakes Basin communities that flooded last month. When my family and I visited the area on Earth Day, we saw a Muskoka chair floating away, having passed over a dam and under the road we were driving along. It must have been swept from the dock at someone’s cottage as water burst over the banks of a local lake or river. In contrast, folks in Georgian Bay have discovered that their docks are high and dry, and are seeking to excavate (dredge) shorelines to maintain access to the water.

As we continue to manage our creeks, streams, rivers and lakes to avoid the damage of water that’s too high and water that’s too low, there is a lesson to be learned: nature is better at water management than any infrastructure we can build.

Towards green infrastructure
In the 1990s, when I took the one and only engineering course of my university career (hydrology), the professor told us that there had been a change in the approach to engineering waterways. Where once engineers sought to straighten and deepen the path for water through a community, the new approach was to “put the curves back in” and create a more natural flow. That really stuck with me.

Now, in the work that Ecojustice does to promote green infrastructure, we recommend taking advantage of the ability of natural systems to effectively manage water — in a way that keeps our communities separate from nature, but in a way that better integrates nature into our communities.

Ecojustice began advocating for a greater commitment to green infrastructure in 2009, when we released our Green Cities, Great Lakes report. Since then, we’ve seen the term green infrastructure appear in some Ontario government policy documents. We’re currently focusing on increasing the commitment to the protection and restoration of wetlands in both the Provincial Policy Statement (the key document that influences municipal land use decisions) and in the proposed Great Lakes Protection Act (See Related Stories to learn more about the proposed legislation).

What you can do
Consider how you’re making the commitment to green infrastructure. Choose native plant species for your garden. Plant a tree or three. Steward a wetland. Together we can mitigate and adapt to the changing water cycle in our communities.

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