Cities leading by example on Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River water conservation


By Melissa Soline

Representing approximately 20% of the world’s surface freshwater supply, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River system is a vital resource that supports the livelihood of millions. The lakes and river are the foundation upon which a major regional economy has been built, numerous industries have been established, vital transportation routes have been developed, and tourism, recreation and energy and power development have flourished.

The lakes and river also provide drinking water to millions of people within the region and support a significant ecosystem which is home to over 200 globally rare or threatened species. With so much dependent upon this natural resource, it is incumbent upon the people of the region to manage it in a sustainable manner to ensure its health and vitality for generations to come.

The waters of the lakes and river are the life source of this region. Mayors of communities around the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River have long recognised the significance of this resource as well as its vulnerability, particularly with respect to water conservation. When people see the enormity of the lakes, they assume a limitless supply and abundance. What aren’t captured are the numerous demands on the resource and the fact that only one percent of the water is renewed annually through the hydrologic cycle. Through efforts by communities to reduce their impact on the lakes and river, like the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative Water Conservation Framework, mayors have chosen to lead by example on water conservation in order to encourage the region and the two countries – the United States and Canada – to embrace and act upon conservation. Cities have truly taken to heart the notion of thinking globally and acting locally in order to conserve the waters of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River and ensure the continued prosperity of the region.

The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River system was formed thousands of years ago when the Laurentide Glacier covered much of North America. When temperatures began to rise and the glacier receded, the process transformed the land, creating valleys, land formations and carving out ridges. As ice melted, the meltwater filled gaps and holes left by the glaciers. Over time, the Great Lakes – comprised of Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Ontario and Lake Erie – and the St. Lawrence River as we know them today came into being.

The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River are truly the foundation upon which a vital region has developed. Early settlers were attracted to the region because of the opportunities the waterways and the water provided. Today, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River region, which encompasses the eight Great Lakes states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin and the two Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec, boasts a gross domestic product of approximately $4.6 trillion and is the second largest economy in the world. The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River support a multi billion-dollar fishery and recreational boating industry as well as a growing tourism industry that includes ecotourism and cruising. In addition to all of this, the region is home to more than 40 million people who rely upon the resource for clean and safe drinking water.

Despite the significance of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, they have endured a number of challenges and threats over time. Toxic pollution from a long industrial legacy, invasive species that have found their way into the resource and altered the ecosystem, and critical habitat loss due to overdevelopment are just a few of the issues the lakes and river face. The emergence of climate change and the uncertainties it carries present another set of difficulties for the resource and make the sustainable management of the lakes and river all that more imperative. THE

Local government has long recognised the significance of the Lakes and River as well as their vulnerability. Municipalities are literally on the frontlines when it comes to the lakes and river and are required to answer directly to their citizens if issues with the resource arise. However, historically local government did not have a say in the policy and decision making for the resource despite the fact that local government directly interacts with the resource on a daily basis. For these reasons, Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago founded the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative in 2003. Quickly joined by Mayor David Miller of Toronto, the Canadian Founding Chair, the Cities Initiative began to attract municipalities of all sizes from around the Basin. Today, the Cities Initiative has seventy member municipalities, representing more than 13 million citizens, and continues to grow.

The Cities Initiative is a coalition of US and Canadian mayors and other local elected officials working to advance the protection and restoration of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. The mission of the Cities Initiative is to ensure the municipal voice is heard on Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River issues, create a best practices sharing network for Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River municipalities, and most importantly, advance the protection and restoration of the lakes and river. Just this past summer, the membership decided to expand the organisation’s focus from water quality, water quantity and waterfront vitality to encompass sustainability and encourage Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River communities to integrate their environmental, economic, and social agendas to help achieve the sustainable management of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River.

In the six years of the organisation’s existence, the Cities Initiative and mayors have become a prominent voice for the lakes and river and a catalyst for on the ground action to protect and restore the resource. The Cities Initiative and its mayors represent Great Lakes and St. Lawrence municipal interests in key policy and decision making arenas like the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration, the Canada-Ontario Agreement Respecting the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem, and the St. Lawrence Action Plan, as well as emerging platforms like the US Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a $475 million federal investment in restoration efforts for the lakes. The mayors have been instrumental in addressing threats that arise suddenly on the lakes and river, such as US Coast Guard live fire weapons training and a permit that allowed for an increase in pollution discharge from a BP refinery into Lake Michigan. Finally, through a strong best practice sharing network and a focus on action-oriented efforts like water conservation, beach management, and pharmaceutical collection and disposal, mayors of the Cities Initiative have initiated positive change within their communities, leading by example and thus encouraging the appropriate response and action from other orders of government.

The Cities Initiative Water Conservation Framework is perhaps the best example of how mayors have used local action to lead by example within the region. The Framework is a voluntary programme through which cities commit to work within their jurisdictions towards a 15% reduction in water use below year 2000 levels, by the year 2015. The purpose of the programme is to increase the number of municipalities that actively conserve water and to encourage best practices sharing so that the most effective conservation measures are being employed. Of the 33 municipalities that participate in the Framework, 18 have some form of water conservation programme in place and the other 15 are in the process of developing and implementing water conservation measures. Through the Framework, the Cities Initiative works to provide these communities access to best practices and lessons learned so that they can develop effective and successful water conservation programmes from the start.

Since the launch of the Framework in 2007, participants that have ongoing water conservation programmes have conserved close to 82 billion gallons of water. Collectively they have achieved a 12% reduction below year 2000 water use levels. Perhaps even more impressive though are the ideas and measures being implemented to achieve these results. From automated meter reading in Beaconsfield, Quebec and Chicago, Illinois to conservation pricing in Cobourg, Ontario, local governments are working to ensure municipalities and citizens alike are taking action to conserve water. A number of impressive measures are being implemented by Framework participants, and a few stand out as particularly innovative and effective. Toronto’s capacity buyback programme, Montreal’s public education campaign, Chicago’s MeterSave programme, Grand Rapids’ use of wastewater, and Kingston’s LEED certification programme demonstrate the various ways municipalities are conserving the waters of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River locally and spurring others to action as well.

Toronto In 2008, Toronto launched the ICI Capacity Buyback programme in an effort to promote water efficiency in the industrial, commercial and institutional sector. The programme offers rebates to facilities in the ICI sector that permanently reduce their water use. The programme consists of four phases: assessment (a high level water audit), data validation, implementation of water efficiency projects, and savings verification (to calculate the rebate). Participants are eligible for a one-time incentive payment of $0.30/litre of reduced water and wastewater usage on an average day upon implementing water efficiency projects. To date, 52 water users have implemented water saving projects and 6 million litres per day of verified water savings have been realised as well as an energy savings of 6,000 kWh per day. (For more information, visit

The City of Montreal has worked with RÉSEAU Environnement for the past few years to educate the public on water conservation. Since 2008, the campaign has raised awareness about the need to reduce water use, the costs of distributing and treating water, and the impact of consumption on infrastructure in peak periods and the quality of water distributed. In 2009 the City of Montreal and RÉSEAU Environnement partnered with the Green Patrol and SOVERDI. The Green Patrol spread environmental messages on the ground, focused on recovering rainwater through the use of rain barrels, gutter extenders, and rain gardens. In partnership with SOVERDI, the City launched the Recovering Rainwater Program to install rain barrels at homes throughout the City. Overall, the RÉSEAU Environnement education campaign has targeted 1.6 million people in Montreal with information on water conservation.

In 2009 the City of Chicago began the MeterSave programme, an effort to incentivise Chicago homeowners to voluntarily install a water meter at their home. Through the programme the City installs a water meter with automated meter reading technology for free and guarantees for seven years that the water bill will not be higher than a pre-meter bill. Homeowners are also eligible to receive an indoor water conservation kit, an outdoor kit, a rain barrel, or a refrigerator monitor that allows homeowners to monitor their water usage. To date the City has 3,000 volunteers participating in MeterSave. It is anticipated that if the entire city becomes metered, approximately 30 million gallons of water per day would be conserved. (For more information, visit

Grand Rapids
The Grand Rapids wastewater treatment plant utilises treated wastewater for all plant irrigation, as well as hosing/cleaning operations, water spray nozzles, and heat exchanger cooling. The treatment plant recently implemented a system to heat and cool their laboratory by utilising heat pumps to capture energy from the treated wastewater. Additionally, the City’s Facilities and Fleet Management Department has implemented a number of measures to conserve water at city facilities, including installing automatic flush valves on toilets and sinks, low flow toilets and showerheads, rainfall sensors and automated controls on irrigation systems, and established reductions in water used in custodial and vehicle wash operations. Finally, the City’s planning department requires a minimum of 70% native Michigan species in landscaping plans. .

In 2004 the City of Kingston became the first municipality in Ontario and one of the first in Canada to establish a policy for the green construction of municipal buildings. The Kingston LEED policy for municipal buildings requires that all large municipal building and major retrofit projects undertake an assessment of certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) programme, as a design goal for City Council consideration before finalising the project design. Since then, five municipal buildings have been constructed to LEED standards. Among the environment benefits realised by these buildings is an estimated water savings ranging from approximately 42% to 91% at each building, compared to referenced conventional buildings. Since the success of the 2004 policy, City Council has enhanced the policy to now require new building projects owned or significantly funded by the municipality to achieve a minimum LEED-Silver certification and major renovations to undertake an assessment of the feasibility of achieving LEED certification.

The positive steps municipalities are taking to conserve water lead the region in the right direction to protect and restore the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. However, as climate change intensifies, water shortages increase in frequency and severity, and populations continue to grow, many feel the freshwater of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River will become even more valuable than another limited natural resource – oil. States and provinces within the region are currently working to develop water conservation plans under the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement. The Cities Initiative Water Conservation Framework has been referenced in a number of state and provincial working groups as a model given the target reduction of 15% and timeframe of 2015. It will be imperative to bring all orders of government on board with meaningful water conservation efforts in order for the region to be successful in protecting this vital natural resource.

In the meantime, local government continues to move forward on water conservation measures as well as addressing challenges municipalities encounter with water conservation. Key obstacles that many municipalities face include revenue loss due to water conservation and difficulty changing consumer behaviour. With the former, effective methods must be found to ensure a water utility can implement water conservation measures and not lose revenue in the process. On the latter, consumers may need more incentives and information in order to choose to conserve beyond public education campaigns that just encourage people to do the right thing. Appropriately pricing water to reflect its true value as well as providing consumers with real-time usage information that they can easily access may help overcome these obstacles, though carry a lot of challenges in their own right. Municipalities are eager to work with partners to tackle these challenges and develop effective solutions so that they can advance their water conservation goals and ultimately protect the world’s largest supply of surface freshwater and the prosperity of the region it supports.