Cultural History and Geography
Traditionally known as Bawahting or “the place of the rapids”, Sault Ste. Marie is located on the site of a traditional meeting place of the Anishinaabe First Nations — a culturally related group of First Nations who are the original people of the Great Lakes Region (Batchewana, 2022; Hele, 2020; Parks Canada, 2018). Bawahting has been deeply entrenched in the culture and creation stories of the Anishinaabeg people since time immemorial (Rice, 2020). For thousands of years it has been an important seasonal settlement for the semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers of the Anishinaabe First Nations because it supported prolific fisheries and a portage route between Lakes Superior and Huron (Parra, 2022). The rapids at Bawahting were revered for the abundant seasonal whitefish population which drew fishers from across the Great Lakes (Parks Canada, 2018). European settlers first arrived in the region in 1622 which began a relationship between settlers and the Anishinaabe First Nations that has been tumultuous and at times violent (Garden River First Nation, n.d.). The Anishinaabe First Nations lost much of their territory through problematic treaties and unfulfilled promises dating back to the 1800s though some progress has been made towards restoring their traditional territory through formal claims and legal actions in recent decades (Batchewana First Nation, 2022). Today, communities belonging to the Batchewana and Garden River First Nations reside on reserves within Sault Ste. Marie and the surrounding area (Batchewana, 2022; Garden River First Nation, 2022). The Batchewana and Garden River First Nations have been instrumental to many projects and initiatives that have contributed to the recovery of the St. Marys River ecosystem including the Whitefish Island Fish Habitat Improvement-Restoration Plan (Batchewana, 2022).
Today, the land on which the city was built is part of the Algoma District of Ontario’s Great Lakes Region. Sault Ste. Marie is growing and developing, within municipal boundaries that encompass an area of over 715 km2 with most of this development occurring near and along the St. Marys River. The source of St. Marys River which is in Whitefish Bay on Lake Superior, and it flows between the twin cities in Michigan and Ontario before draining into Lake Huron roughly 112 km downstream (Ripley et al., 2011). Sault Ste. Marie sits upon the boundary between the watersheds of Lake Superior and Lake Huron, where a significant elevation change between the lakes creates the 1 km long stretch of rapids that gave rise to the site’s traditional name (Buck, 2009). Prior to the construction of the Sault Ste Marie Canal System, these rapids provided spawning habitat for an abundant population of whitefish which had historically supported permanent and seasonal settlements in the area (Ripley et al. 2010).
Sault Ste. Marie and the St. Marys River are situated within a valley, which is bordered to north by the Canadian shield, a portion the ancient core of North America composed of Precambrian rock (Ripley et al., 2011) that is highly resistant to erosion and weathering (Renwick, 2009). The landscape features within the valley are relatively young, having been formed by glacial recession roughly 11,000 years ago (Ripley et al., 2011). Glaciation in this region caused significant fluctuations in the lake levels and has resulted in the depositing of clay, silt and sand which comprise most of the land beneath Sault Ste. Marie and the surrounding area (Ripley et al., 2011).
Climate & Ecology
Sault Ste. Marie is located within the Georgian Bay ecoregion where the climate is cool-temperate and humid (Crins et al., 2009). Sault Ste. Marie receives an average of 925mm of precipitation annually, and experiences average temperatures ranging from 16.4°C in the summer to –8.4°C in winter (Prairie Climate Centre, 2019).
Eastern Temperate Mixed Forests surround Sault Ste. Marie, which are composed of endemic species to the boreal forests in the north (such as Eastern White Pine, Red Pine and Eastern Hemlock) intermingled with deciduous species from the south (common species include Sugar Maple, American Beech and White Ash). Common terrestrial animals include black bear, beaver, river otters and moose (Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry, 2018).
The waters surrounding Sault Ste. Marie are diverse in that they include slow moving waters and wetlands in Lake Huron’s North Channel (Britannica, 2008), the oligotrophic ecosystem of Lake Superior (Renyl et al. 2020) and the St. Marys River rapids. The habitats provided by these three distinct environments support a wide variety of fish. Such fish include whitefish, a culturally significant species to Indigenous communities in the region (GLWFC, n.d.), and lake trout, a keystone species that (through predatory activity and behaviours) play a vital role in maintaining population balance of other fish species in the upper Great Lakes (Bunch, 2020).
Sault Ste. Mary, ON plays a vital role in the economies of Canada and the United States and the communities within these countries (FedNor, 2020). The city’s location on the St. Marys River has positioned it as an economically and socio-culturally important site for Indigenous communities, traders, settlers, businesses and industrial giants throughout history (Britannica, 2012). The centre of the St. Marys River marks the international border between Canada and the United States and both countries have established cities on opposite banks enabling use of the river as a shipping lane between Lake Huron and Lake Superior. Linked by an international bridge, the “twin cities” are named Sault Ste. Marie on both sides of the border, located within Ontario and Michigan, respectively (City of SSM, 2022).
The St. Marys River flows from Lake Superior to Lake Huron, linking a chain of waterways that connect Central Canada to the Atlantic Ocean via Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, and the St. Lawrence River (Chamber of Marine Commerce, 2022). In the late 19th century, government agencies from Canada and the United States began constructing a series of locks, which eventually formed the Sault Ste. Marie Canal System (Parks Canada, 2022). The first lock constructed in the Sault Ste. Marie Canal has been designated by Canada as a National Historic Site and is open only to recreational watercrafts (Parks Canada, 2022).
On the American side of the river four locks, collectively referred to as the “Soo Locks”, facilitate the passage of large commercial vessels between Lake Superior and Lake Huron as a part of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway (US Army Corp of Engineers, n.d.). Each year, approximately 10,000 shipping vessels, some over 1,000 ft. long, pass through the Soo Locks (US Army Corp of Engineers, n.d.), transporting an estimated 94 million net tons of cargo (Future Sault Ste. Marie, 2022). In 2020, construction began on a 5th lock to accommodate a greater number of large vessels, many of which currently are only able to pass through Poe Lock, which is currently the largest of the Soo Locks (U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, n.d.).
Crossing the St. Marys River and linking the Sault Ste. Marie twin cities is the Sault Ste. Marie International Bridge (SSMIB). The SSMIB follows one of the earlier cross-river trade routes that have made Sault Ste. Marie an important trade hub since its first post was established in 1783 (Kemp, 2012). The SSMIB connects to Michigan Interstate-75 on the southern bank of the St. Marys River and links to the Trans-Canada Highway on the north side. The SSMIB is a critical component of a network of roads that connects the United States to Canada’s East and West coasts as well as to Ontario Highway 400 and the major population centers in Southern Ontario to which it leads (City of SSM, 2022).
Due to abundant fresh water, and access to the St. Marys River and international supply chains, Sault Ste. Marie has been home to many industrial operations, including a steel mill, a manufactured gas plant, several power plants (Chambers & McMaster, 2018) and, until 2011, a paper mill (Northern Ontario Business, 2019). For most of the 20th century the St. Marys River was used to dispose of contaminants and wastewater from these industrial operations as well as growing cities nearby said operations (MNFI, n.d.). Pollutants have accumulated in the water and sediment of the St. Marys River, such as heavy metals and various toxic chemicals. The latter includes polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) (ECCC, 2022), which is a class of persistent organic pollutant (EEA, 2019) that occurs naturally in coal, crude oil and gas (EPA, 2009). The effects of pollution in St. Marys River became so severe that in 1987 it was listed as a binational Area of Concern (AOC) under the Canada-USA Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (Canada, 2022).
Data Sources: Michigan Natural Features Inventory, HIFLD Borders, Google Earth, Michigan CGI, ESRI Canada
Potential and Existing Disruptions to Regional Water Security
Economic Activities and Development
Pollution from shipping, urban development and industrial activity (historic and present day) threatens the human and ecological health in Sault Ste. Marie and the surrounding area. Following the designation of the St. Marys River as an AOC, the International Joint Commission (IJC)—a binational regulatory agency responsible for water resource management in transboundary areas—formalized a Remedial Action Plan (RAP) designed to assess, repair and monitor the damage to the waterway (IJC, 1999). To determine the extent of degradation in lakes and rivers teh IJC used 14 indicators to evaluate ecological damage, economic losses and adverse effect on human health—these indicators are known as Beneficial Use Impairments (BUIs) (ECCC, 2021). The IJC’s initial assessment (completed in 1992) identified point-source pollution by industrial waste and stormwater runoff as primary causes of many of the BUI in this area. While significant progress has been made in the regulation and treatment of these pollutants, they continue to be a cause for concern among environmental agencies and community members (Environment Canada, 2011).
Significant concentrations of heavy metal and “forever chemicals” (i.e. substances that do not break down and persist in environments) have contaminated the St. Marys River due to previously unregulated disposal of industrial waste into the waterway (EPA, 2021). In the initial AOC assessment, significant levels of mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were observed in the tissue of local fish and birds and contamination by PAHs was identified in the sediment of the riverbed (Ghandi et al., 2020). Consumption advisories have been removed for some fish species due to lakewide management initiatives and changes to delisting criteria for contaminated tissue, the latter referring to ranges of acceptable levels for certain toxins being broadened based on an improved understanding of their effects and persistence in the tissues of fish and other wildlife (Ghandi et al., 2020). However, consumption restrictions on several fish species remain due to bioaccumulation of persistent toxins and heavy metals within piscivorous and bottom dwelling fish (Derickx, 2020).
Dredging activities have exacerbated issues in fish. Ironically, the purpose of these activities were to remove contaminated sediment; however, disturbing contaminated sediment has resulted in the spread of toxins throughout the water column. As a consequence, spikes in incidences of tumours and other deformities have been observed in fish populations in the St. Marys River and its tributaries (Derickx, 2020).
The second significant source of pollution entering the river and surrounding environment is stormwater runoff from the city of Sault Ste. Marie. As natural areas become urbanized, vegetation and permeable surfaces that would otherwise mitigate surface runoff are replaced with impermeable materials like concrete and asphalt resulting in water runoff concentrating in urban drainage channels (EPA, 2022). Concentrating water runoff in thai manner increases the rate and volume of water discharge following storm events and this discharge can carry street pollutants and sewer-deposited material (Ho Lee & Bang, 2000).
In Sault Ste. Marie, increased pollution from stormwater runoff was identified as the primary cause of several BUIs including beach closures due to elevated levels of E. coli in sections of the waterway, degradation of aesthetics and eutrophication. Upgrades the Sault Ste. Marie’s stormwater and sewage management systems were completed in 2006 and have significantly improved water quality downstream of stormwater outfalls (Environment Canada, 2011). However, periodic swimming advisories and beach closures due to E. coli contamination continue to be a necessary precaution in order to protect public health (Algoma Public Health, 2019).
Industrial activity, urban development and shipping have caused significant alterations to the shoreline and flow of the St. Marys River degrading wildlife habitat in the river and surrounding wetlands (Environment Canada, 2011). As part of the St. Marys River RAP, several habitat remediation programs by local groups including the Garden River First Nation have been undertaken to protect local wetlands (Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks, 2021). Additional efforts have been made by regional government agencies and industrial partners to stabilize river banks (Environment Canada, 2011). By 2016 these actions had significantly improved conditions within the wetlands surrounding Sault Ste. Marie, and “Degradation of Wildlife Habitat” was removed from the list of BUIs (Korlesky, 2019). However, fish habitat and populations remain impaired as a result of alterations to the flow of the St. Marys Rapids caused by the Sault Ste. Marie Canal System (Derickx, 2020).
The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway has enabled the introduction of several non-native species to the Great Lakes. The network of channels and locks that allow shipping vessels to bypass natural barriers between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes have created a pathway for some invasive marine species to reach the Great Lakes while others have entered the ecosystem in ballast water released by shipping vessels (EPA, 2014). Eurasian ruffe, zebra mussels and crayfish are some examples of introduced species that have proliferated in the calm waters downstream of the Sault Ste. Marie Canal System (EPA, 2014).
The invasion of sea lamprey is a severe and complex problem within the Great Lakes ecosystem (USDA, 2014). Sea lamprey are parasitic, eel-like fish that are native to the Atlantic Ocean. They use their suction cup-like mouth, rows pointed teeth and rasping tongue to attach to and feed on larger fish (GLFC, 2022). A single adult sea lamprey can consume more than 40 lbs. of fish in their 12-18 month feeding period (GLFC, 2022). In their native habitat in the Atlantic Ocean, sea lamprey have co-evolved with other species in ways that allow for low mortality among their hosts in marine ecosystems (GLFC, 2021). However, this is not the case in the Great Lakes and studies have indicated that the mortality rate among sea lamprey hosts could be as high as 60% (Szalai et al., 2005). The sea lamprey invasion is widely accepted as the primary cause of the collapse of the Great Lakes lake trout, whitefish and chub fisheries (DFO, 2018).
Sea lamprey reached the Upper Great Lakes and St. Marys River following the construction of the Welland Canal in 1829 (St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation, 2003) which allowed them to bypass Niagara Falls (Bohling, 2015). At the peak of the sea lamprey crisis the St. Marys River spawned more sea lamprey than all other Great Lakes tributaries combined (GLFC, n.d.). Many projects and initiatives have been implemented within the St. Marys River in order to control and eradicate the sea lamprey population with varying levels of success. The most effective method for controlling sea lamprey has been the deployment of lampricide in sea lamprey spawning channels which is managed by the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission (GLFC). Current population assessments indicate a 90% decrease in the sea lamprey population from historic levels (Alofs, 2021) however there is doubt regarding whether it will be possible to fully eradicate sea lamprey from the Great Lakes (Zilkey et al., 2017).
Water-Related Hazards and Climate Change
Climate change poses significant risks to Sault Ste. Marie, particularly exacerbating the issues that led the St. Marys River to be listed as an AOC. Anticipated effects of climate change within the Algoma District include increases in air and water temperature, and annual precipitation, as well as shifts in precipitation during winter months that involve decreases in average annual snowfall and increases in rainfall. These changing conditions have the potential to cause impacts such as waste and stormwater system failures, erosion that leads to infrastructure damage (Climate Change Risk Institute, 2020), aquatic habitat damage from acidification by rain, and eutrophication as a result of increased water temperature (Water Science School, 2019).
Much of the progress that has been made under the St. Marys River RAP has been the result of initiatives that addressed urban water runoff and stormwater management or aquatic habitat remediation (Sault Ste. Marie Regional Conservation Authority, 2018). If preventative actions are not taken there is potential for the ongoing effects of climate change to negate the progress that has been made towards remediating and delisting the St. Marys River AOC.
Initiatives and Efforts
As discussed above, early attempts to address water-related issues in the St. Marys River include the IJC’s RAP initiative, which aims to assess, repair and monitor damage to freshwater systems (IJC, 1999). As a part of this work, criteria for 14 potential BUIs were applied to evaluate ecological, economic, and health issues in the St. Marys River and its tributaries, and 10 were found to be pertinent to challenges experienced in the freshwater system (ECCC, 2021). Moreover, residents of Sault Ste. Marie and nearby communities have expressed concerns regarding two additional BUIs—ambient air and water quality; however, these issues have not been officially recognized as significant impairments by the IJC (Binational Public Advisory Commission, 2010).
By 2002, a binational conglomerate of government agencies coordinated by the IJC had developed strategies for remediating the affected areas and had defined specific requirements for the delisting of most BUIs (Binational Public Advisory Commission, 2010). A 2020 status report states that four BUIs had been remediated and successfully delisted by agencies in both Canada and the United States (Derickx, 2020). Five BUIs remain listed by both countries, however, some incongruity exists between the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) regarding the “Restrictions on Dredging Activities” BUI. IN 2017, the US EPA approved an application from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to change the designation of “Restrictions on Dredging Activities” to “not impaired” (Hyde, 2017). As of January 2020, the ECCC is reviewing “Restrictions on Dredging Activities” but has yet to approve delisting of this BUI (Derickx, 2020).
In addition to RAP and BUI work, several initiatives have been launched to improve the health of freshwater systems near and around Sault Ste. Marie. These include:
The Great Lakes Stormwater Collaborative (GLSC) is a bi-national network of water management professionals throughout the Great Lakes Basin. GLSC members share information, technology and expertise to improve stormwater management and water quality throughout the region.
The Riparian Restoration of Lake Huron Watershed project is coordinated by the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre and financed by the Great Lakes Local Action Fund. Under the guidance of the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre local youth and community members from Sault Ste. Marie will plant shrubs along the Thessalon River to slow erosion of the riverbank.
A Community-based monitoring pilot for Garden River and St. Marys Area of Concern is being conducted through a collaboration between the Garden River First Nation and the NORDIK Institute. This program aims to integrate Indigenous perspectives and ways of knowing into regional decision making by training Indigenous community members to monitor local water quality. This data will be used to inform management decisions within the St. Marys River AOC.
The Invasive Species Centre is a non-profit organization supporting management and prevention of the spread of invasive species in Canadian forests and waterways. The Invasive Species Centre is a collaboration hub that connects stakeholders and professionals with the knowledge and technology necessary to control invasive species populations. The Invasive Species Centre is located in Sault Ste. Marie, ON and the majority of their work is within the Great Lakes region though they facilitate projects throughout Ontario and across Canada.
Future concerns and emerging issues:
Asian Carp: The spread of invasive carp in the Great Lakes Ecosystem has been a growing cause for concern since 2015 when signs of a growing population were observed in Lake Eerie (GLFC, 2018). In 2019, Silver and Bighead Carp were observed in the Mississippi River Basin only 75 km from Lake Michigan (Nico et al., 2022). While the risk of carp establishment in the Upper Great Lakes is deemed moderate, there is a high probability of severe damage to the Great Lakes ecosystem if established populations do occur (Nico et al., 2022). The potential ecological impacts from the spread of Asian Carp range from decline in populations of native planktivores—including Lake Trout, a keystone species of the Upper Great Lakes (Nico et al., 2022)—to severe degradation of wetland habitat (Gertzen et al., 2016). The specific damages that would be caused by invasive carp populations is dependent on which species of Asian Carp are present (Nico et al., 2022).
Contaminated Sediment: Despite recent studies showing a decrease in adverse effects on fish populations, there is no doubt that several toxic substances persist within the sediment of the St. Marys River. An assessment of sediment contamination in 2015 found levels of arsenic, iron and nickel exceeding severe effect levels as well as high concentrations of PAHs (Environment Canada, 2015). Adverse health effects on resident fishes have been observed in the past following removal of contaminated sediment which has led to disagreement among scientists and resource managers regarding the costs and benefits of removing contaminated sediment from the river bed (Zarull et al., 1999).
Future priorities and plans:
The implementation of the St. Marys River RAP continues and in the coming decade, delisting of the St. Marys River AOC will continue to be a priority for water resource management in Sault Ste. Marie and the surrounding communities. Projects required to maintain and continue progress towards the delisting of BUIs in the St. Marys River will fall within 3 categories:
Monitoring: In order to continue progress towards the delisting of outstanding BUIs and to ensure the efficacy and maintenance of past remediation projects, monitoring has been recommended for indicators of outstanding BUIs, indicators of delisted BUIs and ambient water quality (Derickx, 2020).
Remediation: Projects will be undertaken to address the remaining 5 BUIs in the St. Marys River AOC. As of 2020, recommended actions include development of a Sediment Management Strategy, dredging of contaminated sediment from the Algoma Steel Boat Slip and habitat remediation projects (Derickx, 2020).
Delisting: An evidence-based delisting proposal and public consultation is required before BUI delisting can be officially approved by the IJC. It is often necessary to define formal delisting criteria for certain BUIs in cases when the available data was insufficient to establish specific targets at the time of their listing (Derickx, 2020).
Engagement with Indigenous Communities
Public consultations on water security in Sault Ste. Marie and the surrounding area have highlighted the importance of engaging Indigenous communities in the management of resources in their traditional territory. Initiatives in this region have begun to integrate Western and Indigenous perspectives and ways of knowing into their planning and execution. Many of the successful remediation initiatives within the St. Marys River AOC have been led by the Indigenous nations of the Algoma district with support from federal and provincial government agencies (ECCC, 2022).