Joel Rochon a lakeshore resident in Ashfield-Colborne-Wawanosh wrote a guest column which was published in several rural papers in the region. The Minister of Agriculture replied in a letter to the editor. Click here to read the reply. Click here to read the response to the reply.


This article was printed as a Guest Column in the
Lucknow Sentinel under the heading

"Lake health vital to county economy"
Lucknow Sentinel, August 28, 2002

By Joel M. Rochon

We recently took our 9 month old grandchild to the Emergency Ward at the Goderich hospital. The baby had thrown up, and seemed listless. We were all concerned. We didn’t know what she had.

"Do you think it has to do with the water," said my daughter-in-law. The doctor had asked if the child was playing near lake Huron. Of course, she had been.

We have five adult children, and 17 grandchildren who regularly visit in our beach house on the shores of Lake Huron throughout most of the year, except winter. It has been an important family gathering place for the past 20 years. Like most people we enjoy the shores of the lake. We swim, fish, sail our boat and make sand castles in the sand. Many of us play golf and tennis, attend local theatre, eat at restaurants, and visit festivals and the library in the community. We are very aware--especially after Walkerton-- of the sometimes dangerously high e-coli counts in Lake Huron, and in the stream that runs near our place. The question of water quality is always on our mind.

E-Coli Readings Well Above Provincial Standards

The Provincial Standard for acceptable levels of e-coli counts is 100 per ml of water. The counts are taken in both the streams and rivers feeding into Lake Huron, and another set of counts for the beaches on the lake itself. The average e-coli count last year for streams and rivers along the shore was 1100--11 times higher that the acceptable standard. The average high reading of e-coli counts( usually after a rain) from the streams feeding into the lake was 5,441--54 times above the Provincial Standard.

The e-coli reading for the beaches along Lake Huron shore are also disturbing . They registered an average e-coli count of 275, and after a rain , the high average was 2,004--20 times above the Provincial Standard for what is considered safe for humans. And the e-coli in the pollution can survive in the Lake water for 13 months. No one has estimated the cumulative effect of this persistent pollution.

Dr. Beth Henning, the Huron Medical Health Officer says, " I am very concerned about the quality of water in Lake Huron, and the exposure of people to water when e-coli counts are above 100."

People are busy taking e-coli readings and posting beaches with red signs and blue signs telling people to swim at their own risk, and not to put your head in the water.( Imagine trying to supervise a group of kids swimming in the water.) We are told by Huron County Health Unit people that "e-coli bacteria can cause illness if swallowed, or if a swimmer has any open cuts." They also note "children are more at risk of becoming ill from bacteria."

The pollution is a direct threat to the health of my grandchildren. One of our adult children and her family recently bought their own cottage in the Kawarthas. One of the reasons, was the quality of water here. This was not long after she learned of more intensive Hog Factory Farms being planned for the area.

My daughter’s concern, and the implication of that attitude is significant to Huron County. If tourists see that lake Huron beaches are posted as not a safe place for their families, they will stay away. Huron County cottagers, unable to access the lake, could consider moving to other places.

Lake Pollution Tied to Local Economy

Tourism is big business in Huron County. Tourists and cottagers contribute a conservatively estimated $ 75 million to the economy here. The extensive Lake Huron shoreline, along with conservation and parkland areas, and river valleys are known as the county’s most valuable tourism and recreational resources. It is generally held by the Tourism people that tourist dollars tend to multiply themselves 7 times. This is because it is disposable income spent with local merchants and service providers, and is respent within the community. Tourism in Huron County supports 1,600 jobs in the county every year. With the 7 x multiplier effect, the economic impact of the Tourist industry to the area would be $ 525 million. That puts Tourism in the same league as Huron County’s farm gate revenues currently estimated by Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food (OMAF) at $ 642.5million. The hog industry accounts for $ 158.7 million of that.

The Huron County Planning Department has estimated that the Huron County seasonal population along the shores of Lake Huron from Grand Bend to Amberley is around 7,500, equal to the population of Goderich. Some of the Townships along the lakeshore report that nearly half of their tax revenues come from Lakeside residents, many of whom are retiring to the area. The Lakeshore residents group is significant. They should be paid attention to when they say they are fed up with the persistent pollution that is ruining the lifestyle they came here to enjoy. It not only reduces the value of their real estate investments in the area, it threatens the health of their families.

Many of the people in Huron County seem to despair that anything can be done to stem the flow of pollution into their water. The complete ruin of one of the most beautiful lakes in the world seems to be inevitable. They say OMAF does not respond to their concerns. Even the newest legislation affecting the environment in Ontario , The Nutrient Management Act, has been tilted to favour to OMAF, which will have the authority to approve Nutrient Management Plans. It will be left of the Ministry of the Environment to enforce the plans. In a crunch will the priority be: the marketing of Ontario pork to the USA or,… the protection of our waterways from pollution? (The Ontario government has already subsidized pork marketing programs.)

The new Minister of OMAF, Helen Johns,MLA, for this area, was unable to attend a meeting this year, of some 500 people at Point Clarke. The meeting was to discuss the their concern about Hog Factories which would put even more pressure on the environment.

After all, the intensive farming industry is growing quickly. Some estimate Huron County farms will market a million finished hogs this year. The pork industry grew 54 % between 1996 and 1999. Huron County also struggles to accommodate: over 5 million hens, chickens and turkeys; and close to a quarter million beef and dairy cattle along with sheep. In addition, the county also contains more than half a million acres of field crops. All of this intensive farming pollutes our waterways and Lake Huron, as never before.

Don’t Blame the Farmers

Does this mean the farmer of Huron County is the villian when it comes to pollution of our waterways? Definitely not. Like cottagers, farmers are generally good people, wanting to do the right thing. As a group they are likely more neighbourly and generous than most. Farmers, however, make a living from their land. If a meat packing company offers them an intensive farming contract to enlarge their operations, they are inclined to take it. It would be more profitable. It’s a business decision. The banks treat signed intensive farming contracts as collateral, making it easier for the farmer to expand, and pay down debts. But the hitch is, the management of the manure from livestock is usually the sole responsibility of the farmer. For him/her to manage it properly, costs money, and it comes directly out of the farmer’s profit. Faced with this "extra" expense, the farmer operator sometimes takes risks, and try short cuts. But stuff happens: the nearest field is supersaturated with manure, in the rush maybe the fields are not cultivated in advance of manure spreading, a liquid manure holding tank springs leak, manure is spread on a frozen field. Pollution of our waterways is the result.

It happens because the economic structure puts the farmer in an awkward position. It encourages abuses in the management of manure. The resultant pollution gets into the field drainage systems, into the waterways, into the lake. It may be out of sight, out of mind. But I know that e-coli from it gets into the mouths of my grandchildren. Under any other circumstances that would be a crime.

However, the farmer is not usually the major benefactor of the business. The Ontario Government is a major tax beneficiary, and enjoys the balance of trade that comes from the export of pork to the USA. The real winners are the Meat Packing Companies who supply piglets, provide the feed to finish them, and market the finished hogs. They profit handsomely from the intensive hog marketing enterprise.

Government and Meat Packers Should be Held Accountable

The right thing would be for the Ontario Government and the Meat Packing Companies to accept much of the responsibility for protecting the environment being adversely affected by their intensive farming enterprise. The Ontario Government and the Meat Packers should allocate money specifically to assist the farmer to ensure the environment is protected. It’s a legitimate cost of doing that kind of business. I would personally be delighted if the agricultural industry in Huron County prospers and grows in the years ahead. But that is providing we clean up the pollution that is destroying our waterways, and threatening the health of our families.

A Challenge For Helen Johns, MLA

Note to Helen Johns,Ontario Minister of Agriculture and Food: Is it possible that Ontario could show the world how to manage intensive agriculture, while protecting our environment. I think we can, if we work together, as friends and neighbours. Our common objective is to ensure the Provincial Standard for e-coli counts (100) in Lake Huron and all our waterways is met-- all the time.

It is good business for everyone to meet those Provincial standards.

Let’s come together, and beat this pollution thing, before it ruins our beautiful Huron County, and before someone’s child get sick, or worse.

Oh, the grandchild who we took to the hospital. The doctor wasn’t sure what she had. Tylenol and keep a watch on her.

" Not the water," said the mother.

" Don’t know. Maybe not this time," he said.

Let’s make sure it never happens.


Joel M. Rochon is a semi-retired Management Consultant, who swims in Lake Huron every morning.

Farmers are environmentally responsible

Goderich Signal Star, Wednesday October 2, 2002

Dear Editor:

In response to a letter in your publication from Joel Rochon questioning whether it is possible for Ontario to show the world how to manage intensive agriculture while protecting the environment I provide the following.

The answer is yes. Ontario's farmers lead the world in environmental responsibility. It was Ontario's farmers that published the Ontario Farm Environmental Agenda in the early 1990s.

It was Ontario's farmers that pushed for and worked for the development of best management practices information to help themselves protect the environment.

It was Ontario's farmers that developed The Environmental Farm Plan that is admired and emulated across Canada and around the world.

It was Ontario's farmers that helped develop nutrient management planning as a means of ensuring that nutrients of all sources placed in the soil will be utilized by the subsequent crop and therefore be prevented from leaching below the root mass into the water table.

I agree with the author that "farmers are generally good people, wanting to do the right thing." They are the stewards of the land.

The author also discusses bacterial loading in the waters of Huron County and seems to tie this directly to the intensification of agriculture. I am informed that bacterial loading must be seen in context. The bacteria that closes our beaches come from a number of sources - a combination of municipal sewage systems and residential septic tanks, from agricultural activities and from wildlife.

Nutrients in the environment also come from a number of sources including municipal sewage systems, residential septic tanks, animal agriculture, commercial fertilizers used in agriculture (indistinguishable from fertilizers purchased for private gardens, lawns, golf courses and parks) and organic composts (wildlife, the natural decomposition process in swamps and bogs and organics generated in the natural environment).

Let me sum up for the author - well before the recent establishment of intensive agricultural operations, Ontario's farmers and the provincial government were deeply involved as partners in environmental protection.

Discussions of nutrient management legislation, for example, began in 1999.

The O'Connor report commends our Nutrient Management Act, passed in June, as being the appropriate tool for doing the job of both protecting our water and sustaining our agricultural dollar, multi-ministry effort led by the Ministry of the Environment to keep Ontario's water supplies safe and available.

Everyone is part of the problem and Ontario's agriculture continues to lead the world's farmers in protecting the environment.

A final minor point: the invitation to the meeting in Point Clark that I could not attend described an annual meeting of cottage owners, not a meeting to discuss intensive agriculture or the environment.

Helen Johns
Huron-Bruce MPP


Thank you, Helen Johns, Ontario Minister of Agriculture and Foods (OMAF) for your reply to my article the water quality of Lake Huron which recently appeared in this community newspaper. Your interest is appreciated.

The point of my article is very simple. There is a provincial standard for recreational water safety in Ontario of 100 e-coli per 100 ml. of water. It is the responsibility for the Provincial Government to ensure those standards are met. You mentioned the many world class plans and programs that have been developed by OMAF and the farmers of Huron County. Despite all the effort the situation continues to get worse. That would tell me that the actions taken to date, as good as they may be, are not working.

Anyone who has studied the situation has long ago conceded that most of the pollutants that come into our waterways and Lake Huron come from agriculture. Even farming associations agree with that. Yes, there is some from septic tanks, and rarely from faulty Municipal sewage systems . The Minister noted that maybe some of the pollution comes from wild animals. There may be 1000 or so deer roaming the County, but there are One Million Hogs, a quarter of a million cattle, and 5 million poultry. You get the picture.

The e-coli counts spike up dramatically whenever there is a rain. (Thank God we had a dry year). If the pollution problem was septic tanks e-coli rates would be consistent–rain or shine. However, rain does cause runoff from farm fields. That runoff floods into our waterways with its manure residue. It contains not only e-coli, but phosphates which have once again endangered Lake Erie,( as reported in the Globe and Mail last week) along with nitrates, antibiotics, and steroids which come from liquid hog manure and other livestock.

My article is reportedly balanced and fair. It said pointedly that independent farmers cannot be blamed for pollution. It has more to do with the system under which they operate. Farmers have been left with the responsibility of cleaning up the excessive animal sewage generated–especially by the intensive farming operations. If this were an industrial situation, and oil or acid were flowing into our waterways, there would be hell to pay. Somehow the intensive farming operations, which are really agricultural factories not normal farms, are treated differently.

The main winners from intensive farming operations are: the Meat Processing Companies who fatten their profits; and the Ontario Government which reaps taxes and favourable balance of trade numbers. In Huron County last year farm gate revenues were $ 645 million, a significant rise from previous years. What is the anticipated per annum target for 2004 ? How about $ 1Billion. We all know what that kind growth will do to the pollution in Lake Huron. We can’t hold our own the way it is now.

The losers to the resultant higher levels of pollution is: nearly everyone else: the residents of the County as their property values decline; families, as visiting relatives stay away from the unsafe water; retailers and service providers whose businesses will decline or fail as tourists avoid the polluted beaches of Huron County. It is not a stretch to say the present levels of water pollution, if not reversed, will once again result in widespread illness and even death.

The Minister said "yes" to the question, it is possible to have a flourishing agricultural industry in Huron County, and reach provincial standards for water quality–100 e-coli . To make that come true, there will have to be: permanent staff to measure water quality consistently; enforcement officers active in the County, substantial penalties for those not adhering to regulations–both on the farms and all Lakeshore residents, as well.(Lakeshore resident organizations have passed resolutions advocating septic tank inspections and corrections.) Intensive livestock operations must be limited to what the land can accommodate. Most importantly, financial and other resources must be provided by both Government and Meat Packing Companies to assist farmers to manage excessive manure economically and safely.

But those are details. At the end of the day, there is a general conflict of objectives between those who favour the growth of intensive livestock operations, and those who favour safe water for the public. Neither group is malicious. They are just protecting their interests. What is needed is a Government of Ontario policy as to which of the two priorities will prevail when push comes to shove---growth of intensive livestock operations or safe water. When these two priorities come into conflict--and they do-- the Ontario Government must decide which priority best serves the common good of all citizens.

In such a scenario, Premier Ernie Eves would put the question to his cabinet. They would discuss it for a long while, because it is a complex issue–the government’s responsibility, the money, the taxes, the political implications, the farm vote, the tree huggers, the media, next election, the commitment to implement to Walkerton enquiry recommendations. Finally, it would be put to a vote.

The Minister of OMAF would seem to have a particular tough decision to make. She is involved with both agricultural objectives, and the protection of our water safety. Despite these conflicting interests, I am confident she would do the right thing.

How would the Premier vote? How would the Government vote? As a citizen of Ontario, how would you want them to vote?

No, the priorities can’t be equal. We’ve tried that.