The Niagara River is an integral part of the largest freshwater system on Earth: the Great Lakes Basin. Famous for its world renowned waterfalls, the Niagara River connects Lake Erie to Lake Ontario and carries with it water from lakes Superior, Huron, and Michigan. The Niagara River is also an international waterway, connecting Canada to the United States along its 58-km length. With an average flow rate of 5,700 cubic meters per second, the Niagara River accounts for 83% of the water flowing into Lake Ontario, which is a source of drinking water for millions of citizens of Ontario. In the Niagara Region alone, approximately 130,000 people rely on the Niagara River and Lake Ontario for their drinking water. Other uses for the Niagara River include fish and wildlife habitat, recreational activities, power generation, and water for industry.
The Niagara River and the entire Great Lakes Basin is a legacy of the last Ice Age. Over 18,000 years ago, Southern Ontario was covered by ice sheets several kilometers thick. As the ice sheets advanced southward, they gouged out the basins of the Great Lakes. As they melted northward, they released large volumes of melt water into these basins. The Niagara Peninsula became free of the ice about 12,500 years ago. As the ice retreated northward, its meltwaters began to flow down through what became Lake Erie, the Niagara River, and Lake Ontario, down to the St. Lawrence River and on to the Atlantic Ocean.
The total drop in elevation along the river is 99 metres. Niagara Falls has moved approximately 11 kilometres upstream from the Niagara Escarpment in the last 12,000 years, resulting in a gorge below the falls which includes the Niagara Whirlpool. The Niagara River also features two large islands and numerous smaller islands. Grand Island and Navy Island, the two main islands, are on the American and Canadian sides of the river, respectively. Goat Island and the tiny Luna Island split Niagara Falls into its three sections, the Horseshoe, Bridal Veil, and American Falls.
Thousands of years ago, Niagara was discovered by its first inhabitants, indigenous peoples. The Neutral Indians have been recorded as one of the earliest native tribes residing in the Niagara region. It is estimated that in the early 1600s there were approximately 12,000 Neutrals living in the area, which made them the largest Native group in the Northeast in the 17th century. Their territory was situated around the western end of Lake Ontario and to the north of Lake Erie, they claimed the land on both sides of the Niagara River. This entire district was called Onguiaahra, which means, “the strait” or “thundering water.” The name Niagara was derived from this Native word and was also used to call the thundering waters.
The importance of the river for the fur trade and as a route into the interior was recognized by the French who built Fort Niagara at its mouth in 1678. The British gained control in 1759, and the Fort was a major supply depot during the American Revolution. Two consequences of the Revolutionary War were, in 1783 the river became part of the boundary between British and American territory, and Niagara-on-the-Lake and Fort Erie were settled by fleeing Loyalists.
There is a long history of power generation and industrial development along the Niagara River. The advent of hydroelectric power harnessed from Niagara Falls led to the proliferation of chemical industries along the American side of the river. As pollution levels increased and gained notoriety through well-publicized public health disasters such as Love Canal, pressure mounted from citizens, environmentalists, and politicians to proactively address the severe degradation of the Niagara River.
The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA), first signed in 1972, was renewed in 1978 to express the commitment of Canada and the U.S. to restore and maintain the overall integrity of the Great Lakes Basin ecosystem, including the Niagara River. In 1987, an amendment to the Agreement called for the development and implementation of Remedial Action Plans (RAPs) to restore ecosystem health at 43 Areas of Concern (AOCs) located within the Great Lakes Basin. That same year, the Niagara River was designated by federal and provincial governments in cooperation with the International Joint Commission (IJC) as one of the 43 AOCs requiring a RAP. The IJC is an independent binational organization established to prevent and resolve disputes relating to the use and quality of boundary waters between Canada, and the U.S. The Niagara River received this designation due to degraded water quality, which impaired the complete use of the river’s resources. The GLWQA was most recently revised in 2012 to reaffirm both countries’ commitment to restore and maintain the Waters of the Great Lakes. It continues to guide our efforts toward improving the Great Lakes ecosystem.
Significant progress has been made in the Niagara River since the RAP process was first initiated in 1987. Successes achieved include significant improvements in water quality and the clean-up of contaminated sediments. These efforts have improved the overall health of the Niagara River and enhanced its ability to support the human and wildlife populations which depend on it. The successes of the Niagara River RAP would not have been possible without the cooperation of various levels of government and the active involvement of the public.