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On whales, drinking water and the Great Lakes

A new documentary examines frightening contamination in the lakes and the wide-ranging consequences.

Aurora, a 20-year-old beluga whale, swims with her newborn calf after giving birth at the Vancouver Aquarium in Vancouver, British Columbia June 7, 2009. Belugas living near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, meanwhile, are struggling: A quarter of the adult white whales are dying of cancer. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

TORONTO — U.S. President Barack Obama has turned his attention to the sorry state of the Great Lakes, the natural reservoir for 20 percent of the world’s fresh water.

On Saturday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States would renegotiate the Great Lakes Quality Agreement with Canada. The treaty needs updating to confront new threats, including invasive species, declining water levels, and chemical contamination.

Clinton made the announcement on the Rainbow Bridge, which connects Canada and the U.S. above spectacular Niagara Falls. Nearby, on the American side of the border, is Love Canal, where homes and a school were built on a toxic waste dump. Birth defects and a slew of ailments forced the evacuation of the community in the late 1970s.

A week earlier, Obama appointed a Great Lakes czar to oversee his ambitious clean-up plan. Cameron Davis, a Chicago-based environmentalist, will initially manage $475 million in new spending. Obama has promised $5 billion during the next decade to restore the lakes.

As their first order of business, bureaucrats in both initiatives would be wise to screen "Waterlife," the new documentary by Toronto-based filmmaker Kevin McMahon. It’s an arresting look at the actions and neglect that have pushed the lakes to the brink of “irreversible” collapse, as top scientists have warned.

One of Canada’s most innovative filmmakers, McMahon has directed more than 15 documentaries in the past two decades. Whether filming on the media theories of Marshall McLuhan, the music of Bach, or the impact of the Cold War on the Inuit, McMahon challenges conventions. His storytelling is never linear. Like his stunning helicopter shots of the Great Lakes, he strives for the big picture. Meaning lies in the layers his films reveal.

In "Waterlife" — winner of the special jury prize at the recent international Hot Docs film festival, and released in Toronto theaters last week — McMahon gives equal billing to beauty and doom.

It begins with an image of innocence: an underwater scene of a playful beluga whale. But the whale's habitat — about 1,000 belugas live near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River — is horribly out of whack. A quarter of the adult white whales are dying of cancer. The likely culprit is upstream, in the “soup of chemicals” that is the Great Lakes — the source of drinking water for 35 million people.

Water from Lake Superior takes an amazing 350 years to wind its way to the St. Lawrence River. It took people on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border a lot less time to fill the waters with waste and poison.