Over 50 national, regional, state, and local environmental organizations (including the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center) have joined a coalition led by Great Lakes United asking President Obama and Prime Minister Harper to revitalize the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
While the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement has not been revised since 1987, the two countries and the International Joint Commission completed a major review in September 2007. This comprehensive review identified numerous threats to the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem, including new toxics, invasive species, harm from sprawl, and climate change. Further, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement itself needs improvements in compliance, scientific capacity, and public openness and involvement.
Even many water wonks are often unsure of exactly what the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement is and what it does (or did). For a good read about it, check out “Evolution of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement” by Lee Botts and Paul Muldoon. Here’s a short version: The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was initiated pursuant to the US-Canada Boundary Waters Treaty and first signed in 1972 by President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The 1972 agreement focused on phosphorus pollution and created a precedent for environmental leadership by the International Joint Commission. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was amended in 1978 with a more ambitious purpose, “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem.” The 1978 amendments also included the goal of “virtual elimination” of persistent toxic substances. The agreement was most recently amended in 1987 with provisions for addressing toxic hotspots and lakewide community planning.
As innovative as the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was in the 1970’s, it seems pretty dated and lame now. Even more frustrating, many of the problems it sought to address remain (and are worse) today – evidence of its misdirected focus and inadequate compliance provisions. But it has a great reputation and good potential, and could improve U.S.-Canada environmental relations. It’s worthwhile to revitalize the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and easy enough to do, especially since the International Joint Commission would take the lead. It would also make us a good neighbor that takes care of the shared backyard.