Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used a special event commemorating the 100 year anniversary of the Boundary Waters Treaty between the United States and Canada to announce that the two countries will begin the process of updating the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was initiated pursuant to the 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 last amended in 1987 with provisions for addressing toxic hotspots and lakewide community planning.
In 2007, twenty years after the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was last amended, the International Joint Commission completed a major review to guide future updates. 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 agreement itself needs improvements in compliance, scientific capacity, and public openness and involvement. Earlier this year, over 50 national, regional, state, and local environmental organizations (including the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center) joined a coalition led by Great Lakes United urging President Obama and Prime Minister Harper to revitalize the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Apparently they listened.
In announcing the countries’ commitment to update the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, Secretary Clinton described the new threats since the last update in 1987: “new invasive species have appeared in our lakes, new worrisome chemicals have emerged from our industrial processes, our knowledge of the ecology of the region and how to protect it has grown considerably. In its current form, the Great Lakes Agreement does not sufficiently address the needs of our shared ecosystem.”
Now the work must begin to craft an updated Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement that address the underlying causes and sources of water pollution (chemical, physical, and biological) that threaten water quality in the Great Lakes. While significant progress has been made at reducing pollution from large industrial and municipal point sources, there are enormous gaps in our management of non-point pollution from runoff, air deposition, and other vectors that are largely unregulated. An updated Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement can and must close these gaps in Great Lakes water quality protection.