After years of delay, the United States and Canada finally agreed to begin the process of updating the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement last year, with an announcement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in June 2009. Updating the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement is long overdue, as many new threats and concerns (invasive species, non-point pollution, toxic and pharmaceutical residues in drinking water, etc.) have emerged since the last revision in 1987. Further, there have been new calls to make the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement more meaningful with provisions for enforcement and accountability. Environmental advocates were hopeful that a new, modern Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement would be developed, drawing heavily on scientific expertise and public participation. However, those hopes are turning into frustration as the governments move forward in a low-profile, rushed process that gives the public and scientists little ability to shape the result.
The public was given only a month’s notice to submit comments on “governance” for revising the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, with comments due earlier this week. The timing couldn’t be worse, as Great Lakes policy makers and advocates were focused on the Asian carp crises – a disastrous example of the “governance” mess that undermines Great Lakes protection. In January, over 30 environmental organizations from the United States and Canada sent a letter to the governments demanding a better public participation process for revising the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, with the following key steps:
- Release a draft government position or options paper on governance issues.
- The release of the draft government position or options paper should set off a 60-day public comment period.
- Once the governments have negotiated draft language on governance, release it again for a public comment period.
- For the “issues” consultations, follow a process similar to recommendations 1-3, with the release of a draft position or options paper followed by a 60-day public comment period followed by another opportunity for comment after the governments have completed their first round of negotiations on the topic.
- Compile a web-posted summary of comments received from public input at each stage of the consultations.
- Release a final draft of the complete revised Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement for comment prior to completing negotiations and hold public hearings in both countries on this draft.
As of this week, the governments have failed to respond to the concerns for more sensible public participation. Even with minimal opportunity for public participation, environmental advocates have submitted comments on improving governance under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. In their Preliminary Comments and Recommendations on Governance Issues for Consideration During the 2010 Renegotiation of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, over 30 organizations detail issues ranging from scope to implementation. NRDC has submitted its own comments, mostly consistent with the coalition recommendations. These comments are a good starting point, but a problem as complex as Great Lakes governance deserves a more meaningful process with far better opportunities for public participation.