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.
The 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement continues these commitments, and includes new provisions to address aquatic invasive species, habitat degradation, algae blooms, toxic chemicals, discharges from vessels, management of the nearshore environment, and the effects of climate change. The new agreement should be a useful policy tool in identifying Great Lakes priorities for the governments to address. It is essentially an agreement to cooperate and coordinate governmental efforts on these issues. However, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement does not establish any legal standards for pollution and other impacts, nor does it provide a cause of action against parties that violate its terms and commitments, leaving such matters to domestic law. I think this is an appropriate balance between international cooperation and national sovereignty, protecting the Great Lakes without infringing on our domestic legal system. Now it’s up to the U.S. EPA and states to fulfill the objectives and commitments of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.