A Remarkable Partnership between the U.S. and Canada

The Complicated Story of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement

Feature photo: President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau signing the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, April 15, 1972, Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Canada.

By Karen Rodriguez

“Then on June 22,1969 the Cuyahoga River caught fire and ignited national outrage over water pollution.”  John Hartig1

1969 wasn’t the first time the Cuyahoga River burned; it burned in 1868, 1883, 1887, 1912, 1922, 1936, 1941, 1948, and 1952. From the early 1800s and throughout the first two thirds of the 20th century, Cleveland, Ohio industries  dumped wastes into the river without regard to the resulting pollution in both the river and Lake Erie. Oil, petroleum products and other chemicals turned the Cuyahoga into a sludge-filled, flammable, “river” without life. It wasn’t the only Great Lakes river that burned. The Chicago, Buffalo and Rouge Rivers, all urban and heavily industrialized, suffered from periodic burning and extreme pollution as well. Fortunately, thanks to years of cooperative work involving the federal governments of the United States and Canada, eight States, two Provinces, numerous Tribes and First Nations, and hundreds of communities and agencies and organizations and individuals, all of these rivers now live. The Great Lakes, 20% of the world’s fresh surface water, are healthier though not yet fully cleaned up. Continual vigilance is required by citizens to prevent further or future degradation of this fresh water resource.

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Photo: Kayakers on the Cuyahoga River, Cleveland, Ohio, more than 50 years after the river burned.

Across the United States and Canada the image of a burning river captured the attention of citizens. Hartig states, “Indeed, the Cuyahoga fire became a national symbol of industrial indifference and the weakness of public regulation. The fire helped lead to the passage of both the Clean Water Act [in the U.S.] and the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1972. The environmental movement needed a poster child and the burning Cuyahoga River became it.”2

But burning rivers were not the only problems. In the 1960s, Lake Erie was considered dead due to eutrophication (excessive richness of nutrients which causes a dense growth of plant life and death of animal life from lack of oxygen) from point sources of pollution and phosphorus from detergents. Algae decayed and washed up on beaches in Lake Ontario. In Lake Michigan an alewife die-off threatened beaches and drinking water intake systems.

There were no environmental regulations to control pollution in 1969 in either the United States or Canada. Except for municipal wastewater treatment facilities, no means to clean water were in place before it entered the Great Lakes from the shore or hundreds of tributaries. And the facilities’ treatment differed greatly from community to community.

In 1970, the same year Earth Day was founded, and spurred by increasing public concern, President Nixon established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by combining departments from several federal agencies, and Premier Trudeau created the Canadian Department of Environment (now Environment and Climate Change Canada)*. Both countries enacted legislation to begin to deal with water pollution problems.  In Nixon’s words,

“When we established the EPA, our goal was to find a rational balance between the imperative of protecting the environment and the imperative of economic growth. Since we recognized that most well-meaning business people wanted clean air and water for the sake of their children and grandchildren as urgently as did protesters marching in the streets, we envisioned a cooperative relationship between business and the new agency, with punitive measures applied only in cases of abuse.”3

The history of the U.S.-Canadian relationship regarding the health of the largest system of surface fresh water in the world begins with the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 (Treaty) between the U.S. and Great Britain signed in Washington D.C. on January 11, 1909. Although the Treaty was initiated originally because of water use and diversion issues along the border, Article IV stated that the waters shared by the U.S. and Canada, from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean coasts, were not to be polluted so as keep from injuring human health or property in either country. The Treaty established the International Joint Commission (IJC) to approve or disapprove actions that affect the levels and flows of boundary waters; investigate and recommend actions to the two governments so actions could be taken to address problems; and, arbitrate in the event of boundary water disputes.

The Treaty, the IJC as represented by three Commissioners from each country appointed by the President and the Premier, and a set of shared environmental problems, allowed for open dialog between the two countries. The creation of an executive compact under the Treaty, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA), signed by Nixon and Trudeau in 1972, followed several years of information sharing among scientists and policy makers and negotiations between the two counties that set common goals and objectives. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes National Program Office (U.S. EPA GLNPO) and the Canadian Department of Environment* became the governments’ (the Parties) representatives in working out the technicalities during GLWQA negotiations while the U.S. Department of State and Canada’s Department of External Affairs* led the formal process.

The primary objective of the 1972 GLWQA was phosphorus reduction because phosphorus was a leading factor in eutrophication. In addition, the GLWQA established basinwide water quality objectives that would lead to tackling large-scale pollution problems. A binational commitment to design and implement environmental monitoring programs led to water quality (and eventually air quality) monitoring in all five Great Lakes.

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Photo: left: Research Vessel Lake Guardian, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; right: Canadian Coast Guard research and survey vessel Limnos. The vessels carry out environmental monitoring in all five Great Lakes.

In the 1970s, problems in a Niagara Falls, New York neighborhood near the Niagara River became as infamous as the burning Cuyahoga River. Love Canal had been a 70-acre dumping ground for Hooker Chemical Company’s hazardous, contaminated chemical wastes. A school and houses were built on top of the wastes and resulted in chemicals leaching into the river and major health problems for the residents. Families were evacuated after health concerns, including leukemia, became known. The Superfund law enforced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was passed by Congress as a result. Cleanup of Love Canal was completed in 2004.

Love Canal influenced the review by the Parties of the 1972 GLWQA. A new goal of the 1978 Revised Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement specified “virtual elimination” of the discharges into the Lakes of toxic substances that “can cause death, disease, behavioral abnormalities, cancer, genetic mutations, physiological or reproductive malfunctions, or physical deformities in any organism or its offspring, or which can become poisonous after concentration in the food chain or in combination with other substances.”4 The revised GLWQA adopted a “zero discharge” (stopping discharge of all pollutants into waterways) approach as well as began to establish a list of toxic chemicals for priority action.

A new statement was also added that would eventually broaden the GLWQA considerably: “The purpose of the parties is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem.”5 This powerful sentence set the stage for the U.S. and Canada to work together to jointly tackle problems beyond removing chemical contaminants in order to improve water quality. Reducing phosphorus loadings remained a goal but in addition to the added virtual elimination goal, another new goal called for an ecosystem approach to management of the Lakes.

The 1987 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement Amended by Protocol broadened the ecosystem management language of the previous GLWQA revision and added new annexes. One new annex (Annex 2) introduced the concept of Areas of Concern (AOC), highly contaminated specific geographic areas. Remedial Action Plans (RAPs) were to be developed and implemented for each AOC in order to eliminate contamination. Annex 2 also introduced Lakewide Management Plans (LaMPs) to address contamination within each Great Lake basin. Other new annexes broadened the GLWQA to address: non-point contaminant sources, contaminated sediments, airborne toxic substances, contaminated groundwater, and associated research and development. The key aspect of the 1987 revisions was an evolution away from water chemistry objectives based on laboratory tests toward ecosystem objectives and beneficial uses including habitat. Thus the goals for RAPs and LaMPs are not laboratory numbers, but ecological health and beneficial uses such as swimmable beaches, drinkable water, and edible fish.

Between 2004 and 2007, an Agreement Review Committee (ARC) composed of 400 individuals from agencies and organizations across the Great Lakes basin primarily in the U.S. conducted a review of the 1987 GLWQA. The IJC held public meetings on both sides of the border and collected comments from 4,000 residents that concluded overwhelmingly the GLWQA should be amended yet again. In late 2008, the U.S. established the Federal Interagency Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement Workgroup to provide guidance for policy-makers on how the U.S. government should respond to the conclusion contained in the final ARC report. The Workgroup agreed that a revised GLWQA should recognize that water quality depends on interacting components of air, land, water, and living organisms, including humans. In June 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Clinton and Canadian Foreign Minister Cannon announced the two countries would pursue amendments to the GLWQA.

Why amend the GLWQA? The 1987 GLWQA was out of date and many early environmental targets had been met but new issues had emerged. Non-point source pollution, contaminated sediments, invasive species, and natural habitat loss had become major issues for both countries. Finally, the U.S. felt a revised GLWQA would complement the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), begun under President George W. Bush and recommended for funding by President Obama, by providing a strategic binational framework.

Beginning in the summer of 2009, staff from U.S. EPA GLNPO and Environment Canada* began negotiating the following topics for the new GLWQA: nutrients, toxic substances, ship source pollution, science coordination, aquatic invasive species, habitats and species, and climate change. In late 2009, U.S. EPA, the U.S. Department of State, Environment Canada* and the Canada Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade* organized the process for the formal part of the negotiations for what would become the 2012 Amendment to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. On January 27, 2010, the heads of the delegations of the four agencies held the first plenary negotiation session in Washington D.C. to debate language proposed by agency staff. A second plenary was held April 8, 2010 in Toronto and several more sessions were held after that. The 2012 Amendment to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was signed by Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson on September 7, 2012 and entered into force on February 12, 2013.

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Photo: Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent and U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson signing the updated Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, September 7, 2012.

For more than a century the United States and Canada have cooperated to confront and rectify problems that threaten the Great Lakes. Scientists and policy makers have worked freely across the border to share information, monitor water levels and environmental degradation, and actively improve water quality. The amount of scientific information now available about the Great Lakes environment is staggering. The number of people who have participated in cross border work to restore the Lakes to health is in the thousands. The actions taken by agencies and organizations and individuals to better the Great Lakes basin environment have reduced toxic contamination in places like the Buffalo River and Hamilton Harbour Areas of Concern; reopened miles of rivers such as the Boardman River in Michigan for fish spawning; restored coastal wetlands such as those in Lake Erie to provide fish habitat; contributed to the elimination of European Common Reed (Phragmites australis) and other invasive plant and animal species from Lake Superior and other basins; and, worked to understand and improve the Lake Huron fishery as well as individual fish species such as Lake Trout.

Great problems persist: aquatic invasive species, continued habitat loss, contaminated sediments, climate change –induced changes in forests, and the instability of the fishery to name a few. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement allows the work of the U.S. and Canada to protect and restore the Great Lakes to continue. A shared resource along a shared border has cemented a congenial relationship for the benefit of the Great Lakes and all its inhabitants. As Botts and Muldoon have stated: “With the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the Boundary Waters Treaty that preceded it, the United States and Canada are contributing a unique experience in environmental management that is derived from the character of the Great Lakes ecosystem and the special relationship that exists between these two countries.”6

1Hartig, John H. Burning Rivers, Revival of Four Urban-Industrial Rivers That Caught Fire. p.71, 2p.19, 6p.3.

3Nixon, Richard M. Beyond Peace. p.201.

4Article I(v), 1978 Revised Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement; 5Article II.

*Note: The Canadian Department of Environment changed its name to Environment Canada and then to Environment and Climate Change Canada. Canada’s Department External Affairs has had the following name changes: Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada; Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, and Canada Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. It is now Global Affairs Canada.

The books:

Botts, Lee and Paul Muldoon. Evolution of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press. 2005.

Hartig, John H. Burning Rivers, Revival of Four Urban-Industrial Rivers That Caught Fire. Burlington, Ontario, Canada: Ecovision World Monograph Series, Aquatic Ecosystem Health and Management Society. 2010.

Nixon, Richard M. Beyond Peace. New York, NY: Random House. 1994.

Other references:

1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0sIfZ-sIF0

Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1978 (Revised in 1978 and amended in 1987): http://www.ijc.org/files/tinymce/uploaded/GLWQA_e.pdf

2012 Amendment to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement: www.ec.gc.ca/grandslacs-greatlakes/default.asp?lang=En&n=A1C62826-1

Information about binational Great Lakes work: https://binational.net/

Information about the International Joint Commission: http://www.ijc.org/en_/

The opening lines of the 1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement state:

“The Government of the United States of America and the Government of Canada, determined to restore and enhance water quality in the Great Lakes system; seriously concerned about the grave deterioration of water quality on each side of the boundary to an extent that is causing injury to health and property on the other side, as described in the 1970 report of the International Joint Commission on pollution of Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and the International Section of the St. Lawrence; intent upon preventing further pollution of the Great Lakes System owing to continuing population growth, resource development and increasing use of water; reaffirming in a spirit of friendship and cooperation the rights and obligations of both countries under the Boundary Waters Treaty signed January 11, 1909, and in particular their obligation not to pollute boundary waters; recognizing the rights of each country in the use of its Great Lakes waters; satisfied that the 1970 report of the International Joint Commissions provides a sound basis for new and more effective cooperative actions to restore and enhance water quality in the Great Lakes System; convinced that the best means to achieve improved water quality in the Great Lakes System is through the adoption of common objectives, the development and implementation of cooperative programs and other measures, and the assignment of special responsibilities and functions to the International Joint Commission; have agreed as follows:..”

Content © 2017 Karen Rodriguez with contributions from Kent Fuller; Nixon and Trudeau photo Environment and Climate Change Canada; Cuyahoga River kayak photo © 2017 Karen Rodriguez; R/V Lake Guardian photo U.S. EPA GLNPO; CCGS Limnos photo Environment and Climate Change Canada; Kent and Jackson photo U.S. EPA.

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