State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

U.S., Canada, re-opening negotiations on Great Lakes water quality

On Saturday, June 13, 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with her Canadian counterpart, Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon, in Niagara Falls to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the Boundary Waters Treaty.  While the Treaty governs all international waters shared by Canada and the USA, its primary application is to Great Lakes’ policy.  As part of the celebration, both sides announced the intent to renegotiate the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) of 1978 (amended in 1987).  Secretary Clinton commented that “We have to update it to reflect new knowledge, new technologies and, unfortunately, new threats.”

While the politicians may have used the celebration to publicly push this initiative, the call for renegotiation of the GLWQA is not actually starting from the politicians.  Rather, the individuals entrusted with monitoring the Lakes, both at the International Joint Commission (IJC), as well as in Canadian and U.S. agencies, report that the states and provinces are not achieving the water quality goals established by the GLWQA.  In reading the 13th biennial report on Great Lakes Water Quality, required by the GLWQA and produced by the IJC, the Commission notes that the Treaty lacks the level of detail needed to achieve real results.  “In places, such as Annexes 1 and 3 (of the GLWQA), there is considerable specificity about the results to be achieved. For the most part, however, the Agreement’s objectives are indefinite and outdated, and there are few limits and thresholds or schedules for action. Essentially, most Agreement timelines relate to reporting requirements rather than to performance requirements. Further, objectives often go unmet within specified timelines” (2006, p. 8).  Arguing that the key weakness of the GLWQA is a failure to hold parties accountable for pollution, the authors “Recommend that the governments of Canada and the United States create and implement a Framework for Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement Accountability” (2006, p. 19).

Additionally, the way environmental progress is measured in the Lakes does not line up well with the terms of the Treaty.  The State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference, or “SOLEC” process, designed in 1994 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada as a means to monitor the ecologic condition of the Lakes, unfortunately does not translate well to the objectives of the GLWQA.  Reporting data across the history of the GLWQA is uneven due to variance in monitoring programs, making analysis of progress problematic, at best (2006, p. 17). The biennial report clearly suggests that a better agreement, with more precise objectives and measurement indicators as well as more teeth for enforcement would go a long way towards improving water quality in the Great Lakes.

In reading the commentary on the reporting of the event, one can quickly conclude that many U.S. and Canadian citizens doubt the intentions – or ability – of the two national governments when it comes to the Great Lakes.  Many Canadians doubt the ability of the Harper government to improve upon past agreements, and question the motives of their neighboring Great Lakes States.  The U.S. government, concerned by the loss of jobs and manufacturing in the Great Lakes region, may be more interested in economic recovery than stewardship of the Lakes.  On both sides of the Lakes, Basin residents fear that thirsty farmers in the Prairies and Midwest, or burgeoning populations in the dry American Southwest may come calling for freshwater should their own sources fail them.  However, the call for renewed negotiation being put forth by the State Department and the Foreign Ministry is to address water quality: this call is needed and overdue.  While a reasonable and responsible outcome of these negotiations cannot be guaranteed, improvements to Great Lakes water quality are highly unlikely without a revised Treaty in place.

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