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February 27, 2013


A Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement for the 21st Century

The 1969 Cuyahoga River fire, arguably one the most significant environmental calamities in Great Lakes’ history, sparked the public’s attention and galvanized federal action around water pollution control. The result was the creation of the U.S. Clean Water Act, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

Signed in 1972, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was principally established to ensure the U.S. and Canada were both taking action to control pollution, advance scientific research, and monitoring the water quality of the Great Lakes. The biggest threat at the time to water quality was point source pollution, from phosphorous loading by large sewage treatment plants to PCBs and mercury from industrial outfalls.

Since the original 1972 agreement and its 1978 and 1987 revisions, there have been a number of directly-related successes, including a reduction in the release of toxic substances and a significant decline in the number of invasive species introduced by ballast water.

Amended in 2012 for the third time, the Agreement is now revamped to take on today’s threats to water quality and quantity. Asian carp are aggressively making their way up the Mississippi River into the Chicago Area Water Ways. Lake levels have reached an all-time low in Lakes Huron and Michigan. And some issues of the past still linger. While we have successfully addressed point source pollution, that was arguably the easier task. Lake Erie had its worst harmful algal bloom in history in 2011 due in large part to non-point sources. The complex pollution issues of today involve increasingly intense rainfall events and the presence of the invasive zebra mussel which exacerbates the impact of phosphorus loads from non-point sources like agricultural runoff.

The 2012 Agreement builds on 40 years of binational success, and establishes new commitments to address today’s threats and yesterday’s challenges that remain.

New and retained areas of focus (“Annexes”) to the 2012 Agreement are:

Retained Annexes New Annexes
Areas of Concern Climate Change Impacts
Discharges from Vessels Aquatic Invasive Species
Lakewide Management Habitat and (Native) Species
Chemicals of Mutual Concern Science
Nutrients Groundwater





On January 23, 2013, the Great Lakes Century team attended a seminar hosted by the Alliance for the Great Lakes, the Canadian Consulate General in Chicago, and the International Joint Commission to discuss the collaborative and inclusive way forward in implementing the revised Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

There was an excitement and, at the same time, anxiety in the room for the mammoth task that lies ahead in implementation. People expressed concern about maintaining the momentum for implementation after so much energy went into drafting the Agreement over many years. Federal funding from both sides of the border has been committed for 2013, but year-to-year the funding may be unreliable or insufficient. The goals are ambitious and commendable, but the true strength of this Agreement will only be realized in the bold leadership from both nations.

The 2012 Agreement is born in an era where public engagement and transparency are paramount for holding leadership accountable. The International Joint Commission, established under the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty, has and continues to play an important role in enforcing the Agreement. Dareth Glance and Lana Pollack of the Commission spoke about their revitalized commitment to broaden the dialogue and to deliver more science and information to the public in a clear, transparent way. 

When it comes to actual implementation, the Agreement calls for the establishment of a Great Lakes Executive Committee to coordinate, implement, review, and report on programs, practices, and measures undertaken to achieve the purpose of this Agreement. Co-Chairs for the committee are represented by regional heads of Environment Canada and the U.S. EPA, while their staff makes up much of the member roster.

Dr. Susan Hedman, U.S. EPA – Region 5 Director, and Michael Goffin, Environment Canada – Ontario Regional Director General, described their key priorities for 2013/2014 as being, directly in line with the annexes of the Agreement:

  • Combat aquatic invasive species.
  • Clean up Areas of Concerns.
  • Improve quality of impaired watersheds, specifically Maumee River, OH; Lower Fox River, WI; and Saginaw River, MI.

 The annexes of biggest concern may also have the biggest impact and greatest lasting effect. Joel Brammeier of the Alliance for the Great Lakes identified the following as the most important issues facing the region. 

  • Chemicals and the bioaccumulation that is occurring due to thousands of unregulated sources.
  • Nutrients, the policy of voluntary regulation is not working.
  • Invasives destroying ecosystem and local economies.
  • Climate Change and the science that is needed to understand the short and long term impacts.

Rooted in this discussion about the modernization and strengthening of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, we’ve learned about the long list of threats that make vulnerable our water quality and quantity. We’ve learned how long it takes to successfully negotiate a new protocol for protection in the 21st Century. We’ve learned that the job of protecting this precious asset never ends and will require all of our energy for generations to come. But, the Lakes are also the life blood of this region they define our identity, provide economic opportunity, create resiliency, and are the source of our inspiration.

 This Agreement is the world’s best example of two countries coming together around the most valuable freshwater asset and peacefully protecting it. We must take a moment to reflect and celebrate this renewed commitment to the Great Lakes and then get back to work.


1 comment

1 Joel Brammeier, Alliance for the Great Lakes { 03.04.13 at 10:06 pm }

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP is thinking brightly about what it means to put the Great Lakes first in our part of the world over the next hundred years. I’m honored to know the Alliance is informing their vision!