International Joint Commission
Ninth Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality


July 1998


In the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the governments of the United States and Canada agreed "to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem." Under the terms of the Agreement, the two federal governments agreed "to make a maximum effort to develop programs, practices and technology necessary for a better understanding of the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem and to eliminate or reduce to the maximum extent practicable the discharge of pollutants into the Great Lakes System."

The International Joint Commission (IJC) is directed to make a full assessment of the progress toward achieving the objectives of the Agreement every two years. The Ninth Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality is the Commission's most recent assessment of progress.

The Ninth Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality

In July 1998, The International Joint Commission released its Ninth Biennial Report. The goal of the report is to rejuvenate action on the part of governments and bring solutions and resolution to on-going problems and issues affecting the Great Lakes.

In addition to making 19 recommendations that present a number of specific targets and deadlines to help achieve the Agreement's purpose, the report discusses several important issues that must be recognized.

This information sheet is one of seven that highlight important issues discussed in the report.


Great Lakes governance is in the midst of a profound and continuing evolution characterized by a shift from an exclusive command-and-control emphasis to voluntary measures, and a move from top-down management to environmental partnerships.

Legislation, Regulations and Programs

The General Accounting Office, Resources for the Future and the World Resources Institute have identified obstacles that put into question the sustainability of the current regulatory approach and philosophy.

Deregulation, devolution and Downsizing -- "3 D"

Through the Agreement, the two federal governments committed themselves to restore and maintain Great Lakes water quality. The fiscal realities of the 1990s, however, are driving governments to reduce expenditures and debt load, affecting their approach to environmental restoration and protection. The Commission expresses concern about deregulation, devolution and downsizing.

The ability of governments at all levels to deliver is being stressed, and programs to restore and protect the Great Lakes have drastically slowed or halted, especially initiatives for Areas of Concern and those directed toward persistent toxic substances, whose effects are far less visible than water clarity and beach aesthetics. The Commission wonders whether the regulatory framework has been compromised and the research infrastructure placed at undue risk.

The "3 D" approach transfers environmental stewardship to those closer to local issues but without transferring the accountability. Furthermore, local authorities are not parties to the Agreement and therefore bear no obligation to fulfill its purpose. Moreover, the resource pie to be shared is smaller, adversely affecting the ability to monitor and clean up.

The consequence has been described as a lack of leadership and vision, characterized by a lack of commitment and political will to protect the environment on the part of higher levels of government and the regulatory agencies. There is a clear detachment between environmental priorities and those of an economic, social and political nature.

The Commission believes that a strong legislative framework is in place in both countries to protect human and environmental health, a framework that strongly motivates environmental management programs in the business community and provides a level playing field. The challenge is to ensure that programs which control and eliminate contaminant inputs will continue, along with the science needed to characterize problems and develop solutions and a rationalized surveillance and monitoring scheme to track progress. Laws and accompanying regulations, policies, programs and enforcement must not be compromised for the sake of fiscal austerity. Long-term capital investment, the infrastructure and the goals of environmental restoration and protection must not be sacrificed for short-term gains.

Governments must continue to provide leadership and demonstrate flexibility.

Voluntary Measures and Partnerships

Voluntary measures and partnerships provide opportunities for governments to move away from bureaucratic command-and-control management and for participants to work together co-operatively. Voluntary measures complement the more traditional enforcement and offer opportunities for voluntary action above and beyond regulatory requirements, improve cost effectiveness and provide flexibility to explore innovative solutions. They are also the proving ground for the development of approaches that, if successful, can then be applied more broadly and, when appropriate, with the backing of regulation and enforcement.

Notable successes have been achieved, but these programs have not realized their full potential. Nonetheless, the Commission fully supports voluntary measures and partnerships that complement necessary measures, such as water quality standards, and urges development of means and incentives to encourage and adopt cost-effective change while maintaining desirable aspects of the existing regulatory framework.

Scheduled Review of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement has been renegotiated twice in the past 26 years to include current issues such persistent toxic substances. It is scheduled to be reviewed again this year. The Commission firmly believes that the present Agreement is sound, effective and flexible. Review and renegotiation are not necessary. Rather, the governments need to renew and fulfill their commitments and focus on implementation, enforcement and other actions to achieve the Agreement's purpose.

The International Joint Commission (IJC)

IJC was established through the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty of the United States and Canada. The Treaty recognizes that each country may be affected by the others actions in the lake and river systems along their common border; its purpose is to prevent and resolve disputes concerning these boundary waters.

In 1972, the governments of the United States and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. This Agreement was superseded in 1978 by a new Agreement. Its purpose "is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem." IJC assesses the effectiveness of programs and progress pursuant to it.

For More Information

Additional information regarding IJC's Ninth Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality can be obtained by contacting an IJC office:

Canadian Section
Fabien Lengellé
100 Metcalfe St., 18th Floor
Ottawa, ON K1P 5M1
(613) 995-0088

United States Section
Frank Bevacqua
1250 23rd St. N.W., Suite 100
Washington, D.C. 20440
(202) 736-9024

Great Lakes Regional Office
Jennifer Day
In Canada -
100 Ouellette Ave., 8th Floor
Windsor, ON N9A 6T3
(519) 257-6734
In the U.S. -
P.O. Box 32869
Detroit, MI 48232
(313) 226-2170 Ext. 6734