International Joint Commission
Ninth Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality

CONTAMINANT SOURCES, PATHWAYS AND RESERVOIRS

July 1998

Overview

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.

CONTAMINANT SOURCES, PATHWAYS AND RESERVOIRS

To resolve the toxic and persistent toxic substances issue, society must address the substances already in the environment, particularly in sediment; their movement, especially through the air; and their use, such as in agriculture.

Contaminated Sediment

All 42 Areas of Concern (AOCs) are plagued with contaminated sediment, a major cause of environmental problems and a key factor in restoring 11 of the 14 beneficial use impairments identified in the Agreement. Because bioaccumulative contaminants can become incorporated into the food chain, contaminated sediments must be addressed before they are transported into the lakes proper where cleanup is virtually impossible.

Six major obstacles to sediment remediation are identified as:

The Commission recognizes the obstacles to and the opportunities for sediment remediation and recommends the following:

  1. Governments provide detailed work plans, schedules and benchmarks to complete sediment remediation projects in the eight Areas of Concern for which remediation decisions have been made but action is pending.
  2. Governments make sediment remediation and management decisions for the 31 Areas of Concern that remain under assessment, and provide detailed work plans, schedules and benchmarks to initiate and complete sediment remediation.

Air Pollution

More than 20 years ago, the Commission reported that the atmosphere is a significant pathway for contaminant input to the Great Lakes. Significant sources of contaminants to the air include municipal and medical incinerators, coal-fired electric power plants and cars, trucks and other transportation sources. Some contaminants are transported only short distances, but others are carried continent-wide or globally, moving the air pollution issue squarely onto the international stage.

Toxic and persistent toxic substances released into the air from industrial sources, incinerators and fossil fuel combustion, particularly from electric power generation and vehicles, continue to threaten human and ecosystem health. considerable effort is now being expended regionally, continentally and globally to reduce and eliminate contaminant emissions to the atmosphere.

The Commission draws attention to a number of exacerbating factors:

The Commission recommends the following:

  1. Governments accelerate development of integrated, binational programs, including common benchmarks and schedules, to reduce and eliminate specific sources of toxic and persistent toxic substances to the atmosphere, including sources outside the Great Lakes basin.
  2. Governments develop and communicate to the public, by December 31, 2000, a comprehensive strategy for altering established energy production and use patterns to achieve reductions in mercury and nitrogen oxide emissions.

Agricultural Practices

Agricultural land use accounts for 35 per cent of the land area of the Great Lakes basin and dominates the southern portion of the basin. Agricultural lands serve as a major source of sediment and nutrients to the lakes. Agriculture is a major user of pesticides. The more persistent herbicides currently in use are present in the surface and ground waters of the basin.

More widespread application of innovative measures could reduce herbicide loadings by more than 50 per cent. While practices such as conservation tillage have been widely accepted, others that are more capital-intensive are considered and adopted much more slowly.

To protect agricultural watersheds and Great Lakes water quality, the Commission recommends the following:

  1. Governments adopt the following agricultural and land-use goals and targets:
    • to place at least 55 per cent of the Great Lakes row-crop acreage into conservation tillage by 2002;
    • to increase buffer-strip mileage in the Great Lakes basin by at least 30 per cent by 2000; and
    • to reduce herbicide loads to the Great Lakes by at least 30 per cent by 2005.

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
commission@ottawa.ijc.org

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

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
commission@windsor.ijc.org