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.


Society must change its attitudes and perspective. Achieving the future and the objectives of the Agreement require leading rather than being led by change. Society must actively engage in transition and also recognize and build upon the social and economic advantages of ecosystem restoration and protection. To do so will require communication of information, active public participation and a change in governance.

Communication and Public Participation

Public support is crucial to restore and protect the environment. Active public involvement has had significant consequences for the environment. Direct public participation drives the development of regulations, conduct of cleanup actions, implementation of preventive measures and changes in societal attitudes. An informed and knowledgeable citizenry exerts a powerful influence on policy and decision-makers and allows the public to participate in policy development.

The strength and interest of the public are reflected in requests for increasingly detailed and relevant information and in the nature and extent of their response to, and use of, that information.

The public's right and ability to participate in governmental processes and environmental decisions that affect it must be sustained and nurtured.

The Commission urges governments to continue to effectively communicate information that the public needs and has come to expect, and to provide opportunities to be held publicly accountable for their work under the Agreement. The Commission also encourages incorporation of environmental and sustainable development perspectives into education curricula, enhanced opportunities for active student involvement in environmental issues, and promotion of other opportunities to reach people.


Change is inevitable. Our understanding of Great Lakes issues continues to evolve; the concept of governance continues to change. So must institutional structures and society's way of thinking. To ensure that the product of change is what society desires and seeks, people must fully participate in the transition process.

In the context of toxic chemicals, the Commission views transition as a deliberate process through which society moves to a state where such chemicals are no longer produced or used. The objective is not to reduce pollution per se, but to eliminate the production and use of products that contribute to environmental degradation, while at the same time protecting employment and earning capacity. The Commission views transition as an orderly process that allows society to move toward sustainable development, with a particular emphasis on persistent toxic substances, concurrent with environmental restoration and protection.

To not address transition now could translate into greater long-term environmental costs and health consequences in the future.

The Commission recommends the following:

  1. Governments structure a transition study and develop a transition model by December 31, 1999, for one of the chemicals presently under investigation through the Great Lakes Binational Toxics Strategy.

Social and Economic Value of Ecosystem Restoration and Pollution Prevention

The time and resources expended in achieving the substantially improved ecosystem that society enjoys today are massive. Considerable expenditures are required to deal with persistent toxic substances that remain in the ecosystem, especially in sediment and groundwater, and with continuing sources and uses of these substances. What is society's motivation to forge ahead?

There are social and economic benefits to ecosystem restoration and pollution prevention. A sustainable society should value the natural environment and human well-being more than high consumption of goods. Consider, for example,

Many costs and benefits are not economic and do not lend themselves to quantification. Any action that society takes -- or chooses not to take -- to restore and protect the ecosystem has associated monetary and social costs.

Policies that bring persistent toxic substances to the lakes will continue because the practices are perceived as economically worthwhile. Ecological economics is one approach that includes costs such as environmental degradation and natural resource depletion associated with producing, consuming and disposing of goods and services.

The Commission recommends the following:

  1. Governments commission a study to evaluate the practical value of utilizing the ecological economics approach.

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