The Canada-United States Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement provides a foundation for our two nations "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, referred to as the Parties, 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 and to reduce to the maximum extent practicable the discharge of pollutants into the Great Lakes System." The federal governments report progress through the biennial State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conferences (SOLEC) and biennial reports on programs and policy. Through its biennial reports to federal, state and provincial governments,1 the International Joint Commission, using data and information provided by governments and others, assesses the adequacy and effectiveness of programs and progress to restore and maintain the health of the Great Lakes.

An agreement has been in place for over 26 years. The Commission believes that the present Agreement is sound, effective and flexible. Review and renegotiation are not necessary. Rather, the Parties need to renew and fulfill their commitments and focus on implementation, enforcement and other actions, including review of institutional arrangements, to achieve the Agreement's purpose.

Biennial Reports -- A Tradition and a Requirement

This biennial report is the ninth submitted to governments under the 1978 Agreement. The Commission's previous reports have stressed the need for the Parties to establish deadlines and timetables and to fulfill their obligations and responsibilities under the Agreement. The Commission has tracked and reported on the Parties' response to degraded Great Lakes conditions and their initiatives to restore and protect them. The Commission has provided advice about contaminant sources and pathways, with particular emphasis on municipal and industrial point sources, land runoff, contaminated sediment and atmospheric pollution. The Commission has strongly advocated support for science and research to underpin the programs developed and the actions taken.

The Commission has provided advice on appropriate institutional arrangements and has pointed out the advantages of an ecosystem approach. For more than a decade, the Commission has stressed the need to focus on geographic Areas of Concern and the advantages of doing so, and has provided advice about Remedial Action Plans as a framework to deal with contaminants from a multimedia, multi-jurisdictional and multi-stakeholder perspective.

Since the Commission's Fifth Biennial Report, in 1990, the predominant focus of concern and advice has been toxic and persistent toxic substances, drawing upon the increasing body of evidence of injury to human and ecosystem health. The Commission has encouraged further research to identify the responsible substances, strengthen understanding of the nature and extent of the injury and establish its implications for society.

The Commission identified the need for the Parties to develop a binational strategy to virtually eliminate inputs of persistent toxic substances. The Commission provided detailed advice about the elements of such a strategy and even developed a framework strategy. Among the principles advocated to guide the strategy are the involvement of all stakeholders; anticipation and prevention; precaution; reverse onus; application to all sources and pathways; and consideration of all places where contaminants reside in the ecosystem, including water, land, sediment, air and biota.

The Commission has heard and conveyed the public's support for the Agreement, as well as people's increasing concern about gaps in its implementation, the lack of progress and demands for government action.

Previous Recommendations

To accompany its evaluation and advice on these and other issues related to Great Lakes water and ecosystem quality, the Commission has sent governments 155 recommendations over a span of 16 years. The Parties have, in turn, provided official responses to each of the Commission's biennial reports.

The Parties have accepted the majority of the Commission's recommendations, and much of its advice has been incorporated into existing or planned programs, including the principles necessary to achieve virtual elimination of pollution. The responses, however, have generally not cited particular programs or actions undertaken by the Parties. This lack of specificity makes it difficult for the Commission -- and the public -- to track and evaluate progress from a program and policy perspective and to conclude whether the Parties have met their commitments. Only a small number of the Commission's recommendations have resulted in specific follow-through by the Parties. Two examples are the Binational Program to Restore and Protect the Lake Superior Basin, adopted in 1990, and The Great Lakes Binational Toxics Strategy, signed on April 7, 1997.

The Commission's 1992 recommendation that "the Parties, in consultation with industry and other affected interests, develop timetables to sunset the use of chlorine and chlorine-containing compounds as industrial feedstocks and that the means of reducing or eliminating other uses be examined," resulted in some controversy. The public in the basin saw it as an inspiration and tended to agree with it. On the other hand, neither federal government supported the recommendation, and industry rejected it outright. This recommendation was not well understood and often misconstrued, particularly by industry. Nevertheless, the recommendation yielded positive results. It stimulated governments to review the use of chlorine in society and helped lay the ground for virtually eliminating the use of elemental chlorine by the pulp and paper industry.2

Many objective observers and the Commission itself have commended the tremendous progress made under the Agreement, evidenced by the fact that the Great Lakes and their biota are cleaner now than they have been over the last 50 years. In spite of such obvious progress, much of which was achieved in the early years of the Agreement, the advice and comments received from the public, labour, native Americans and First Nations, and industry during the last two years, have been remarkably similar to those received since 1982. Their concern is not so much with progress to date but, rather, that implementation of programs to achieve further environmental improvement has not been fast enough and that society still has a long way to go to complete the journey and achieve the purpose of the Agreement.

Why a Ninth Biennial Report?

In light of this situation, the Commission has judged it appropriate, in the preparation of this Ninth Biennial Report, to reflect on the past in order to see how better to move toward the future. It has done an introspective search by asking whether

  • there is a purpose for the biennial reports;
  • to make another set of recommendations if all the previous ones have not been implemented;
  • society is embarked on such a difficult task that whatever progress has been achieved is overshadowed by both the magnitude of the steps already taken and the immensity of the work still ahead;
  • the federal, state and provincial governments have become less assertive in pursuing environmental policies, and have forgotten their responsibility to protect the citizens they represent;
  • the players around the basin have become entrenched with their adopted positions to the extent that real dialogue and changes in attitude needed for further action are not possible;
  • some institutions have strayed or failed to adapt to changing circumstances;
  • the mood around the basin has changed since 1972 to the extent that those who are still genuinely interested in further progress are but a minority; and
  • it has become more difficult to motivate people because issues are more subtle and less obvious.

The Commission believes that there are clear answers to these fundamental considerations. Some are encouraging. Others are not. Society needs to face them all.

The Commission is writing this report in the disquieting context of societies all over the world being confronted with two seemingly contradictory challenges. On one hand, some believe that social goals should be concerned with adjusting economies to cope with the requirements of world trade and global competitive markets. Conversely, many now realize that the survival of our societies is more than ever threatened by the impacts of expanding and competing economies, namely global dispersion of toxic chemicals, climate change, and decline in biodiversity -- including the diversity of agricultural products that sustain us all. All these issues are relevant because the Commission believes, and has been told, that the solutions to the problems of the Great Lakes cannot be found without considering actions on a global scale.

Unfortunately, the global picture is overwhelming for the majority of citizens, and has led to some sense of hopelessness or disengagement. This trend needs to be reversed, and that can be achieved by showing that further progress can be made. But further progress can be made only if action is dedicated, collective and focused.

In this ninth formal assessment of progress, and in the wake of the 25th anniversary of the Agreement, the Commission has chosen to look back at the Agreement as originally written. It was a commitment "to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem." From a concern about phosphorus in 1972, the focus shifted to a concern about toxic substances in 1978. The first issue has largely been solved. The second has not -- this is the continuing clear message from the Commission's consultation process. The Ninth Biennial Report addresses this issue. It includes 19 targeted recommendations to the Parties which, when implemented, will allow the Commission to assess achievement of the purpose of the Agreement. The Commission also suggests ways in which other members of the Great Lakes community can contribute.

The Issue -- Toxic and Persistent Toxic Substances

Persistent toxic substances are responsible for injury in living organisms. In its 1985 report, the Commission's Great Lakes Water Quality Board "institutionalized" a list of 11 Critical Pollutants.3 These pollutants are the basis for other lists developed nationally and internationally, including, for example, by the United Nations' persistent organic pollutant program. Despite years of effort to stop inputs, clean up contamination and eliminate the use of chemicals that have long been known to cause injury, all remain widespread in the ecosystem and many continue to be used. Through its consultation process, the Commission has heard the question, "Why are we unable to effectively deal with these persistent toxic substances?"

The question becomes more critical as evidence continues to build regarding subtle, insidious effects of these and other chemicals on key body processes, including the endocrine system. Moreover, society now realizes that not only fish and wildlife are affected, but humans as well. The Great Lakes community also knows that the solution to this problem lies partly within and partly outside the boundaries of the basin. The Commission must continue to press its attack. The issue of toxic and persistent toxic substances and the concepts of zero discharge and virtual elimination of inputs are not only essential to the purpose of the Agreement, but provide the necessary focus to rally all stakeholders around a common goal. They also provide a standard against which to objectively measure progress, that is, whether or not society can move from the present situation of a legacy of toxic and persistent toxic substances in water, sediment, fauna and humans, to the clean environment in which we all want to live. The challenge is how. The advice in this report is designed to help show the way.

Commission Consultation -- Other Issues and Background Reports

To develop its advice to governments, the Commission significantly expanded its consultation process in 1996-1997, to more effectively reach out to basin stakeholders and secure advice about achieving the Agreement's goals. The Commission continued to rely on its Water Quality Board, Science Advisory Board, International Air Quality Advisory Board and Council of Great Lakes Research Managers, as well as various task forces. These groups work on Commission priorities and alert the Commission to emerging issues. In addition, the Commission actively sought advice and perspective through public meetings, workshops on specific Great Lakes issues, focused discussion with various Great Lakes community sectors and written advice solicited from knowledgeable members of the Great Lakes community. The consultation process culminated in the Commission's Agreement Public Forum, held in Niagara Falls, Ontario, on November 1­2, 1997. Through this process, a number of other issues have been brought to the Commission's attention and numerous supporting reports prepared.

  • Appendix A lists the Commission's consultation activities for 1995­97, leading up to the Ninth Biennial Report.
  • Appendix B lists supporting reports that have been developed through the consultation process since the Commission's previous biennial report. These provide details in support of the advice contained in the current report. Many are available on the Commission's Web site The Commission encourages the use of the reports by those interested in formulating their own assessment and evaluation of programs and progress under the Agreement.
  • Appendix C lists other issues and concerns brought to the Commission's attention by Great Lakes citizens and by the boards. The list includes questions of land use, biological contamination, and nutrient over-enrichment -- stresses which must be alleviated if the Agreement's purpose is to be achieved. Some of these are exclusively within the Commission's mandate under the Agreement and others are of joint interest to the Commission and other Great Lakes institutions. Still other issues were raised because the Commission provides a convenient forum and because there may not be another one available. All are important. The Commission is considering how to effectively convey these issues and concerns to the appropriate authorities within governments at all levels.