The Great Lakes - There is Much Work to be Done

By Pierre Béland, Canadian Commissioner and Susan Bayh, U.S. Commissioner
International Joint Commission

The Great Lakes comprise the largest freshwater system in the world: twenty percent of the fresh water on this planet is found within the basin and the lakes provide drinking water for 25 million North Americans. In spite of their overwhelming size, the waters are sensitive to the effects of toxic pollution from air deposition and industrial, municipal and agricultural sources and the impact of many other stressors including land use patterns, increasing shoreline development, habitat modification, biological contamination and nutrient input.

Twenty six years ago, the governments of Canada and the United States had the foresight to sign the first Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in response to the visible effects of pollution throughout the basin. Renewed in 1978 and 1987, the Agreement has provided the basis for significant advancements in pollution prevention and control in both countries and has been updated to include issues such as persistent toxic substances. In its present form, the Agreement is sound, effective and flexible. Further review and renegotiation are not necessary. Rather, the governments need to renew and fulfill their commitments and focus on implementation, enforcement and other actions, including review of the institutional arrangements, to achieve the Agreement's purpose.

Progress in the Agreement's implementation includes many success stories and positive signs that the lakes are returning to better health. Because of its success, the Agreement serves as a model of international environmental cooperation around the world. This progress also reflects the past courage and willingness of the governments to deal with environmental problems of the Great Lakes. In the future, the United States and Canada cannot afford to retreat from their mutual commitments to protect their shared resource.

These accomplishments have taught us that a strong governmental presence -- federal, state and provincial -- is indispensable to achieve progress on environmental issues. The federal governments in the U.S. and Canada must lead the effort, but others, such as industry, environmental non-governmental organizations, Native Americans and First Nations, labor and the public, all have roles and responsibilities. The Great Lakes community as a whole is bound together by the common goal of restoring and protecting the Great Lakes. All stakeholders make positive contributions to solutions from their own perspective and by applying their unique talents and expertise. None has a monopoly on the answers. There is a fear that many have become too set in their respective roles to effectively tackle the arduous path that lies ahead. Governments at all levels and other stakeholders are encouraged to examine their approach to and role in governance of the Great Lakes with a view to incorporating changes necessary to restore and protect them.

Continued diligence to meet the Agreement's goals becomes even more crucial as the evidence of damage to fish, wildlife and humans from exposure to persistent toxic substances continues to mount. These substances, which last decades in the environment and move among living species up the food chain, have been shown to impact humans at various stages of development. Injury has occurred in the past, is occurring today and, unless society acts now to further reduce the concentration of persistent toxic substances in the environment, the injury will continue in the future.

The International Joint Commission, in its current report to the Governments of Canada and the United States, reaffirms its position that damage to human and ecosystem health from persistent toxic substances is sufficiently clear and demonstrates the need for Canada and the United States to fulfill their commitment in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement to virtually eliminate the inputs of persistent toxic substances into the ecosystem.

While the majority of past efforts have been aimed at controlling discharges of contaminants to the water, growing evidence supports the need for an increased focus on controlling sources of air pollution, both locally, within the basin, and from sources outside the basin that contribute contaminants by the atmospheric pathway. The atmosphere is a critical component of Great Lakes environmental strategies and the U.S. and Canadian governments need to accelerate development of integrated, binational programs, including common benchmarks and schedules, to reduce and eliminate source of specific toxic and persistent toxic substances to the atmosphere, including outside the Great Lakes basin and to develop a strategy for altering established energy production and use to achieve reductions in mercury and nitrogen oxide emissions.

The United States and Canada promised to restore and protect the Great lakes basin ecosystem through the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The progress made over the past quarter century has been too valuable, and has been acquired at too high a cost to governments, industries and countless dedicated individuals to be sacrificed to short-term economic or political needs. The long-term costs to our environment, our economy, human health and our society as a whole will vastly outweigh any short-term gains. We believe the goals and promises set out in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement are achievable if society has the will and if governments lead the way.

The International Joint Commission is a binational Canada-United States organization established by the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty to assist the governments in preventing disputes related to boundary waters along the U.S./Canadian border. The Commission monitors progress by both countries to achieve the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement's goals and objectives, and issues a report every two years.