INTERNATIONAL WATERSHEDS AND THE INTERNATIONAL JOINT COMMISSION

Address July 10, 2000 by L. H. Legault, Chairman, Canadian Section, International Joint Commission at WATERSHED 2000 Conference, July 9-12, 2000, Water Environment Federation, Vancouver, B.C.


I have been asked to speak today about the role of watershed management in international efforts to protect the water environment and about the role of the International Joint Commission's own efforts in this field.

First, a bit about the Commission itself. It was established under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 and is composed of six Commissioners, three from each country. In Canada Commissioners are appointed by the Governor in Council, and in the United States by the President. The Commission is not an arm of government but an independent body. Commissioners do not represent, take instructions from, or report to the government that appointed them.

Although the Commission is made up of two sections - - one Canadian and one U.S. - - it acts as a single, unitary body that is intended to work collegially in the common interest of both countries. Its fundamental mandate is to prevent and resolve transboundary disputes between Canada and the United States relative to water or the environment.

The establishment of the Commission almost 90 years ago provided both an early opportunity and institutional arrangements for international cooperation in the management of transboundary watersheds. It gave Canada and the United States a flexible set of mechanisms to deal with important aspects of their relationship in shared watersheds. And it also gave them the assurance that this relationship would be based on the shared system of principles and values recognized in the Boundary Waters Treaty.

Over the years, many issues arising in Canada-U.S. transboundary watersheds have been addressed with the assistance of binational IJC boards of experts. The Commission usually sets up temporary boards or task forces to help it assess applications for construction projects in boundary waters and transboundary rivers that affect levels or flows and thus require the Commission's approval. Temporary boards are also established to conduct investigations into transboundary issues that are referred to the Commission by the governments for examination and advice.

Permanent boards are often established to help the Commission to oversee the implementation of the Commission's orders of approval for construction projects. In other cases, they maintain on-going surveillance under references concerning environmental issues or water apportionment.

While boards may serve very different purposes, they share a number of common characteristics that are designed to enhance the Commission's capacity to prevent and resolve disputes and enhance cooperation in transboundary watersheds.

First, the Commission's boards are composed of an equal number of members from Canada and the United States, and are normally expected to act on the basis of consensus so as to ensure that interests in both countries receive equal consideration.

Second, board members are appointed by the Commission to serve it in their personal and professional capacities and not as representatives of their employers or governments.

Third, boards are normally expected to undertake binational joint fact-finding as a means of developing a common basis for the discussion and resolution of issues.

Fourth, board members have traditionally been drawn primarily from federal, provincial and state governments, and are expected to make the resources of their agencies available to address issues on the board's agenda. Permanent boards, in particular, are seen as mechanisms for building capacity at the local level.

Fifth, and finally, the Commission requires its boards to consult the public to ensure that all interests are taken into account.

The Commission has been served by more than twenty permanent boards over the years. They fall into four general categories: boards of control, pollution advisory boards, apportionment boards, and the boards established by the federal governments under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

At the present time, the Commission has nine permanent boards of control which supervise the day-to-day implementation of Commission orders of approval for the construction and operation of dams, hydro-electric power stations and other structures on the Columbia River, Kootenay Lake, Osoyoos Lake, Lake of the Woods, Rainy Lake, Lake Superior, the Niagara River, the St. Lawrence River, and the St. Croix River. Many of these boards perform the difficult and thankless task of reconciling important competing interests within the requirements of the Commission's order. They have thus prevented these issues from escalating into serious disputes between the two countries.

Other permanent boards monitor and make recommendations on pollution issues on the Red River, the Rainy River and the St. Croix River. Still others oversee the apportionment of the Souris River and make recommendations with respect to the apportionment and use of water in the Souris and Red River basins.

None of the permanent boards I have just described have a management function as such. Obviously, however, their decisions on water quantity issues and their recommendations on water quality issues do affect the management of the waters concerned in significant ways.

The Commission was given major new watershed responsibilities with the conclusion of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972, as revised in 1978 and amended in 1987. The agreement itself was the product of a study and recommendations by the Commission in a report issued in 1970. The purpose of the agreement is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Great Lakes basin ecosystem. The Commission has been tasked with the role of ensuring the attainment of this purpose and the assisting in implementation of the agreement.

In carrying out this role, the Commission has the help of the Great Lakes Water Quality Board and the Great Lakes Science Advisory Board. The Water Quality Board is the Commission's principal adviser in relation to the agreement. It is composed of an equal number of members from Canada and the United States, including representatives from the federal governments and from each of the Great Lakes state and provincial governments.

A central contribution of the Commission to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was the development of the ecosystem approach incorporated in the agreement. Generically, this approach means that environmental management in a watershed must take account of the entire ecosystem of that watershed - that is, the interacting components of air, land, water and living organisms, including humans.

The Commission has learned that it is no longer tenable - if indeed it ever was - to address individual problems or even two-dimensional trade-offs in isolation from other aspects of the surrounding environment and socio-economic system. The Commission therefore encourages environmental management approaches that integrate various disciplines and responsibilities across jurisdictional and other boundaries.

Against this background of experience and accomplishment, and in response to a request from the Canadian and U.S. governments, the Commission in 1997 prepared and released a report on the environmental challenges of the 21st century. In that report, the Commission concluded that major forces such as population growth and climate change will have a major impact on water supply and demand in Canada and the United States in the 2000's. Thus, the quantity and quality of resources will become critical issues and will increase the likelihood of disputes between the two countries in their shared transboundary watersheds.

For these reasons, the Commission recommended the establishment of a network of international watershed boards that would build on the experience of some 90 years and assist governments in taking a more integrated, ecosystemic approach to environmental management in transboundary watersheds, in dealing with new complexities, and in heading off emerging differences.

The proposed new boards would focus on the overall environmental integrity of each watershed - water, land and air - and monitor and report on all relevant concerns, including questions of habitat, biodiversity, exotic species and pollution from all sources. Their functions would be purely advisory and would not include a management role. Their membership would be drawn from federal, provincial, state and municipal authorities. Provision would also be made for public participation. Every board would be fashioned to respond to the particular local circumstances of the region concerned and to respect jurisdictional limits while encouraging coordination and cooperation across them.

Over the past two years, the Commission has held consultations with the federal governments and with state and provincial governments, with a view to proceeding with the initial establishment of watershed boards in one or two transboundary regions. The results so far have been mixed.

On the one hand, the federal governments have approved the Commission's proposal in principle and authorized it to explore and make recommendations on the establishment of a first watershed board. On the other hand, provincial and state government reactions have ranged from cautiously interested to partially or entirely negative.

The Commission is continuing to pursue this initiative. Meanwhile, it is taking steps to ensure that water levels and flows, water quality, and ecosystem health are considered together in the work of the Commission's existing boards and in the advice the Commission tenders to governments.

Thus, the Commission has begun the process of merging its existing control boards and pollution advisory boards in the St. Croix River, Rainy River, Red River and Souris River basins to take an integrated watershed approach to reporting on matters with transboundary implications. The responsibilities of the Commission's International Souris-Red Rivers Engineering Board have now been combined with those of the Red River Pollution Board in a new International Red River Board. This board will provide a continuing forum for discussion of existing and emerging issues relevant to the transboundary ecosystem , including water quality, ecosystem health, and water development and management activities that may affect shared water resources. Similar arrangements are under way in other basins.

These arrangements are a step in the direction of the integrated, ecosystemic watershed management approach that the Commission put to governments in its 21st century report. In the Commission's view, the need for that approach will become still more evident in the coming years. Putting it into practice, however, will be an evolutionary process that will have to meet a number of concerns.

Provincial and state governments, in particular, will have to be convinced that watershed arrangements do not impinge upon their authority and responsibilities. They will resist structures that even appear to impose management from outside their basins. Governments and stakeholders alike will only support new structures that add value to existing structures. Funding for the proposed arrangements will also have to be found.

The Commission believes that these conditions can be satisfied. Local communities and government agencies on both sides of the border already recognize the need to consult and cooperate to protect the integrity of their shared watersheds. The challenge now is to develop the necessary structures for doing so.

Such structures will have to ensure that watershed management continues to rest in local hands and reflects local concerns. They will also need to recognize that watershed issues often engage broader concerns and national - as well as binational - responsibilities.

Let me conclude by stating in all modesty that the International Joint Commission has been in the transnational watershed business for a long time. It is uniquely placed to provide the structures that would help all levels of government to meet the growing challenges of environmental management in the watersheds shared by Canada and the United States. Its permanence, equality of membership, independence and impartiality, and binational but unitary nature have served both countries well in the past. So have its traditions of consensus-building, joint fact-finding, public participation, and engagement of local governments. These features can also serve both countries well in the future.