The International Joint Commission -
What it is, How it Works

IJC Strategic Plan

Table of Contents

What it is, How it Works

Many rivers and some of the largest lakes in the world lie along, or flow across, the border between the United States and Canada. The International Joint Commission assists governments in finding solutions to problems in these waters.

The 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty established the Commission, which has six members. Three are appointed by the President of the United States, with the advice and approval of the Senate, and three are appointed by the Governor in Council of Canada, on the advice of the Prime Minister. The Commissioners must follow the Treaty as they try to prevent or resolve disputes. They must act impartially, in reviewing problems and deciding on issues, rather than representing the views of their respective governments.

The Commission has set up more that 20 boards, made up of experts from the United States and Canada, to help it carry out its responsibilities.

The Role of the International Joint Commission

Canada and the United States created the International Joint Commission because they recognized that each country is affected by the other's actions in lake and river systems along the border. The two countries cooperate to manage these waters wisely and to protect them for the benefit of today's citizens and future generations.

Respecting Competing Interests

These lakes and rivers are used for many purposes. Communities and industries may get fresh water from them, allow waste water to drain into them, or use hydroelectric power generated by the flow of rivers. Farms may use these waters for irrigation. Recreational boats and commercial ships also travel through the inland waters.

These differing needs conflict from time to time. In some cases the International Joint Commission plays the role of authorizing uses while protecting competing interests in accordance with rules set out by the two governments in the Treaty. For example, the Commission may be called upon to approve applications for dams or canals in these waters. If it approves a project, the Commission can set conditions limiting water levels and flows, for example to protect shore properties and wetlands and the interests of farmers, shippers and others. After the structure is built, the Commission may continue to play a role in how it is operated.

Investigating Water Pollution

When asked by governments, the International Joint Commission investigates pollution problems in lakes and rivers along the Canada-United States border. When communities or industries pollute these waters, both countries may suffer. The governments of the United States and Canada can also ask the Commission to monitor situations and to recommend actions.

Investigating Air Pollution

The United States and Canadian governments have asked the Commission to bring to their attention, or to investigate, air pollution problems in boundary regions. Air pollution can travel thousands of miles and settle on land or in water far away from the source of the pollution. When air pollutants fall on rivers or lakes they can affect the quality of the water.

In 1991, the two governments signed the Canada-United States Air Quality Agreement and set up an Air Quality Committee to report every two years on progress. The International Joint Commission has been asked to invite comments on the Committee's reports from individuals and groups and to prepare summaries of the views expressed.

You Can Be a Part of This Process

The Commission holds public meetings every two years to discuss progress in cleaning up the Great Lakes. It also sponsors conferences, meetings and round table discussions where members of the public and representatives of community groups and other organizations can take part.

You can also have a say in how the rivers and lakes along the Canada-U.S. border are used. Whenever the Commission is asked to approve a dam or other structure in a river or a lake, it asks for views from the public. Commission Boards that monitor the operation of these structures hold regular public meetings. The International Joint Commission is looking for new ways to work with other levels of government and with individuals, research organizations, environmental organizations, unions and the business sector.

The Commission Can Be a Source of Information For You

The International Joint Commission publishes reports and studies on the progress made and the challenges that remain in restoring and protecting our boundary waters. Its newsletter, Focus on International Joint Commission Activities, is published three times a year. Commission publications are free.

The Largest Fresh Water System on Earth:
The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River System

The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River system contains one-fifth of the world's surface fresh water. The system is an important part of the geography, the economy and the lifestyles of residents in eight states - Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, and two provinces - Ontario and Quebec.

Water Quality in the Great Lakes

Much of the work of the International Joint Commission consists in assisting governments achieve their goal of cleaning up the Great Lakes and preventing further pollution in the system.

In 1972 Canada and the United States signed the first Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The two countries agreed to work to control pollution in these waters and to clean up waste waters from industries and communities. In 1978, they signed a new agreement, in which they added a commitment to work together to rid the Great Lakes of "persistent toxic substances." These substances remain in the environment for a long time and can poison food sources for animals and people. In 1987 the governments signed a Protocol promising to report on progress and calling on the Commission to review "Remedial Action Plans" in what are described as 43 "Areas of Concern." The Plans are prepared by governments and communities and contain strategies to clean up problem areas and promote sustainable development in the Great Lakes region. The Protocol also calls on the Commission to review "Lakewide Management Plans" that propose actions to improve the quality of the water in Lakes Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie and Ontario.

Water Levels in the Great Lakes

The Commission has also approved the construction of dams and hydroelectric power stations in the St. Marys and St. Lawrence rivers and set conditions for their operation. The structures affect water levels and flows upstream and downstream on both sides of the border. The International Joint Commission has also approved works in the Niagara River. At the request of the governments of Canada and the United States, the Commission studied and reported on the broader question of variations in water levels in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River system.

The International Joint Commission at Work

In addition to the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River system, the International Joint Commission assists governments in managing other waters along the border.

The Commission has continuing responsibilities in several areas. In the west, the Commission has established conditions for dams on the Kootenay, Osoyoos and Columbia rivers, which cross through the states of Washington, Idaho and Montana, and the province of British Columbia. The Commission has also helped to set rules for sharing the St. Mary and Milk rivers in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Montana.

In the midwest the Commission has been involved in how the Souris River is shared among Saskatchewan, Manitoba and North Dakota. It also sets emergency water levels for the Rainy Lake system, which crosses through Minnesota, Manitoba and western Ontario, and has helped protect water quality in the Rainy River.

In the east, the Commission plays a role in regulating dams on the St. Croix River, which flows through New Brunswick and Maine, and in protecting the quality of the river.

The "Ecosystem" Approach

The citizens of Canada and the United States recognize that they must consider the effects of their actions on the environment and work together to restore and protect its health. Every part of the ecosystem - the air and land, the lakes, rivers and streams, plant life, wildlife and humans - depend on the other parts for its own health. No single group or organization in our society can restore health and balance to the ecosystem, so all must work together to find solutions to problems and to protect the ecosystems in which we live.

Working for Sustainable Development

The United States and Canada share the goal of eliminating pollution while promoting economic prosperity. Many governments, organizations and individuals need to work together to make sure that rivers and lakes are used wisely and to repair the damage that has occurred.

International Joint Commission Offices

United States Section Canadian Section
1250 23rd Street, NW
Suite 100
Washington, D.C. 20440
Tel.: (202) 736-9000
Fax : (202) 735-9015
Contact: Frank Bevacqua
234 Laurier Ave. West
22th Floor
Ottawa, ON K1P 6K6
Tel.: (613) 995-2984
Fax : (613) 993-5583
Contact: Fabien Lengellé

Great Lakes Regional Office

The International Joint Commission administers the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement through its Great Lakes Regional Office. Its address is:
100 Ouellette Avenue
8th Floor
Windsor, ON N9A 6T3
Tel.: (519) 257-6733
Fax : (519) 257-6740
Contact: Jennifer Day

P.O. Box 32869
Detroit, MI 48232
Tel.: (313) 226-2170 ext. 6733