International Joint Commission
Summer 2000
Volume 25, Issue 2

Great Lakes Decline for Third Year

Water levels on all Great Lakes, with the exception of Lake Ontario, have declined for the third year in a row. At present, lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie are well below their level of one year ago. On lakes Michigan and Huron, the last 24 months have brought the sharpest two-year drop in recorded history, which goes back to the 1860s. As we go to press in mid-May, Lake Superior has not been lower at this time of the year since 1926 and lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie have not been lower since the mid-1960s.

While water levels will be greatly affected by the amount of precipitation and evaporation in the system, continued low water levels can be expected in the Great Lakes, except for Lake Ontario, during the next several months.

Anglers and boaters are dismayed by Great Lakes
levels, down nearly one meter since 1997.
Credit: George Brooks

Currently, Lake Superior outflows are being set according to its regulation plan, which attempts to balance available water supplies among lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron. On Lake Ontario, outflows have been reduced below what its regulation plan calls for in order to store up to 10 centimeters (four inches) of water. This is to provide greater flexibility for managing Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River later in the season. Details on the strategy for managing Lake Ontario outflows can be found on the World Wide Web at: .

The regulation of Lake Superior and Lake Ontario outflows are the only two points where the International Joint Commission can influence water levels in the system, but this influence remains marginal in relation to the natural influences of precipitation, evaporation and flows.

Given the outlook for low water, it is by no means too early for those affected to consider what alternatives may be available. Some of the actions that might be considered include the following:

  • First and foremost, users of the system should inform themselves of current conditions before undertaking any activities that could be affected by low water. Mariners should possess navigation charts and refer to current water level gauge readings, which can be found on the Internet.
  • Boating facility operators who are considering dredging should start the process now rather than waiting until later in the season.
  • Municipalities should evaluate whether low water levels could cause problems with water supply at their intakes. They should also consider possible water contamination problems because diffusion of treated wastewater may be different at lower water levels.
  • Users of well water should consider whether alternative sources of water supply will be necessary because of possible impacts to ground water aquifers.
  • Local governments should carefully consider new requests for shoreline development. While water levels are currently low, higher levels will recur at some point in the future.

In fact, this may be the best time to prepare for higher levels by inspecting and repairing breakwalls, seawalls and other infrastructure that is normally under water.

IJC Seeks Better Reporting to Assess Progress on Great Lakes Water Quality

In a recent letter to the governments of the United States and Canada, the International Joint Commission (IJC) recommended that they begin using indicators to measure and report on progress for three desired outcomes under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement -- fish that are safe for eating and water that is safe for swimming and drinking.

The desired outcomes and their indicators were developed by the IJC's Indicators Implementation Task Force (IITF), whose final report was released in April. The IJC also urged governments to continue work on implementing the remaining six desired outcomes described in the report and to correct data accessibility problems so that subsequent reports could address the full slate of desired outcomes.

The IJC considers the indicators approach to be central to its ability to carry out its responsibilities under the Agreement. It is therefore essential that the governments make the necessary data and information pertinent to these indicators and measurements available to the IJC.

In 1996, the IJC adopted a framework for assessing progress under the Agreement based on the work of its Indicators for Evaluation Task Force. The framework, consisting of nine Desired Outcomes with specific indicators and measurements for each, was presented in the IJC's report, Indicators to Evaluate Progress under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement , and forwarded to governments in January 1997.

In 1997, the Commission established the IITF to examine and consider how these nine desired outcomes and their related ecosystem indicators could be implemented. Since good quality data is essential for this activity, an important part of the IITF's work was to assess the adequacy of existing data bases and information related to these indicators. The Task Force found that while more effort is needed to improve data collection and the quality of data, sufficient data exists to support the use of indicators, at least those associated with the three desired outcomes noted above.

The Indicators Implementation Task Force Final Report is available at or from an IJC office.

Report Identifies Economic Benefits of Cleaning Up Contaminated Sediment

Contamination of the sediments at the bottom of harbors and rivers is the major problem in the 42 Great Lakes Areas of Concern, and it is a large problem. Only limited progress has been achieved after $580 million has been spent on 38 sediment remediation projects over the last 13 years. Over 80 percent of all Areas of Concern have restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption, degradation of bottom-dwelling organisms and loss of fish and wildlife habitat due to potential links with contaminated sediment.

In recognition of the scope of the problem and the limited progress in addressing it, the International Joint Commission (IJC), in 1997, identified contaminated sediment as a program priority. The Sediment Priority Action Committee (SedPAC) was formed under the Great Lakes Water Quality Board from agency experts, as well as the IJC's own advisory board members, to carry out this work. SedPAC's final product is a recently released report on Identifying and Assessing the Economic Benefits of Contaminated Aquatic Sediment Cleanup .

Since the sediment problem is still under assessment and management decisions are still required in 31 of the Areas of Concern, it is hoped that the information in the report will facilitate decision making and generate greater awareness of the potential economic benefits associated with aquatic sediment cleanup. The specific objectives of the report are to:

  • identify the types of potential economic benefits that may result from aquatic sediment remediation;
  • assess the potential economic valuation tools;
  • highlight methodological challenges; and
  • identify areas for further action.

Identifying and Assessing the Economic Benefits of Contaminated Aquatic Sediment Cleanup and other reports from SedPAC are available on the Internet at . Limited numbers of hard copies are also available from IJC offices.

Susie Schreiber, Citizens Advisory Group chair, explains how
contaminated sediments from Waukegan Harbor (Illinois)
will be treated and contained during a a recent Water Quality
Board visit to this Area of Concern. Credit: Bruce Kirschner

Red River Update

The International Joint Commission (IJC) has released the final report of its International Red River Basin Task Force, which examines issues related to the flood of 1997 and actions required to better prepare for floods of a similar magnitude in the future. The report makes recommendations on flood management, communities at risk, preparedness and resiliency, data and decision support needs, and institutional mechanisms for better flood management. The Next Flood: Getting Prepared may be viewed or downloaded at the following website:

The IJC will prepare its final report to the Governments of the United States and Canada after considering public comment on the report of its Task Force received in writing and at public hearings held May 15-17, 2000. Watch for more details on the IJC's website or in future editions of Focus .

Community Health Assessment in Areas of Concern

In 1909, when the Boundary Waters Treaty was signed, it was agreed that the boundary waters would not be polluted on either side to the injury of health on the other side. However, by 1972, when the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was signed, there was concern that boundary water quality was impaired to an extent that was causing injury to health. The first requirement in preparing a Remedial Action Plan for Areas of Concern is to describe the environmental problem, which should include a definition of the threat to human health. The International Joint Commission asked the Science Advisory Board to host a Workshop on Community Health Assessment in Areas of Concern. On October 4 and 5, 2000 , workshop participants will examine health data and statistics of the incidence of disease conditions in Areas of Concern, with a special focus on Windsor, Ontario. Of interest are the diseases that might be caused by exposures to pollutants and particularly the effects that might be caused by endocrine disruptors and thereby influence the quality of people's lives. Estimates will be made of the societal costs of environmental disease and participants will discuss ethical aspects of the disparities in the incidence of environmental diseases in different subpopulations. Registration information will be available at closer to the workshop.


IJC welcomes the recent appointments
to its boards:

William Ayer
Manager, Environmental Quality Branch
New Brunswick Department of Environment
International Advisory Board on Pollution Control - St. Croix River
Jacques Lorquet
Director, Marine Aids
Canadian Coast Guard
International St. Lawrence River Board of Control
Dr. Deborah Swackhamer
Associate Professor, Environment and Occupational Health
School of Public Health , University of Minnesota
Great Lakes Science Advisory Board
Steve Clarkson
Director, Bureau of Chemical Hazards,
Health Canada
Council of Great Lakes Research Managers
James Mattison
Director, Water Management Branch
and Deputy Comptroller of Water Rights
British Columbia Ministry of Environment
International Kootenay Lake Board of Control
International Osoyoos Lake Board of Control
And we thank those who have finished their service:
Michael Sprague
New Brunswick Department of Environment
International Advisory Board on Pollution Control-St. Croix River
Peter L. Wise
Illinois Environmental Protection Agency
Great Lakes Water Quality Board
Dr. David Bates
Professor Emeritus, University of British Columbia
International Air Quality Advisory Board
Jean Murray
Canadian Coast Guard
International St. Lawrence River Board of Control
Prad Kharé
British Columbia Ministry of Environment
International Kootenay Lake Board of Control
International Osoyoos Lake Board of Control


Hot Off the Press

For the full text of IJC reports, click on the publications button at or go to the specific web site below. Limited numbers of hard copies are also available from the IJC at (519)257-6734 in Canada, (313)226-2170 ext. 6734 in the United States, and by email.

International Air Quality Advisory Board Progress Report 25 addresses emissions and ambient concentrations of common pollutants from stationary and mobile sources in Canada and the U.S. .

IJC Indicators Implementation Task Force Final Report 2000 examines the U.S. and Canadian government's progress to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes basin ecosystem.

The Next Flood: Getting Prepared . Final Report of the International Red River Basin Task Force to the International Joint Commission. .

IJC Lake Superior Stage 2 Lakewide Management Plan Review (LaMP) can be accessed on line at: .

Identifying and Assessing the Economic Benefits of Contaminated Sediment Cleanup . IJC Sediment Priority Action Committee report to the Great Lakes Water Quality Board. .

Two additional IJC 1999 Great Lakes Water Quality Forum Transcripts from the September 24-26 meeting held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin are now available on line: Municipal Caucus on Land Mangement -- A Tool to Protect the Great Lakes; and Great Lakes Fisheries Declines. Look for other transcripts in the future. .

What's Happening

Public meetings of the IJC and its boards:

June 27, 2000

Public meeting of the International Lake Superior Board of Control , Marquette, MI.


Stay in Contact

The IJC is interested in your views on any of our activities. You may contact us in the following ways:

  United States
  Great Lakes Regional Office

Contacts   Murray Clamen
Fabien Lengellé
Public Affairs
  Gerald Galloway
Frank Bevacqua
Public Affairs
  Tom Behlen
Jennifer Day
Public Affairs


Mail   234 Laurier Avenue West
22nd Floor
Ottawa, ON
K1P 6K6
  1250 23rd Street NW
Suite 100
Washington, DC 20440
  100 Ouellette Avenue, 8th Floor
Windsor, ON
N9A 6T3
P.O. Box 32869
Detroit, MI 48232-2869

Fax   613.993.5583   202.736-9015   519.257-6740

Telephone   613.995.2984   202.736.9000   519.257.6700

Home Page


  Thomas Baldini,
U.S. Section Chair

Alice Chamberlin

Susan Bayh

Leonard Legault,
Canadian Section Chair

Frank Murphy

Robert Gourd


The International Joint Commission prevents and resolves disputes between the United States of America and Canada under the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty and pursues the common good of both countries as an independent and objective advisor to the two governments.