International Joint Commission
United States and Canada


September 10, 2003

2001-2003 Priorities and Progress under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement

Now Available from the IJC

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In preparation for its 2003 Great Lakes Conference and Biennial Meeting and the writing of its Twelfth Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality , the IJC today, released the 2001-2003   Priorities and Progress under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement , authored by its advisory boards on the Great Lakes .   

The International Joint Commission is responsible for evaluating the governments’ progress in implementing Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, identifying unmet challenges, and recommending solutions.   It relies on the work and investigations of its boards and on public consultation .

The report covers four specific priority issues investigated by the IJC’s boards, including: mercury; Remedial Action Plans; urbanization and the water quality linkage; and climate change impacts in the Great Lakes basin.   In addition, the boards investigated emerging issues for the Great Lakes in the 21 st century.   This Priorities Report conveys a wealth of information and state-of-the-art analyses of select research, scientific and policy arenas fundamental for advancing stewardship of the Great Lakes basin ecosystem.  

The boards authoring the report are the Water Quality Board, Science Advisory Board, Council of Great Lakes Research Managers and the International Air Quality Advisory Board. In addition to detailing their work on each issue, the boards also provide valuable advice and recommendations to the International Joint Commission for its use in writing the Twelfth Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality , providing official advice to the governments of Canada and the United States .

Report Summary

The Commission’s request that its boards focus on mercury has proved most timely, as large reductions in emissions from coal fired utilities are now under consideration in both the United States and Canada.   The report contains the most current science surrounding mercury, compelling evidence of its neurotoxic properties, and an expose on the risks associated with consumption of contaminated fish. To guide the formulation of programs and policies that could reduce the inputs of mercury to the basin ecosystem, the complex atmospheric dynamics of mercury are discussed in detail.

A chapter on Remedial Action Plans (RAPs) explores the question of how to accelerate RAP implementation and consequently, the restoration of beneficial uses.   Specific advice and recommendations contained in the report on the design and execution of RAPs should illuminate all readers, particularly those associated with an Area of Concern.

The 2001-2003 Priorities Report also deals with urbanization and the complex land use - water quality linkages.   Urbanization threatens Great Lakes water quality by pollutants in waste water discharges and excessive stormwater flows; and causes beach closings and impaired recreational water quality and the destruction of wetlands.   The IJC boards explore water quality impacts and policy implications surrounding the reality of growth and the necessity to preserve the quality of life.   The report provides intriguing examples of innovative principles to guide policy development and implementation.

The fundamental questions being explored under the issue of climate change concern the types of water quality impacts that might be the consequence of more severe storm events and warmer temperatures, how the impacts might vary across Great Lakes regions, and the implications for decision making and planning to respond to or mitigate the impacts.   The importance of climate change on ground water resources is particularly noted, in light of drought conditions, low precipitation and increasing average temperatures. These themes are not often front and center in the minds of basin residents and are particularly foreboding.

The outcome of an expert consultation on emerging issues in the Great Lakes is also included in the report.   A compelling, perhaps unanticipated finding, was that while there are clearly many threats to the health of the basin ecosystem, no new, previously unknown threats to the Great Lakes were identified by the scientific experts consulted.   Specific findings and recommendations emphasize the need for greater binational institutional capacity, reinvigorated management and governance structures to fully implement an ecosystem approach to the protection and restoration of the lakes, a clear and unmistakable call for leadership and coordination.    

Detailed information from the boards is also included on a range of other topics that are brought together to enlighten and advise the Commission and the reader. Current research into the changing dynamics in Lake Erie and outbreaks of botulism are described. Health implications of persistent toxic chemicals are reviewed.   In particular, the finding that PCB levels in the waters and in Great Lake fish must decrease by one to three orders in magnitude to achieve state and federal public health is a call for action.   We also learn of the latest research and research needs regarding the sources and effects of pathogens and new chemicals of concern are presented.   All these topics are highly relevant if our efforts to understand, protect and enhance the majesty of the Great Lakes are to be successful.

Everyone who is concerned with the future of the Great Lakes is encouraged to attend the 2003 Conference, participate in discussions and comment on the work and recommendations of the IJC and its advisory boards.   Information received from this meeting and recommendations made in this report contribute to the insight, advice and recommendations that the IJC provides to the governments of Canada and the United States .

About the Authors

The principal advisor to the IJC, the Water Quality Board comprises 20 program managers and administrators from the two federal governments, the eight states and two provinces in the Great Lakes - St. Lawrence River basin.   The Science Advisory Board , whose 18 members represent a broad range of disciplines, provides scientific advice to both the IJC and Water Quality Board.

The Council of Great Lakes Research Managers has 23 members who provide advice related to the coordination and evaluation of Great Lakes research efforts.   Given the significance of the air as a pathway by which contaminants reach the waters of the Great Lakes , the IJC relies on the 10 members of its International Air Quality Advisory Board to provide advice in this regard.

Conference Information

The 2003 IJC Great Lakes Conference and Biennial Meeting will be held on Friday and Saturday, September 19-20, 2003 in Ann Arbor , Michigan .   A series of nine workshops on Friday will focus on the latest scientific thinking and policy responses to protect and improve human and ecosystem health, including invasive species, mercury pollution, urbanization, habitat destruction and rehabilitation, impacts of climate change on ecosystem quality, water use and more.   See for more information, events and registration.  

About the International Joint Commission

The International Joint Commission prevents and resolves disputes between the United States 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.

In particular, the IJC assists the two countries in the protection of the transboundary environment, including the implementation of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the improvement of transboundary air quality; and it alerts the governments to emerging issues along the boundary that may give rise to bilateral disputes.   The IJC rules upon applications for approval of projects affecting boundary or transboundary waters and regulates the operation of these projects.  

For further information – please contact Jennifer Day at 519-257-6733 or

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