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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Binational Panel Advises U.S, Canada to Focus on Human Health Concerns in Great Lakes
15th Biennial Report Stresses Need for an Updated Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement

[Detroit, Michigan] – In a report released today, the International Joint Commission of Canada and United States (the Commission) provided 32 recommendations for action at the federal, state, provincial and local levels of government. In particular, the recommendations in the 15th Biennial Report focus on the need for the U.S. and Canada to approve a revised Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (the Agreement) that addresses threats to water quality to prevent or reduce their impact on human and ecological health. Beach closings, harmful algal growth, contaminated groundwater and alien invasive species are examples of threats that are of greatest concern in the nearshore zone where most people live and get their drinking water and which provide vital habitat for fish and wildlife populations.

"Human health must be highlighted as a priority concern of both countries in a revised Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement," said Lana Pollack, U.S Co-Chair of the Commission. "Adding explicit provisions to protect human health based on sound science is one of the most important things we can do."

The Commission prepared the report as part of its responsibilities to assess progress toward achieving the objectives of the current Agreement. The report addresses priorities that were the focus of scientific research and public engagement over the past two years. First signed in 1972, the Agreement was last revised in 1987, and the two countries announced in June 2009 that they would be engaging in negotiations to update this important bi-national blueprint for Great Lakes restoration.

"In a revised Agreement, the governments must maintain the Commission's role as an independent evaluator of progress towards cleaner Great Lakes, and critical research, monitoring, governance and regulatory policy needs must be addressed," said Joe Comuzzi, Canadian Co-Chair of the Commission.

Research and Monitoring

A key concern raised in the report is the resurgence of eutrophication – aquatic plant growth caused by excessive nutrients such as phosphorus. Among many potential causes identified in the report, key factors are believed to be inadequate municipal wastewater and residential septic systems, agricultural run-off, industrial livestock operations and the impacts of climate change, which causes more frequent and intense precipitation and stormwater events. To address this challenge, the report recommends new research and monitoring efforts similar to the Commission's Pollution from Land-use Activities Reference Group (PLUARG) in the 1970s. The largest ever study of pollution in the Great Lakes from land-use activities such as agriculture and forestry operations, PLUARG research was instrumental in determining the regulatory actions needed to address nonpoint source pollution. PLUARG II would help managers better understand eutrophication and select the wisest management actions.

The report also cites the impact of nonpoint source pollution on water quality at recreational beaches and recommends federal support into research to improve indicators of threats to human health. Such new indicators, better warning systems for the public, and a binational standardized system of surveillance and monitoring are recommended to protect public health and reduce beach closings. Related recommendations in the report include systematic basin-wide collection of groundwater quality and quantity data, monitoring for chemicals of emerging concern, such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products, and research into their health effects as well as into treatment systems to remove them from drinking water.


The report notes that while collaboration has improved in recent years, there is a critical need to modify existing governance to strengthen coordination across jurisdictional lines to address ecological challenges in the nearshore. Specifically, the Commission recommends adopting Lakewide Management Plans (LaMPs) as the geographic unit to coordinate, integrate and implement programs to address the impacts of agricultural and urban areas on water quality. Currently, LaMPs include all the governmental, nongovernmental and tribal/first nation units in coordinating ecological restoration projects and also engage the public.

With the Asian Carp threatening to invade the Great Lakes, the report recommends using a revised Agreement as a vehicle for the development and deployment of binational protocols for rapid response before invasive species enter the lakes. The report also calls for binational coordination to develop consistent fish consumption advisories.

Regulatory Action and Public Infrastructure

The report recommends that governments institute "no regrets" actions (measures that would be justified under all plausible future scenarios) immediately to reduce nonpoint sources of pollution from agricultural and urban sources, especially in phosphorus-sensitive watersheds, as well as from point sources, such as sewage treatment plants. In addition, the Commission recommends improved enforcement efforts to prevent contamination of groundwater, establishment of standards and regular inspections for septic systems and more effective regulations of confined animal feeding operations to ensure proper treatment of manure and application of methods to reduce run-off.

What's Next?

The next biennial cycle is underway and the public is invited to attend the 2011 Great Lakes Biennial Meeting, to be held October 12-14 at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.

Editor's note: Click on the following links either for a summary version of the 15th Biennial Report or for the full report.

Contact John Nevin 519-903-6001

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