At the beginning of this century, there was great interest in finding ways to resolve disputes over irrigation and other uses of the waters shared by Canada and the United States. The two countries also wanted to remain good neighbors and prevent disputes as these water resources were further developed.
Following much negotiation, the Boundary Waters Treaty was signed January 11, 1909. The treaty established forthright principles for using the shared waters and mechanisms for preventing and resolving disputes.
One of these principles is that both countries would be involved in approving further uses, obstructions or diversions of boundary waters that would raise the natural level or flow across the boundary. Unless otherwise provided by a special agreement between the countries, the International Joint Commission, which was established by treaty, is to approve such projects. The two countries also kept the option to approve such projects through agreements that they would negotiate directly.
The treaty has also been hailed as the first binational environmental agreement in North America. The negotiators wanted to address problems such as cholera and typhoid outbreaks that resulted from water pollution and they included language in the treaty stating that waters flowing along or across the boundary "shall not be polluted on either side to the injury of health or property on the other."
This clear commitment has led to many efforts to restore the health of the waters shared by the United States and Canada, including more detailed agreements such as the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972.
Given the complexity of the issues our two countries have faced, it is remarkable that the principles and mechanisms remain sound and workable today. Look for more articles on this web page about the Boundary Waters Treaty as we mark its 90th anniversary in 1999.