2001-2003 Priority work of the IJC under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement

2001-2003 Priority Work

Continued Investigation of Source-Receptor Relationships for Atmospheric Deposition of Mercury to the Great Lakes
Annex 2 - RAPs AND LaMPs
Community Health in Areas of Concern
The Impact of Urbanization on the Great Lakes
Climate Change

Emerging Issues
Research Needs
Surveillance and Monitoring as They Relate to Indicators

The International Joint Commission (IJC)
Contact information
Acronyms and Definitions

Overview top

In the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the governments of the United States and Canada agreed "to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem." Under the terms of the Agreement, the two federal governments, also referred to as the Parties, agreed "to make a maximum effort to develop programs, practices and technology necessary for a better understanding of the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem and to eliminate or reduce to the maximum extent practicable the discharge of pollutants into the Great Lakes System."

The International Joint Commission (IJC) is directed to make a full assessment every two years of the governments' progress toward achieving the objectives of the Agreement. Based on this reporting cycle, the IJC plans its priority work in two-year cycles culminating with its Agreement advisory boards' report to the Commission, Priorities and Progress under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the publication of its Twelfth Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality.

2001-2003 Priority Work top

Through specific work on priority issues, the Great Lakes Science Advisory Board, Great Lakes Water Quality Board, International Air Quality Advisory Board and Council of Great Lakes Research Managers support the Commission, drawing upon their mandates related to science, policy and research. The priorities fall into two broad categories -- those that constructively explore an issue to help the Parties fulfill their obligations and those that critically evaluate a problem related to boundary water quality. For this priority cycle, which began in late 2001 and will run through the end of 2003, five major projects have been identified:

Other on-going priority work includes the issues of surveillance and monitoring as they relate to indicators; emerging issues; and research needs.

Some of the identified priorities will be dealt with by multiple advisory boards, while others will fall to the responsibility of just one. Several projects will bring a greater depth of understanding to the sources, fate, transport and effects of mercury. The implications of climate change on Great Lakes ecosystem processes and adaptive management will also consist of several initiatives across various advisory boards.



Mercury is a toxic pollutant capable of being transported by air for thousands of miles. Mercury deposited on the earth's surface, particularly in waterways, can change into a form that can be taken up by organisms and bioaccumulate in the food chain. Many lakes and rivers in North America have become sufficiently contaminated with mercury to require fish consumption advisories for the protection of human health.

Atmospheric concentrations of mercury have significantly increased since the beginning of the industrial revolution. It is estimated that 50 to 75 percent of the annual input of mercury to the atmosphere is from human activity. The predominant sources are from municipal refuse and medical waste incineration, coal-fired electrical power generation and metallurgical processes. In 1985, the Great Lakes Water Quality Board (WQB), under the IJC, included mercury as one of the 11 Critical Pollutants whose persistence and toxicity in the Great Lakes basin made virtual elimination necessary.

IJC Involvement

The governments of the United States and Canada, in their revisions to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1987, created Annex 15 Airborne Toxic Substances, dedicated to further research and control of contamination via this pathway to the Great Lakes.

The atmospheric deposition pathway is complex atmospheric chemistry and deposition characteristics of various contaminants can differ. Because of this, the linkage between individual sources and final deposition into the lakes is not obvious. The International Air Quality Advisory Board (IAQAB) under the IJC has previously developed and applied a cost-effective atmospheric model for dioxin that has answered these questions and created a link between sources, source regions and deposition in the lakes. It intends to do the same with mercury.

The Investigation

For pollutants such as mercury, it is critical to determine, with some known precision, the amount of deposition to the lakes; the relative importance of contributions from local, regional, national, continental and global regions; and the relative importance of different types of sources. Using the data collected, maps of mercury emissions will be prepared showing the geographical patterns of source contributions to the atmospheric deposition of mercury to each of the Great Lakes.

This work should allow determination of the identity and relative contribution of significant sources and source regions to mercury deposition in the Great Lakes, supporting the development of rational national policies for reducing chemical impacts on the Great Lakes. It should also assist in interpreting existing ambient measurements of air toxics and support the design of new and more effective monitoring and control programs and create an opportunity for more cost-effective control strategies by placing a focus on the most significant sources of mercury deposition.

The Council of Great Lakes Research Managers (Council) will develop a compendium of Great Lakes research projects that address mercury. The Science Advisory Board's (SAB) Workgroup on Ecosystem Health will also look into the health effects of mercury in their priority on Community Health in Areas of Concern. The Water Quality Board (WQB) will advise on program and policy implications associated with sources and loadings of mercury to the environment and with observed health effects.



The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement calls for restoration and protection of beneficial uses in Areas of Concern (AOCs) and in open lake waters. Remedial Action Plans (RAPs) and Lakewide Management Plans (LaMPs) are the intended mechanisms to achieve this goal. The Parties to the Agreement and the individual jurisdictions around the basin have been developing RAPs and LaMPs since before 1987. To date, only one of 43 AOCs has been delisted and implementation under the LaMP process has been considered by many as slow.

IJC Involvement

The IJC is obligated to review and comment on RAPs and LaMPs as developed and submitted by the Parties.

The Investigation

International Joint Commission staff will review relevant Party and jurisdictional policies, procedures and guidelines, including development and application of criteria for deciding when beneficial uses have been restored and AOCs can be delisted. An examination of the RAP and LaMP planning and implementation processes will also take place. Technology transfer workshops that build upon the findings and experiences in select locations will accelerate progress in other locations.



Health Canada published data and statistics on human disease in the 17 Canadian Great Lakes Areas of Concern "that might be related to exposures to pollution." The work was undertaken partly to implement some provisions of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. This unique data base has been consolidated into age-stratified files on mortality, morbidity as hospitalization, and congenital anomalies. Researchers in the U.S. have compiled data for similar end points in the eight Great Lakes states. For example, the Health Canada data indicate risks among certain critical subpopulations associated with exposures to mercury and concerns that levels in the Great Lakes remain high enough for developmental effects to be occurring in infants.

IJC Involvement

As stated in the preamble to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the Parties continue "to be concerned about the impairment of water quality on each side of the boundary to an extent that is causing injury to health and property on the other side," as described by the International Joint Commission.

The Investigation

The Science Advisory Board's Work Group on Ecosystem Health will investigate how these data bases can be used in concert with other data sources to identify gaps and set research priorities on community health in the Great Lakes basin. It will also investigate how multiple data sources, such as doctor visits, drug prescriptions, or preschool screening data can be integrated. In addition to identifying suggested research priorities, certain statistical tools will be considered in the context of selecting indicators of human health, related to exposures to pollution in the Great Lakes basin. The collection and reporting of information on these indicators will provide information and trends of environmental quality in the basin.

The health effects of mercury will be of specific focus and will play a value added role to the work on the atmospheric deposition of mercury to the Great Lakes.



Annex 13 of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement "delineates programs and measures for the abatement and reduction of nonpoint sources of pollution from land-use activities." It calls on the Parties, in conjunction with state and provincial governments, to identify land-based activities contributing to water quality problems described in Remedial Action Plans and Lakewide Management Plans and to develop watershed management plans.

Increasingly, policy initiatives in both the U.S. and Canada have identified growth management as the key to developing sustainable cities and protecting land and water resources. Often characterized as urban sprawl, urban areas in both countries expand into their rural areas as a result of population growth and increasing land consumption, despite planning policies that establish urban boundaries. In the Great Lakes basin, many of the largest urban areas have small or negative rates of growth, yet the built environment continues to expand, usually at the expense of the natural environment, and affecting water quality.

Currently there is no binational knowledge or capability to assess Agreement progress regarding control of pollution from land-use activities, particularly urban nonpoint sources. Relevant SOLEC indicators have not been fully developed, and are unlikely to be implemented in the near term.

IJC Involvement

During the 1997-1999 and 1999-2001 priority cycles, the SAB reviewed progress toward controlling nonpoint sources in the Great Lakes and advised the IJC to give special attention to urbanizing areas. This advice was based on significant changes occurring throughout the basin, as a result of land-use development and urban growth since the Pollution from Land Use Activities Reference Group work completed by the IJC in the late 1970s. Principal issues include: the adequacy of infrastructure to treat and manage urban runoff and sewage; the adequacy of watershed planning and regional approaches for achieving water quality objectives; and coordinated planning processes and best management practices to control all pollutant sources, fixed and mobile.

The Investigation

The SAB will lead this focus on the state-of-the-art programs and policies of "smart growth." It will look at urban growth strategies, their impact on Great Lakes water quality and relevance to progress under the Agreement. A comparative analysis of the development costs of managed growth in terms of its pollution prevention benefits, with that of conventional planning practices will be performed. The adequacy of existing urban infrastructure will be assessed in terms of the requirements necessary to provide for the increased densities concomitant with growth management. Finally, the indicators that need to be developed to assess progress and the institutional requirements and responsibilities for their reporting will be addressed as a basis for evaluating policy and program effectiveness and fulfilling the purpose of the Agreement.

In support of this priority, the WQB will be considering the issue of urban infrastructure and demographic pressures.



Climate change may have significant impacts on global society and large-scale investigations are underway by key players on the national and international scene. Work also has been done within a Great Lakes context. Climate change is expected to lead to an increase in severe weather events which, in turn, means the occurrence of sudden hig-flow events with consequent impact for wastewater treatment plant capacity and storm water and combined sewer overflows. Sever storms will also impact run off from agricultural lands, that is, nonpoint controls. To provide a water quality orientation, what would be the impact on health, ecosystem integrity, and human infrastructure? Is it possible to predict or anticipated the magnitude of any impact and to identify or develop adoption strategies.

IJC Involvement

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement directs the IJC's Great Lakes advisory boards to investigate matters related to research and the development of scientific knowledge pertinent to the identification, evaluation and resolution of current and anticipated problems related to Great Lakes water quality.

The Investigation

The WQB will explore five questions and provide advice to the Commission.

The Council of Great Lakes Research Managers will co-sponsor a workshop on indicators of ground water quantity and quality, examine related data and assess the state of knowledge on the relationship between climate change and groundwater, including research needs.



The IJC is committed to staying on the leading edge in understanding new issues confronting Great Lakes environmental quality that could hinder the fulfillment of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. This is done by all advisory boards on an ongoing basis. The advisory boards and the Council of Great Lakes Research Managers, with the assistance of invited outside experts, will convene a joint workshop to consider new contaminants, new effects, new sources, and new program and policy approaches. Additional work will be undertaken by each board relative to the research, science and policy aspects of issues identified during the joint workshop. The advice developed relates to the IJC's alerting function and focus on research, science, program and policy implications of emerging issues.


Scientific information underpins the understanding of Great Lakes issues and the actions necessary to restore and protect the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the waters of the basin ecosystem. The information base to define issues and support appropriate program and policy response continues to evolve. Annex 17 delineates research to support achievement of the Agreement's goals. In order to compete for limited funding resources, the Great Lakes requires a cohesive, well defined summary of research needs. During this two-year cycle the Council of Great Lakes Research Managers will focus on the identification and evaluation of research needs related to human health, climate change and land use.


Key to the determination of interim and ultimate ecosystem goals for the Great Lakes basin is the need for consistent, reliable, comparable surveillance and monitoring data. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement introduced the concept of using indicators to determine the state of the Great Lakes ecosystem and the Parties' progress in implementing the Agreement.

A collaborative effort among IJC advisory boards is directed toward assisting the Parties in establishing targets based on the Agreement annexes using ecosystem indicators. Additionally, the IJC will continue to monitor indicator development and implementation by all groups in the basin and support the creation of remote surveillance and monitoring networks in the Great Lakes. In this regard, the Science Advisory Board and Council of Great Lakes Research Managers plan to contribute to a workshop on remote monitoring. The IJC will also assist the Parties in developing a binational approach to implementing consistent, comparable surveillance and monitoring activities throughout the basin.

The International Joint Commission (IJC) top

IJC was established through the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty of the United States and Canada. The Treaty recognizes that each country may be affected by the other s actions in the lake and river systems along their common border; its purpose is to prevent and resolve disputes concerning these boundary waters.

In 1972, the governments of the United States and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. This Agreement was superseded in 1978 by a new Agreement, with significant amendments made in 1987. Its purpose "is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem." IJC assesses the effectiveness of programs and progress pursuant to it.

Mission Statement

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.

In particular, the Commission rules upon applications for approval of projects affecting boundary or transboundary waters and may regulate the operation of these projects; it 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.

For More Information top

Additional information about the IJC and its work under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement can be obtained by contacting an IJC office:

Great Lakes Regional Office
Jennifer Day

In Canada -
100 Ouellette Ave., 8th Floor
Windsor, ON N9A 6T3
(519) 257-6734

In the U.S. -
P.O. Box 32869
Detroit, MI 48232
(313) 226-2170 Ext. 6734

Canadian Section
Fabien Lengelle

234 Laurier Ave. W., 22nd floor
Ottawa, ON K1P 6K6
(613) 995-0088
United States Section
Frank Bevacqua

1250 23rd St. N.W., Suite 100
Washington, D.C. 20440
(202) 736-9024

Acronyms and Definitions top

Agreement The Great Lakes Water Qaulity Agreement
AOC Areas of Concern
Council Council of Great Lakes Research Managers
IAQAB International Air Quality Advisory Board
IJC International Joint Commission
LaMP Lakewide Management Plans
Parties The governments of the U.S. and Canada
RAP Remedial Action Plans
SAB Great Lakes Science Advisory Board
SOLEC State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference
WQB Great Lakes Water Quality Board