For the next five years, the IJC will focus on climate change, improving and continuing Indigenous collaboration and engagement, and enhancing its data management and communication tools under its International Watersheds Initiative (IWI).
The plans are detailed in a report delivered to the Canadian and US governments in December.
The IWI is designed around a watershed approach to water systems. Through much of the 20th century, IJC boards tended to have a narrow focus, such as water flow regulation or monitoring for specific pollutants. In 1998, the IJC recommended that several such boards combine efforts as a single watershed board to avoid duplicating work or missing problems that were only obvious if they were seeing the big picture.
The governments agreed and these watershed boards were then able to look at the watershed holistically, reporting on water quantity, quality, and aquatic ecosystem health and to better track how these aspects of the watershed can interact and affect one another. Since then, every five years the IJC has put out an updated report on what it has done under IWI and what it plans to do in coming years, with the Fifth Report to Governments being completed late last year.
As of January 2021, the IJC has four boards following this watershed approach: the St. Croix Watershed Board and the Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed Board; and two pilot watershed boards, the Souris River Board and Red River Board.
The IWI’s Fifth Report recommends graduating the pilot boards to full status and exploring the benefits of new watershed boards with the Canadian and US governments. This could be achieved either by updating the responsibilities of existing boards or giving the IJC duties in other transboundary watersheds that do not currently have an IJC board or mandate, if that is deemed beneficial.
The report also touches on the program’s priorities through 2025. Indigenous engagement is one such priority for the Commission.
There are numerous First Nations, tribes and Métis Nation citizens and communities who bring concerns, interests and expertise to watersheds across the transboundary. The IJC recognizes how vitally important working with these nations and tribes as partners will continue to be in the years ahead. Through the IWI, these partnerships can grow in a number of ways, including developing board projects with Indigenous communities and incorporating traditional knowledge into those studies.
Ensuring that all boards are aware of how climate change may impact their responsibilities and work in the decades to come is another priority for the IJC. A Climate Change Guidance Framework developed as part of the IWI program is being used to help all IJC boards determine what climate-related risks may impact their mandates in coming years and how they can be addressed. As of January 2021, the St. Croix River Watershed Board has completed its assessment. Other assessments are in process for the Souris River Board, Osoyoos Lake Board of Control, Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board of Control and Lake Champlain-Richelieu River Study Board.
The IWI and IJC will continue to support government agencies as they maintain and update water data from both countries that, through IWI, has been harmonized to be readily useful to researchers in Canada and the United States. The IWI also plans to continue supporting updated water quality models using the SPAtially Referenced Regression On Watershed Attributes, or SPARROW, model – which in turn relies on that harmonized data.
Other IWI changes laid out in the report will improve the IWI’s efficiency and effectiveness as a program to better serve boards across the transboundary. These include setting up new methods for sharing lessons learned between boards, creating a searchable online database of past and current IWI-backed projects across the transboundary and improving how the results of these projects are communicated to the public.
The IWI owes its success to the hard work undertaken not just by the IJC, but with the organizations, state and federal agencies, Indigenous peoples and local communities who continue to generously their time and expertise. As these collaborations continue to grow stronger, the IWI will have even more success in achieving its goals.
Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.