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Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement Turns 50

Melanie Law
great lakes water quality agreement display biennial

There is much to reflect on as the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement marks its 50th anniversary in 2022.

The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River hold about one fifth of the earth’s fresh surface water. For generations, the lakes have been central to the social, cultural and spiritual activities of Indigenous peoples. The abundant natural resources of the Great Lakes ecosystem created the basis for industries crucial to the establishment and development of the Canadian and American economies.

But what is the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, exactly, and what is the IJC’s role?

The 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty is the basis for the IJC’s authority to advise Canadian and US governments on pollution issues in the Great Lakes and connecting channels, laying the foundation for the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

First signed in 1972, the Agreement sets forth a binational framework between Canada and the United States for the purpose of restoring, protecting and enhancing the Great Lakes and the Great Lakes basin.  

The 1972 agreement focused on reducing algae by limiting phosphorus inputs, which predominantly impacted ecologically “dead” Lake Erie. To address this issue, Canada and the United States agreed to reduce pollution from industries and communities to limit phosphorus input. Resulting from the collaboration of the two nations, Lake Erie made a quick recovery, exemplifying an “unprecedented success in achieving environmental results and demonstrating the value of binational cooperation,” according to a summary at

The IJC has many responsibilities under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, including assessing the governments’ progress toward achieving the objectives of the Agreement, providing advice on matters related to the Great Lakes, facilitating binational collaboration and engaging with the public to take actions to restore and protect these waters.

The 1972 Agreement also established the IJC Great Lakes Water Quality Board and IJC Great Lakes Science Advisory Board to investigate and report on issues of concern and assist in the Commission’s assessment of governments’ progress toward achieving the Agreement’s objectives.

The Great Lakes Water Quality Board serves as the principal policy adviser to the IJC by assisting in the review and assessment of the governments’ implementation of the Agreement and recommending approaches to address challenges facing the lakes. The Great Lakes Science Advisory Board provides advice to the IJC on scientific matters and research, sharing these findings with the Great Lakes Water Quality Board as well. Finally, the 1972 Agreement created the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario, to support the boards and IJC’s work under the Agreement.

Since the original agreement in 1972, Canada and the United States updated the Agreement four times, with the most recent version signed in 2012. Each update incorporated new binational commitments to restore and maintain the Great Lakes through a comprehensive ecosystem approach that accounts for interrelationships among air, water, land and all beings dependent upon them.

The 1987 amendment protocol to the Agreement listed 43 Areas of Concern (AOCs)–hotspots of toxic legacy pollution–including 26 in the United States, 12 in Canada and five shared binationally.

To address these Areas of Concern, governments establish Remedial Action Plans (RAPs), which outline how the governments will approach problems and implement solutions to address the given AOC. The process of creating and implementing Remedial Action Plans spanned more than three decades. In that time, governments and partners delisted nine Areas of Concern and designated two as “areas in recovery.” Additionally, the 1987 Agreement introduced a requirement for citizen involvement in RAPs, as local community inputs are crucial in establishing effective and successful plans to best serve Great Lakes residents.

2021 great lakes areas of concern map

As of 2021, nine Areas of Concern delisted and two remain “in recovery.” Credit:

The importance of engagement was further recognized in the 2012 amendment to the Agreement whereby “the involvement and participation of State and Provincial Governments, Tribal Governments, First Nations, Métis, Municipal Governments, watershed management agencies, local public agencies, and the Public” are explicitly mentioned as essential to achieving the objectives. The amended 2012 Agreement has a broadened focus to better identify and address current environmental issues impacting the Great Lakes. The update served to modernize existing commitments to best accommodate changing environmental conditions. 

2012 signing great lakes water quality agreement

Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent, left, and US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson sign the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Credit:

Notably, Canada and the United States sought to include inputs from various stakeholders during the amendment process who were pivotal to developing an innovative, modernized Agreement.

These updated commitments are outlined in nine goals and 10 annexes, all with the unified purpose of mitigating further environmental threats before they harm the waters of the Great Lakes.

To increase transparency and accountability, the 2012 Agreement also includes clearly outlined short- and long-term actions with timeframes for completion. The 2012 Agreement further placed more emphasis on invasive species and climate change as these stressors became more prevalent in the 21st century.  

Residents of the Great Lakes region all have a role to play in the restoration and protection of the Great Lakes.

The Agreement guides governments to apply the principle of “public engagement,” defined as “incorporating Public opinion and advice, as appropriate, and providing information and opportunities for the Public to participate in activities that contribute to the achievement of the objectives of this Agreement.”

Under the Agreement, it is the IJC’s responsibility to provide the public with chances to contribute their input, which can help supplement the IJC’s science-based advice to governments on Great Lakes issues. The IJC and its Great Lakes advisory boards provide opportunities for public engagement through public meetings, webinars, workshops, social media and newsletters like this one.

As the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement marks its 50th anniversary this year, ongoing engagement and contributions from readers like you play a crucial role in the continued success and preservation of the binational partnership under the Agreement.

Melanie Law

Melanie Law is a fall 2021 intern with the US Section of the IJC in Washington, D.C.

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