IJC Releases 16th Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality: Notes Significant Achievement but Sustained Investment and Action Needed


The International Joint Commission (IJC) today released a report on how the health of the Great Lakes has changed over the past 25 years. 

While sustained governmental and public efforts have measurably improved Great Lakes water quality, rapid reduction in ice cover and the resurgence of some pollutants like excess nutrients are among the indicators currently raising concerns. Based on contributions from a wide range of U.S. and Canadian experts, the report reveals a mix of achievements and challenges.

"With the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement just revised in 2012, both Canada and the U.S. have renewed and strengthened their commitment to protect and restore the Great Lakes," said Joe Comuzzi, Canadian Chair of the IJC. "Tight budgets on both sides of the border mean that cooperation and coordination of clean-up efforts are even more important, and the recommendations in this report can help."

Established by treaty in 1909, the IJC’s six commissioners are charged with advising the governments of Canada and the United States on matters relating to the thousands of miles of shared boundary waters.  Last year both governments signed a revised Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and once again asked the IJC to report regularly on the health of the lakes and on how well the governments are meeting their obligations under the Agreement.

"Maintaining and improving the chemical, biological, and physical integrity of the Great Lakes is the central commitment between the United States and Canada. The report documents how far we have come and how much further we need to go," said Dereth Glance, US Commissioner.

"This report is only the beginning as the Commission is defining important keystone indicators of ecological and human health that can be used over the long-term to assess how well governments are meeting their requirements under the newly signed Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and existing domestic regulations," said Rich Moy, US Commissioner

The new IJC report is based on 16 measures of Great Lakes health that indicate the status of the chemical, physical and biological health of the Lakes.   Also published today is a longer Technical Report with more supporting information.  Previous Biennial Reports are also available on the IJC website.


Indicators of Chemical Integrity

The seven indicators of chemical integrity show mostly favorable or stable results since 1987, reflecting the success of policy changes implemented in both countries after the original 1972 Agreement. However, some data also reveal a leveling off or even a reversal of reductions in toxic chemicals such as mercury and nutrient loadings in the past decade and earlier.


Indicators of Biological Integrity

The five biological indicators reveal mixed results. For example, the small, bottom-dwelling shrimp-like organism, Diporeia, an important part of the food chain, was once abundant in cold, offshore regions of the Great Lakes but is now completely absent from large areas of Lakes Michigan, Huron, Ontario and Erie. Also, from 1987 to 2006, 34 new non-native species became established in the Great Lakes, causing extensive and costly damage to the ecosystem. However, no new invasive species are known to have been introduced through ballast water since modifications in ballast water management regulations were implemented in 2006, though two species were established via other routes.


Indicators of Physical Integrity

The two physical indicators show rising surface water temperatures and reduced ice cover, likely signals of climate change.  Warming Great Lakes raise concerns about maintenance of native coldwater fish species and an increase in algae blooms, among other effects. These indicators are also relevant to the IJC’s responsibilities for managing water levels and flows. Concerns about global climate change prompted the IJC to support further inquiry into adaptive management practices that might be essential to minimize future damage to many Great Lakes interests.

"The data show some significant progress," said Lana Pollack, IJC U.S. Chair. "However, the evidence equally indicates that more investments are needed. Protecting and restoring the Great Lakes is a job that is never done."


Next Steps 

Under the revised Agreement, the parties and the IJC will be convening the Great Lakes Public Forum, to be held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, September 9-10. In conjunction with Great Lakes Week, the Forum is an opportunity for the public to receive updates from governments regarding the state of the lakes and future plans for science and action. At the Forum, the IJC will provide information and solicit public input regarding ecosystem and human health indicators and how it plans to assess progress towards restoration. The final report of the IJC’s Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority will also be published in advance of the Forum. Registration for the Forum will be available soon at www.binational.net.