Image of books focusing on the history of the barge canal


On November 19, 1998 the governments of Canada and the United States sent twin letters (see Canadian letter and U.S. letter) to the International Joint Commission (IJC). The letters called on the IJC to create the International Watersheds Initiative (IWI). The driving force behind this initiative was the desire to address water issues on an ecosystem level, as opposed to confining focus to a specific topic, dam or source of pollution in isolation. In the IWI’s early years, the Commission worked to strengthen existing boards in transboundary watersheds and to combine boards within the same watershed that previously had different responsibilities, such as pollution control or water flow management. Recognizing that solutions often emerge from local communities, the IJC has ensured that the memberships of these boards reflect the diversity of watershed stakeholders and interests. 

The two governments provided special funding to implement the IWI, and in 2005 the commission released its second report, which called for increased public outreach, coordination, and further scientific studies to better understand the watersheds. The Commission designated the first pilot international watershed board in the Red River in 2005, and in 2007 the St. Croix River Watershed Board was designated as the first full international watershed board by merging two existing boards and adding local members. In doing so, the IJC expanded the board’s scope, directing it to take an ecosystem approach to water quality and quantity issues.  By the time of the third IWI report in 2009, the IJC was able to highlight considerable progress in many areas from board structure and membership to scientific studies to conflict resolution, all of which was made possible with funding from the two governments. The fourth IWI report, released in 2015, highlighted further successes and challenges and identified a set of priorities focused on studying and adapting to, among others, man-made changes to ecosystems.

IWI work in recent years continues to include two IJC strategic initiatives: the transboundary data harmonization initiative and the SPARROW water quality modeling initiative. Additionally, the IJC maintains an organization-wide priority on climate change and how it could impact watersheds where the IJC has references; for the IWI, this is now considered a third strategic initiative.
The fifth IWI report to governments: Building on Success, released in December of 2020, outlines the IWI intent to analyze how climate change may impact transboundary basins and the work of IJC boards, examine the potential benefits of new IJC watershed boards, and improve how project results and successes are organized and communicated.

In addition to the fifth report, the IJC is further strengthening IWI management through the development of an IWI work plan that includes proposals for additional program enhancements and directions for 2020-2025. For more information on the 2020-2025 work plan, please see the Going Forward section (also accessible via the left-hand navigation menu).

IWI funding has been used to leverage local expertise and help local institutions across the transboundary watersheds address a number of water-related issues within the scope of the boards’ respective responsibilities. Some recently completed projects include: