The International Joint Commission (“IJC”) is a binational organization created under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. The purpose of the IJC is to prevent and resolve disputes relating to the use and quality of boundary waters. The IJC recognizes that each country is affected by the other’s actions as it relates to the watersheds located along the Canada-United States (“US”) border.
Much of the IJC’s work is focused on assisting Canada and the US in achieving their goal of cleaning up the Great Lakes and preventing further pollution in the system.
In 1972 Canada and the United States signed the first Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Canada and the US agreed to work to control pollution and clean up the Great Lakes. In 1978, the countries executed a new agreement that included a commitment to work cooperatively towards getting rid of “persistent toxic substances” in the Great Lakes. In 1987 the governments signed a Protocol to require progress reports and IJC review of “Remedial Action Plans” in what are described as 43 “Areas of Concern.” The IJC review of “Lakewide Management Plans” proposing actions to improve the quality of the water in Lakes Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie and Ontario was also incorporated into the Protocol.
On September 7, 2012, Canada and the United States signed an updated Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Under the updated Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, Canada and the US conclude that the ‘best means to preserve the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem and improve water quality’ is to adopt common objectives, cooperative programs and assign special responsibilities to the IJC:
- Assess progress to restore and protect the Great Lakes;
- Engage people, communities, private and public institutions, First Nations and Native Americans, and all levels of government in collective efforts for Great Lake water quality; and,
- Advise governments on effective Great Lakes programs and policies, research and monitoring priorities, and approaches and opportunities to achieve objectives for Great Lakes water quality.
In November 2017 the IJC released its first progress report on the 2012-updated Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (“IJC Progress Report”). In its progress report the IJC indicated that inadequately treated sewage, industrial chemicals and farm runoff continue to flow uncontrolled into the Great Lakes that are relied upon by 40 million people for drinking water.
The IJC Progress Report recommends that Canada and the US establish specific timelines and targets for the implementation of improvements to wastewater and drinking water infrastructure, reducing nutrient runoff and eliminating the release of chemicals identified to be of a concern.
The IJC recommends that the governments establish a timeline for achieving zero discharge of inadequately treated or untreated sewage into the Great Lakes. This goal can only be achieved if governments are willing to increase funding for infrastructure and provide support for municipalities, allowing them to increase capacity to respond to extreme storm events. The IJC states that “… municipalities must not be permitted to dump sewage into our drinking water and we call for a ‘zero discharge’ objective, which will bring to an end the all-too-frequent beach closings.”
In addition the IJC Progress Report commented that throughout the Great Lakes basin, unsafe drinking water incidents have occurred in major cities and many First Nations have had longstanding boil water advisories.
The water quality of western and central Lake Erie continues to be unacceptable. In order to achieve the new phosphorus loading targets and reduce algal blooms the IJC recommend that the governments implement timelines, set out action plans, expected deliverables and quantifiable performance metrics to ensure accountability. Recommendations also included the implementation of enforceable standards for the application of agricultural fertilizer and animal waste.
The IJC found that the progress taken to address toxic chemical releases has been disappointingly slow in both countries. The IJC Commissioner Rich Moy stated, “Manufacturers need to take more responsibility for ensuring that their products do not release chemicals of mutual concern, particularly at the end of a product’s life cycle, rather than leaving local governments and others to cope with the issue.”
Perhaps what is most alarming is that the IJC found that governments have failed to demonstrate sufficient progress toward achieving the human health objectives in their implementation of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
In a step towards improving the water quality of the Great Lakes, on December 1, 2017 Canada’s Minister of environment and Climate Change announced that Canada will invest $44.84 million towards the Great Lakes Protection Initiative. The Great Lakes Protection Initiative is part of the $70.5 million of new funding allocated for freshwater protection in Budget 2017. One of the goals of the new programming will focus on reducing toxic and nuisance algae and strengthening the resilience of Great Lakes coastal wetlands.
 Comment by the IJC Canadian Co-chair Gordon Walker http://www.ijc.org/en_/news?news_id=630