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Water issues: Managing the Great Lakes

François Côté
Tim Williams
Industry, Infrastructure and Resources Division

October 2008


North America has an apparent abundance of fresh water; however, the water is not evenly distributed and faces many threats to its quality and quantity. Many watersheds are shared between Canada and the United States, as lakes and rivers lie along the border or flow in both directions across it. Transboundary water issues have therefore been inevitable. Of particular interest with respect to Canada–US relations is the increasing demand for fresh water from the dry southwestern United States, which could create pressure for water exports from the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence River Basin.

Canada and the United States have long been active in cooperatively managing transboundary waters. The Boundary Waters Treaty (BWT) was signed in 1909, and remains the instrument by which the Great Lakes are managed cooperatively by both countries. It provides the principles and mechanisms to help resolve and prevent water-related disputes, primarily those concerning quantity and quality. In Canada, the International Boundary Waters Treaty Act implements the BWT. The Act was last amended in 2001 to prohibit bulk removal of water from Canada.

A key aspect of the BWT is its provision for the creation of the International Joint Commission (IJC). As an advisory body to the two governments, the IJC helps to prevent and resolve disputes over the use and quality of boundary water resources.

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) is another Canada–US agreement pertaining to water. The GLWQA was signed in 1972 and was last revised in 1987. It expresses the commitment of each country to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Great Lakes Basin ecosystem. The Agreement identifies 43 Areas of Concern, which are targeted for remediation. In Canada, it is largely implemented through the Canada-Ontario Agreement Respecting the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem. The GLWQA provides for periodic, comprehensive reviews of its operation and effectiveness; a report on the most recent review was submitted to the governments in the fall of 2007. In 2006, the IJC had recommended a new, more action-oriented agreement.

Freshwater management initiatives have also been undertaken at the state and provincial level. For example, the Great Lakes Charter is a “good faith” agreement signed by the Council of Great Lakes Governors (which includes Quebec and Ontario as associate members) that addresses concerns regarding the potential for adverse effects from diversions and consumptive use of Great Lakes water on the environment, economy and welfare of the region. In 2001, an Annex was signed that led to a binding system of permits to regulate withdrawals of water from the Basin.

In response to pressures in the United States to supply water to expanding urban areas just outside of the Great Lakes Basin, the eight Great Lakes governors and the premiers of Quebec and Ontario signed, in 2005, the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement and the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact (the Annex 2001 Implementing Agreements). The two documents detail how the states and provinces will manage and protect the Basin, and provide a framework for each state and province to enact laws to this end. Despite the re-drafting of the original proposed agreements, there remain some concerns that loopholes could permit inter-basin transfers to communities close to the Basin, potentially leading to large-scale transfers to the southwestern United States. Following the passage of legislation in all eight Great Lakes states to implement the Compact, it was approved by the US Congress and signed by the president in the fall of 2008. In Canada, the text of the Agreement, which mirrors the Compact, was implemented in Ontario by the adoption of Bill 198 in 2007. In Quebec, legislation had been introduced prior to the recent provincial election. The federal government approves of all efforts to manage the Great Lakes as long as the BWT is respected.


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