Canada and the United States Amend the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement

On September 7, 2012, following an extended negotiation process that began in 2009, Canada and the United States amended the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (the “Agreement”).  The Agreement continues a joint effort to protect the largest surface freshwater source on Earth from new dangers and challenges, and affirms the commitment of both countries to the original purpose of the Agreement: “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes.”

First signed in 1972 and last amended in 1987, the Agreement addresses environmental issues in the Great Lakes region in order to protect water quality.  Significantly, the amended Agreement expands the scope of the original Agreement to tackle new threats and pressing issues that were not recognized in the original agreement or subsequent amendments.  New provisions were added to refocus the Agreement to address important new issues and threats such as groundwater, aquatic invasive species, and the effects of climate change.

One of the most noteworthy amendments is the addition of groundwater into the definition of “Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem,” which significantly expands the scope of the Agreement by encompassing the Basin’s groundwater resources.  Prior to this addition, groundwater was not recognized as a resource that needed protection but instead was only addressed in in an Annex as a source of potential contamination.  Groundwater is an important addition to the Agreement because it is a major natural resource linking the Great Lakes and their watershed and is commonly underestimated in regards to its importance to the region.

The amended Agreement also addresses the pressing issue of aquatic invasive species, which have had severe economic and ecological impacts on the Great Lakes Ecosystem.  More than 30 percent of invasive species have entered into the Great Lakes through ballast water.  Prior to the amended Agreement, aquatic invasive species were not treated as a stand-alone issue.  To combat this problem, the Agreement now requires Canada and the United States to take action on ships’ ballast water by implementing ballast water discharge programs to prevent and control the introduction and spread of additional invasive species.

Finally, the amended Agreement touches on the increasingly controversial issue of climate change, an emerging issue that was previously unaddressed in the Agreement.  However, and perhaps in recognition of the controversial nature of the topic, the Agreement requires only “cooperation and coordination” to “identify, quantify, understand, and predict the climate change impacts” and does not require Canada and the United States to implement any other affirmative obligations.  Although Canada and the United States are only required to cooperate and coordinate, the addition of climate change is likely lead to increased research and development in the Great Lakes.

The amended Agreement is an important recognition of new and emerging threats facing the Great Lakes and will allow the Agreement to remain an example for how countries can work together for the good of a shared natural resource.  The collaborative efforts of Canada and the United States will likely “stand to benefit millions of families on both sides of the border.”

Written by Thomas Wilson, GIELR staff