Great Lakes Moment: Historic Great Lakes agreement reaches golden anniversary

Great Lakes Moment: Historic Great Lakes agreement reaches golden anniversary
April 4, 2022 John Hartig

Great Lakes Moment is a monthly column written by Great Lakes Now Contributor John Hartig. Publishing the author’s views and assertions does not represent endorsement by Great Lakes Now or Detroit Public Television.

The Great Lakes represent one-fifth the standing freshwater on the Earth’s surface, provide ecosystem services or benefits to approximately 34 million people living in the basin, and serve as the foundation for the $5 trillion regional economy that would be one of the largest in the world if it stood alone as a country.

For five decades, the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement has been a model for transboundary environmental protection that is the envy of many throughout the world.

On April 15, 1972, then Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and then U.S. President Richard Nixon signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement as an expression of binational commitment to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes Basin ecosystem. The agreement reflected the principle of binationalism – two countries collaborating on achieving a set of shared goals – rather than bilateralism, in which two countries negotiate with each other in an attempt to balance interests and protect their own rights.

The governments of the United States and Canada are the implementers of programs to restore and maintain the health of the Great Lakes, with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Environment and Climate Change Canada serving as lead agencies. Meanwhile, ­­­the International Joint Commission, established under the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty, fulfills the role of reviewing and evaluating efforts to restore the Great Lakes ecosystem, assessing the effectiveness of government programs to meet the agreement’s goals and objectives, and engaging the public on their perspectives of Great Lakes health.

Beyond binationalism, another strength of the agreement is its flexibility, which includes a requirement for periodic review that allows for modification as problems are solved, conditions change, or scientific research reveals new problems. Indeed, the agreement was updated in 1978, 1987 and most recently in 2012. As such, it has been described as an evolving instrument for ecosystem-based management.

The 1972 Agreement focused primarily on phosphorus pollution, or what scientists call eutrophication. The 1978 Agreement added toxic chemicals and introduced the concept of the ecosystem approach – which accounts for the interrelationships among air, water, land and all living things, including humans, and involves all user groups in comprehensive management. The 1987 revision focused more attention on lakewide management plans, and cleanup and restoration of pollution hotspots called Areas of Concern. The 2012 version expanded the focus to include invasive species, habitat and climate change.

Dr. John Gannon, emeritus scientist of the International Joint Commission noted:

“Not only is the agreement an international model of transboundary cooperation to protect shared natural resources, but it has been flexible and evolved to address emerging issues over time. That clearly is a strength of the agreement. However, improving accountability remains an issue requiring attention to improve implementation of the agreement.”

Through the agreement, Canada and the U.S. have also led the way in incorporating citizen participation into transboundary environmental protection and governance. Citizen participation is critical in achieving compliance with environmental laws and holding governments, industries and other stakeholders accountable.

John Jackson, a lifelong Great Lakes citizen activist and a student of the agreement, noted:

“One important outcome of the agreement is that it created a Great Lakes community – where people came to know one another and worked together to find innovative solutions. Through the agreement, eminent scientists have worked with activists to develop policies and find solutions to problems. Citizen activism through the agreement grew through collaboration and resulted in a more unified approach that gave the activist voices greater weight and legitimacy. In many respects, the agreement has been a crucible or microcosm where science, policy and restoration/protection were tested and successfully applied, and many of these policies eventually impacted the world.”

However, some scientists and non-governmental organizations worry about complacency and inadequate review and evaluation. Jane Elder, former executive director of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, and a long-time Great Lakes policy analyst, advocate and writer, noted:

“The agreement was a landmark diplomatic achievement for the environment and a model for cooperation on large, complex, shared ecosystems, but it has also been fraught with challenges over the decades. As it gained strength, built binational public constituencies and helped drive policy in the United States and Canada in the late 1970s and through the 1980s, it also began to be seen as a threat to industrial polluters and the regulatory agencies, as they didn’t like an independent watchdog comprised of the International Joint Commission’s Water Quality Board and Science Advisory Board and a few thousand informed citizens hovering around and challenging their business as usual. I worry that its symbolic value and its value as a driver of meaningful domestic action have faded over the decades, and that this outcome was the intent of the parties in their most recent negotiation.”

Internationally, the Great Lakes and the agreement are viewed as a proving ground for restoring ecosystem health and advancing ecosystem-based management. Continuous and vigorous oversight of the agreement will be needed as climate change has become the most pressing environmental challenge of our time and a threat multiplier, where warmer, wetter and wilder climatic conditions amplify other threats like harmful algal blooms, combined sewer overflow events, species changes, poor air quality effects on vulnerable residents and more.

Stakeholder involvement is critical to ensuring that restoration and protection of the Great Lakes remain priorities of governments.

John Hartig is a board member at the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. He serves as a Visiting Scholar at the University of Windsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research and has written numerous books and publications on the environment and the Great Lakes. Hartig also helped create the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, where he worked for 14 years as the refuge manager.

Catch more news at Great Lakes Now: 

Great Lakes Moment: Detroit River, a magnet for bald eagle photography

Great Lakes Moment: Overwintering ducks on the Detroit River create a sense of wonder

Featured image: Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (left) and U.S. President Richard Nixon (right) sign the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement on April 15, 1972. (Photo Credit: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum)


  1. Rosemary Hug 2 years ago

    Our aquifer in Northwest ohio williams County is being threatened by a corporation, AquaBounty. This proposed Gmo salmon producer is going to draw 5 million gals per day 24/7 and dump pollutants back into the St. joe River which flows to Fort Wayne and into the Lake Erie. Lip service in saying the Great Lakes are being protected as big Business and money wins

  2. John H. Hartig 2 years ago

    There are many threats to the Great Lakes as you described. In fact, climate change is considered a threat multiplier, where warmer, wetter and wilder climatic conditions amplify other threats like harmful algal blooms, combined sewer overflow events, species changes, poor air quality effects on vulnerable residents and more. History has shown that we need continuous and vigorous public oversight. We must all do our part. Thanks for caring and please continue to speak out for stewardship of our Great Lakes.

  3. JOHN V. STONE 2 years ago

    As always, John, excellent and informative perspective from one of the Basin’s foremost scholars. Thank you for your service, and keep up the great work!

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