The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement Turns 50

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The Great Lakes today are experiencing a range of problems that weren’t even on the horizon a half-century ago – climate change, plastics, contaminants such as PFAS/PFOA. And even though the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) has been in place for fifty years now, some of the old problems that led to this agreement have reappeared. The GLWQA provides the mechanisms and means of cleaning up the Great Lakes – but it can’t do much if we aren’t collectively willing to do what is necessary to protect these sweetwater seas. 

On April 15, 1972, Pierre Trudeau and Richard Nixon both put pen to paper, then smiled for the cameras as they shook hands after signing the GLWQA. Relations between the two had turned frosty, but warmed enough for this occasion to protect the ecological integrity of their shared boundary waters.

Nixon (left) and Trudeau (right) signing the 1972 GLWQA. Library and Archives Canada

Signed fifty years ago this week, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement is one of the most significant of the many Canada-U.S. environmental accords. The GLWQA created a framework for Canada and the U.S. to cooperatively restore and protect the biochemical and geophysical integrity of their border waters. In doing so, it became an international model for addressing transboundary pollution.

As early as 1909, both governments recognized transborder pollution problems in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin as part of the Boundary Waters Treaty, which created the International Joint Commission (IJC). After the Second World War, pollution in the lower Great Lakes and their connecting channels had become so bad it couldn’t be ignored. Algae coated the water, fisheries crashed, dredging stirred up contaminants such as mercury, DDT, and PCB; Lake Erie was declared dead because of eutrophication and the Cuyahoga River notoriously kept catching fire. While such degradations had previously been swept under the rug, the burgeoning North American environmental movement motivated people to say that enough was enough.

In 1956, the United States had requested that Canada join it in asking the IJC to formally study pollution in the Great Lakes. Canada delayed until 1964 when the two countries finally referred the issue of Lower Lakes pollution to the IJC. Many years passed while extensive studies were conducted on pollution in Lakes Ontario and Erie, and the upper St. Lawrence River. 

In 1970, the IJC’s Lower Lakes report showed that industrial and municipal wastes had increased several-fold over the previous half-century and were the main sources of pollution. The report recommended new water quality objectives, stressing the need to address nutrient loading while clearing up much of the remaining scientific uncertainty about issues such as eutrophication. According to one of the involved scientist-policymakers, Dr. Henry Regier, international scientific networks and the emerging field of ecology were key in shaping the evolution of the GLWQA.[1]  

Anti-pollution protestors hold signs outside of the water pollution hearings in Cleveland, 1968. Cleveland State Library Special Collections

It took many years to arrive at the GLWQA, but the process would have taken even longer without local activism. Over the course of 1969-70, the IJC held public consultations around the lakes, which featured statements from 180 witnesses and another 200 comments mailed in. In addition to industry and academic representatives, members of the League of Women Voters and Pollution Probe appeared. Many individual citizens, including housewives and secondary school students, lodged oral and written complaints about pollution and degradation. “The housewife believes phosphorous should be removed from the detergents” said one, adding “we don’t care as much about snow white shirts as about cleaning up the Lakes.”[2] When I spoke with him in 2021, Dr. Regier stressed that many, maybe most, of the key environmental victories in the Great Lakes basin in this era were “won with leadership by women. Many of the women were unpaid volunteers or underpaid activists. Mostly it has been well-paid men who then led with the implementation.”[3]

With the IJC’s studies in hand, and pushed by public sentiment, the two federal governments, along with the relevant provinces and states, proceeded to hash out the accord that became the GLWQA. Canada argued, unsuccessfully, that each country should be able to pollute up to half of the lake’s assimilative capacity. Besides, it later became apparent that the understanding of assimilative capacity was flawed and had not considered how lake currents and stratification distributed pollutants unevenly.

The GLWQA was made a “standing reference” under the Boundary Waters Treaty, and the IJC was tasked with coordinating implementation as well as tracking and evaluating progress. Its provisions were weaker than what earlier IJC studies had called for, but the 1972 agreement aimed to limit phosphorus and nitrogen inputs, included a nondegredation philosophy, and established common cross-border goals for a variety of pollutants. But it was a good faith “executive” agreement rather than a treaty, which could be terminated with one year’s notice, and with no legal mechanisms for enforcement. It relied on the two countries to live up to their commitments – which later became a problem.[4]

The GLWQA succeeded in tackling eutrophication in the lower lakes by reducing point-source nutrient inputs from detergents, sewage, and agricultural fertilizer run-off. Within a few years, algae problems had mostly cleared up – although this had as much to do with other regulations, such as the Clean Water Act and the Canada Water Act, and an influx of governmental spending, particularly on new sewage treatment facilities.  

In 1978, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was revised, updated, and broadened after ongoing studies made it apparent that toxins and nonpoint source pollution were big problems in the Great Lakes. This 1978 GLWQA applied to all of the Great Lakes basin, not just the lower lakes, widened the scope of the agreement to nonpoint-source pollutants, and called for the elimination of persistent and hazardous toxins as far as possible. Notably, the new GLWQA formally incorporated the “ecosystem approach,” perhaps the first international agreement to do so, which aimed to restore and maintain the physical, biological, and chemical integrity of the Great Lakes by recognizing the interplay of water, land, and air. 

The GLWQA has since been enhanced several times. In 1987, Areas of Concern (AOCs) were added, which identified the most toxic hotspots on the Great Lakes, along with Remedial Action Plans (RAPs) to clean them up. The most recent update to the GLWQA came in 2012.

Map of Great Lakes Areas of Concern.

That first 1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, now a half-century old, was the foundation for building the institutional and regulatory apparatus we have in place today.  However, we have to be careful about exaggerating the successes of the agreement. Compared to what came later, the 1972 GLWQA focused on a relatively straightforward problem – that is, conventional pollutants that came from identifiable point sources – in an era when the public, governments, and even industry were motivated to tackle very obvious ecological problems. But when more complicated and expensive problems emerged in subsequent decades, neither country sufficiently stepped up their spending or regulations to keep pace. 

[1] Jennifer Read, “Origins of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreements: Concepts and Structures,” in The First Century of the International Joint Commission, eds. Daniel Macfarlane and Murray Clamen (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2020). On the implementation and performance of the GLWQA since the 1972 agreement see also in this book the chapter by Gail Krantzberg and the chapter by Debora VanNijnatten and Carolyn Johns.
[2] International Joint Commission, “Pollution of Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and the International Section of the St. Lawrence River” (Ottawa and Washington: IJC, 1970), 17-18:
[3] Henry Regier, personal correspondence with Daniel Macfarlane, November 15, 2021.
[4] Lee Botts and Paul Muldoon, Evolution of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreements (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2005).

Feature image: Toxic Algae Bloom in Lake Erie in 2011. Wikipedia commons
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Daniel is an Associate Professor in the School of the Environment, Geography, and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. He is an editor for The Otter-La loutre and is part of the NiCHE executive. A transnational environmental historian who focuses on Canadian-American border waters and energy issues, particularly in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, Daniel is the author or co-editor of five books on topics such as the St. Lawrence Seaway, border waters, IJC, and Niagara Falls. His book "Natural Allies: Environment, Energy, and the History of US-Canada Relations" was published in summer 2023. His newest book, an environmental history of Lake Ontario, will be released in 2024. Website: Twitter: @Danny__Mac__

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