Revised Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement Offers Renewed Guiding Framework for Restoration

An updated Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was signed today in Washington, D.C., offering the hope for increased collaborative actions to protect and restore the Great Lakes. The Agreement has been described as a “North Star” guiding protection and restoration of the Great Lakes since it was first signed by the U.S. and Canadian governments (the “Parties”) in 1972.

Today’s signing is the first revision to the Agreement since it was last amended by protocol in 1987, when a major emphasis was toxic chemicals and water quality. In the meantime, researchers, policymakers, and many others (including the public) have come to recognize a number of other stresses to the lakes that need to be addressed or receive greater emphasis, including aquatic invasive species, habitat degradation, harmful algal blooms, and climate change. These and other issues were raised in multiple reviews and consultations related to the Agreement, including by the International Joint Commission and in the 2006-07 government review process, in which NWF, Great Lakes United, and a number of other groups and individuals were involved.

The purpose of the revised Agreement is consistent with this input, and with language in the previous Agreement: “The purpose of this Agreement is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Waters of the Great Lakes.” While the revised Agreement retains an emphasis on water quality, it also highlights the need to address other threats to the waters through an ecosystem approach, and includes several new annexes, including on nutrients, aquatic invasive species, and climate change impacts.

View from Leelanau State Park, MI. Photo by Michael Murray
A recent NWF report summarizing results of a survey of environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on chemicals policy in the region similarly found strong support for a multifaceted purpose to the Agreement. Concerning toxic chemicals specifically, the survey also found strong support for virtual elimination and zero discharge goals (identified in the previous Agreement), which have been retained, though in revised form, addressing “chemicals of mutual concern” to be identified by the Parties. The survey also found strong support for other components, including pollution prevention approaches (such as green chemistry); while the revised Agreement does incorporate precaution and prevention as principles or approaches, it does not explicitly reference green chemistry.

The NWF survey also noted the importance of implementing strong programs through the Agreement to achieve its goals and objectives, including through the Binational Toxics Strategy (BTS) or an equivalent strategy. The BTS, signed in 1997, has been a collaborative, stakeholder effort to advance programs toward meeting virtual elimination goals for toxic chemicals under the Agreement. Though it remains to be seen what form the BTS or a new strategy will take under the new Agreement, a number of aspects of a strategy were found in the survey to be important, including the ability for stakeholders to influence the type and scope of activities implemented.

Achieving success under the new Agreement will only come with strong implementation, as noted by National Wildlife Federation’s Andy Buchsbaum and Great Lakes United’s John Jackson, who attended today’s ceremony. Among other things, this will require provision of adequate resources by the governments, strengthened/expanded legislation and regulations (such as current efforts to reform the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act), and adequate opportunities for public and stakeholder engagement.



Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement

From the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement to the Binational Toxics Strategy: An Assessment of NGO Perspectives on Chemicals Policies in the Great Lakes, National Wildlife Federation.


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Published: September 7, 2012