Five Lakes, Two Countries…and One Ecosystem

For five decades, the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement has helped protect our natural heritage—and there’s much more work to do

A Healthy Dose of Binational Cooperation

If you look at a map of our five Great Lakes, you’ll see a line running through the middle of four of them, marking the aquatic border between the U.S. and Canada. 

But if you spend any time on the Lakes themselves, you’ll never see any such line. The borders we humans have invented don’t affect the motion of the water that fills our Lakes. Or the movement of the fish, animals, and plants living in and around them. Or the trail of pollutants we ourselves have allowed into the environment.

map of the Great Lakes basin
Map of the Great Lakes Basin. Shared with permission from the Michigan Sea Grant.

But political borders do matter. Human activity has a dramatic impact on the Great Lakes ecosystem, which crosses two nations and numerous indigenous, state, provincial, and local jurisdictions. Each government has its own laws, regulations, and resources, which means there is no pathway to protecting our natural heritage that does not include a healthy dose of binational cooperation. 

That’s why the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) is so important. It was signed by U.S. President Richard Nixon and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau nearly fifty years ago on April 13, 1972.  (Fun fact: at a dinner the night before, Nixon raised a toast “to the future prime minister of Canada – Justin Pierre Trudeau.” The younger Trudeau was just four months old at the time – but Nixon’s prediction did come true, 43 years later.)

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement

Over the years, the GLWQA has proven more durable than any politician or political party. Amended in 1978 and 1987 and updated in 2012, the agreement has a stamp of approval from both Republican and Democratic U.S. presidents (Nixon, Reagan, and Obama) and Liberal and Conservative Canadian prime ministers (Trudeau, Mulroney, and Harper).

On both sides of the border, renewal and protection of the Great Lakes is a rare issue that bridges typical partisan divisions. Hikers, hunters, swimmers, kayakers, campers, and anglers come from across the political spectrum. And on the U.S. side alone, our Lakes support more than 1.3 million jobs and $82 billion in annual wages

family walking on beach
Protecting the Great Lakes supports a variety of recreational opportunities for U.S. and Canadian citizens.

When the GLWQA was first negotiated in the 1970s, governments on both sides of the border were responding to a growing and powerful citizen movement to protect the environment. At the time, the Great Lakes were suffering from decades of mostly uncontrolled industrial pollution, with visible and hazardous impacts: Spoiled drinking water, closed beaches, and burning rivers in Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit. 

Toxic fires on major urban waterways are, fortunately, a thing of the past. On several key measures, the health of the Great Lakes has improved greatly during five decades of bilateral cooperation.  

  • The presence of some—but not all—dangerous toxic chemicals found in the Great Lakes has declined significantly since the 1980s. Mercury levels are on the decline, and there is far less evidence of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) found in whole fish or herring gull eggs. 
  • More than $22 billion, in U.S. dollars, has been spent on both sides of the border to clean up Areas of Concern (AOCs) identified under terms of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.  These are harbors, beaches, rivers, and other areas where pollution and human activity have impaired beneficial uses of the Lakes and surrounding waterways. Eight of 43 AOCs have been fully cleaned up and de-listed. Several other AOCs have completed all or most remaining remedial actions. Researchers estimate a three-to-one return on investment for dollars spent on clean-up funds in the Great Lakes. Harbors, rivers, and other sites that were once hazardous eyesores have been transformed into business, recreation, and tourism hubs, while also supporting healthier fish and wildlife. Kayakers now paddle on rivers that once burned, including the Cuyahoga in Cleveland. 
  • Public engagement, required by the GLWQA, has brought thousands of citizen activists to public forums, seminars, and education sessions about the health of the Great Lakes. Citizen action built the movement that has demanded better protection for our Great Lakes, and continued organizing is vital to meeting future environmental challenges. 
  • Core principles of the GLWQA agreement have set important standards for the Great Lakes, and informed national and international pollution prevention efforts. These include prevention strategies to design hazardous substances out of product supply chains, zero discharge of persistent toxic chemicals, and an ecosystem approach focused on the interdependence of people, plants, wildlife and the natural environment. With the participation of Great Lakes scientists and activists, similar ideas are now incorporated into a United Nations protocol on pollution prevention.

A Common Natural Heritage

Another byproduct after five decades binational collaboration is a growing recognition that no matter where we live, we all share a common natural heritage—with a corresponding responsibility to protect it. 

“I live in Kitchener Ontario,” says John Jackson, a longtime colleague and friend of NWF, who served for decades as a board member, president and eventually as staff of Great Lakes United, one of the region’s most effective advocacy organizations when it was operating. “I spend tonnes of time on the U.S. side. I’m a citizen of the Lakes, and it’s totally legitimate for me to go to Washington DC to lobby for environmental protection. If we’re going to solve Great Lakes problems, we have to make progress in all jurisdictions simultaneously.” 

Coalition members pose for a picture on Capitol hill.
Great Lakes Day. Credit: Healing Our Waters – Great Lakes Coalition.

The progress made so far thanks to the GLWQA is especially impressive given what the agreement is—and what it isn’t. Negotiated under terms of the 1909 US Canada Boundary Waters Treaty, the U.S. and Canadian governments have ultimate responsibility for implementing the GLWQA. This process is overseen by the International Joint Commission (IJC), with three U.S. and three Canadian commissioners. The IJC does not have any regulatory or enforcement powers concerning water quality and does not have its own budget authority.

Instead, the IJC serves a largely advisory role under the GLWQA. Much of this advice is developed through the work of advisory boards made up of individuals from diverse sectors. Implementation of programs considering this advice is largely the work of the federal governments. On the U.S. side, for example, the multi-year, multi-billion-dollar Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has been crucial for carrying out remediation in Areas of Concern. The IJC can recommend such action and provide a scientific basis for it—but it takes an act of Congress (or Parliament in Canada) and/or administrative action to get the job done.

Challenges to the Great Lakes

And there’s still plenty of work to do. “The State of The Great Lakes 2019,” prepared by the U.S. EPA and Environment and Climate Change Canada under terms of the GLWQA, assesses nine indicators. Just two—drinking water and beaches—are ranked as “good and unchanging.” The verdict is “fair and unchanging” on six indicators—fish consumption, toxic chemicals, habitat and species, nutrients and algae, groundwater and watershed impacts, and climate change.

zebra mussels
Zebra mussels harm native fish populations, ruin beaches, and attach to boats, water intake pipes, and other structures, causing the Great Lakes economy billions of dollars a year in damage. Credit: Dave Britton/USFWS.

The status for invasive species, meanwhile, is “poor and deteriorating.” Even though there are fewer new invasives now entering the Lakes, the ones already here—zebra and quagga mussels, phragmites, purple loosestrife, and garlic mustard—continue to crowd out native species and interfere with the aquatic food chain. 

Here are just a few of the challenges to the Great Lakes we must all confront in coming years:

Old and new toxic chemicals

This includes emerging chemicals of concern like PFASs, the “forever” substances linked to cancer, and other diseases which are present throughout the region. We also face the lingering legacy of now-banned substances like DDT and PCBs. The immense size and unique hydrology of the Great Lakes means water cycles through the system slowly; less than one percent of water from the five Lakes flows through the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic Ocean each year.

This makes our Lakes especially sensitive to damage caused by toxic compounds, which can persist in the water for decades. Fortunately, the GLWQA sets a framework for zero discharge of these toxic chemicals, which would stop the “whack-a-mole” approach that we currently employ and which has led to a seemingly never-ending cascade of chemical soup—DDTs, PBDEs, PFASs, and others. 

Harmful algal blooms, caused by excessive nutrients

This is one of the original issues tackled in the early days of the GLWQA. An overflow of nutrients brings unrestrained growth of algal to the Great Lakes, and if a harmful variety, can foul our drinking water, pollute our beaches, and cause ecological problems. The problem was partially addressed decades ago by removing phosphates from detergents and upgrading sewage treatment plants.

But harmful algal blooms (HABs) are back, this time fueled largely by runoff from large-scale agricultural operations combined with climate change leading to warmer waters and more intense storms. “You have to stay vigilant even on the old issues that can come back to haunt you,” says John Jackson. Fortunately, the GLWQA sets a framework for cleaning up Lake Erie, the poster child for what happens when algal blooms get out of control.

Climate change

The ever-growing levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, caused by human activity, is the overriding environmental issue of our times. Steadily rising air and water temperatures create specific risks for the Great Lakes, including: 

  • An increase in invasive species and HABs.
  • Changes in the location and distribution of plant and animal species, which will disrupt established fishing and hunting activities. This can also interfere with cultural, subsistence, and economic needs in Tribal communities.
  • A decrease in agricultural productivity for certain crops.
  • Increased heatwaves, which will degrade air and water quality, and could lead to potentially dangerous changes in disease patterns.
  • A rise in extreme weather events, threatening coastal homes and communities, and increasing runoff. 

These issues, while often less visible, are harder to solve and require more sustained public attention and action than those of 50 years ago. 

An International Agenda

The challenges ahead are enormous. Five decades of regional cooperation, however, also shows the potential for enormous progress. The shores of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, once a symbol of industrial decay, are now a billion-dollar entertainment and recreation hub. The bald eagle, once endangered by the widespread use of DDT, soars again over the Midwest. Perhaps most important, a new generation of young and diverse environmental activists are demanding that climate change, access to clean water, and other key issues remain at the top of our national and international agenda.

Our Great Lakes, as beautiful and powerful as they are, can’t protect themselves. That’s up to us, and the track record is clear. We succeed when we work across borders—national, indigenous, state, provincial or local with everyone who cares about our region and our ecosystem. As the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement approaches 50, it’s time to rededicate ourselves to binational cooperation—respecting sovereignty, history, and culture—and visionary action.