Evaluating the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement on its 50th Birthday


When Lake Erie algae blooms worsened to a crisis in the 1960s, Canada and the United States shared the problem—but no mechanism to combat it jointly.

Out of that gap came the binational Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Signed by Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and U.S. President Richard Richard Nixon in Ottawa on April 15, 1972, the pact embraced the reality that Great Lakes water flows across the international boundary and that only through joint effort can the lakes be restored.

Has it worked?

The answer: yes and no. Yes, the Great Lakes are better off than they would be without the Agreement. The two countries have coordinated efforts to clean up the lakes for decades, keeping the commitment they made 50 years ago. That commitment is to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Waters of the Great Lakes.” These efforts have reduced, but not eliminated, both conventional and chemical forms of pollution and broadened the perspectives of both governments and the public to grasp the importance of regarding the Lakes as an ecosystem, instead of a jumble of unrelated pieces.

But the Agreement’s 1972 goals are unfulfilled. In particular, the Great Lakes are not “free from nutrients entering the waters as a result of human activity in concentrations that create nuisance growths of aquatic weeds and algae.” After early successes in reducing the phosphorus pollution that spurred algae outbreaks, the two nations have witnessed a rebound in both nuisance and harmful algae in Lake Erie since the early 2000s. A toxic bloom forced Toledo, Ohio, officials to warn residents not to drink city water for two days in the summer of 2014. Algae blooms also occur in Saginaw Bay and pockets of Lake Michigan and Lake Ontario. Lately, blooms have appeared in Lake Superior, the coldest and cleanest of the Great Lakes, for reasons not yet clear.

Has it worked? The answer: yes and no. Yes, the Great Lakes are better off than they would be without the Agreement. But the Agreement’s 1972 goals are unfulfilled.

While the scientific explanation for the Lake Erie algae trend is complicated, the social and political explanation is simple. The primary culprit in the 1950s and 1960s, when a University of Toronto researcher said the lake was dying, was phosphorus soaps and detergents, discharged primarily from sewage plants after household use, and thus easy to attack. Today, runoff of farm fertilizer and animal waste is the primary cause, and there is little political appetite for enforcing strict phosphorus limits on agriculture. Similarly, politicians on both sides of the border are generally unwilling to spend political capital challenging industry to reduce the use and introduction of toxic chemicals that often contaminate sportfish. Pollution also limits other human uses in areas of the Great Lakes, including swimming.

This is just one of several problems undermining the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which has been significantly altered three times, in 1978, 1987 and 2012.

Report cards issued by the two governments and by the International Joint Commission (IJC), which the Agreement charges with evaluating progress, are mixed. The governments’ 2019 State of the Great Lakes report characterizes the lakes as “fair and unchanging. While progress to restore and protect the Great Lakes has occurred, including the reduction of toxic chemicals, the indicator assessments demonstrate that there are still significant challenges, including the impacts of nutrients and invasive species.”

The biggest threat to the Great Lakes is undoubtedly climate change. It will alter the lakes in many ways, some of them not foreseeable. Warming groundwater, changes in the aquatic food web, and increasing algae blooms are likely among them.

There are other major challenges to the health of the Great Lakes: habitat loss, pollution of groundwater that feeds the lakes, and climate change. Meanwhile, mistakes of the past continue to plague the lakes. After more than three decades of cleanup effort, 34 of an original 43 Areas of Concern (AOCs) remain (26 U.S., 12 Canadian and five shared). AOCs are bays, harbors, and rivers that are victims of chemical and conventional pollution requiring billions of taxpayer dollars to clean up. The toxic materials, such as PCBs, dioxins, and mercury are persistent and have contaminated millions of cubic yards of underwater sediments. An additional $1 billion for the Great Lakes appropriated by Congress this year will go to cleanup activities at several AOCs.

There is growing awareness that a binational U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement excludes governments that should have an equal seat at the table–tribes, First Nations, and Metis, whose sovereignty, wisdom, and scientific knowledge are essential to the health of the Great Lakes. Yet it was only in the 2012 version of the Agreement that indigenous membership was specified on the Great Lakes Water Quality Board, and only in 2019 that the first indigenous member of the IJC, Henry Lickers, was appointed by the Canadian government.

The biggest threat to the Great Lakes is undoubtedly climate change. It will alter the lakes in many ways, some of them not foreseeable. Warming groundwater, changes in the aquatic food web, and increasing algae blooms are likely among them. The 2012 version of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement contains an annex devoted to climate change, but focuses solely on assessment and planning.

In signing the Agreement in Ottawa in April 1972, President Nixon said, “This agreement represents an important beginning, one which has been made possible by the cooperation of our two national governments and of State and Provincial governments as well. And now we must all follow through on the beginning.

Today, we are still closer to the beginning than the end of Great Lakes restoration, Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement notwithstanding.

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