Liz Kirkwood Reflects on the Importance of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement After 50 Years


Friday, April 15, marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement–a deep and lasting commitment between the two nations to restore and protect the greatest collection of fresh surface water on the planet. 

A key institution in the execution of the Agreement is the Great Lakes Water Quality Board, which advises the International Joint Commission. The Board assists the Commission by assessing the progress of the governments of Canada and the United States in implementing the Agreement. The Water Quality Board also identifies emerging issues, recommends strategies and approaches for preventing and resolving complex challenges facing the Great Lakes, and provides advice on the role of relevant jurisdictions. 

Liz Kirkwood, FLOW’s executive director, is a U.S. appointee to the 28-member binational board. Here are her thoughts on the Board’s role under the Agreement in protecting the lakes. (You also can read our companion piece here: Evaluating the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement on its 50th Birthday).

How important is the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement  in Great Lakes protection?

Liz Kirkwood: “Very important. It serves as the architectural framework for the Canada and U.S. governments to protect and restore the Great Lakes.”

What role does the Great Lakes Water Quality Board (WQB) play in the Agreement?

Liz Kirkwood: “The WQB is the principal advisor to the IJC on Great Lakes water quality, according to the Agreement. The WQB marshals science-based evidence to advance a shared policy vision where human communities and natural ecosystems of the Great Lakes can thrive together.

Public policy rooted in scientific understanding and informed by the social and cultural context matters tremendously. It translates our values into meaningful and long-term action to change our relationship with each other and the lakes.

“The threats to this global unique ecosystem loom large. They include pollution, algal blooms, invasive species, climate change impacts, water diversion, urbanization, habitat destruction, failing water infrastructure, transboundary pipelines, variable lake water levels, and much more. Sustaining and restoring the health of the waters is a precondition for the long-term health of our interdependent communities. We are all interconnected.” 

How do you see your role on the WQB?

Liz Kirkwood: “As a member of the WQB, I hope to bring a public trust perspective to holistically tend to and care for this complex ecosystem, as one that transcends artificial, man-made jurisdictional boundaries.

“Public policy rooted in scientific understanding and informed by the social and cultural context matters tremendously. It translates our values into meaningful and long-term action to change our relationship with each other and the lakes. Over the last 50 years, technological and scientific advancements have deepened our understanding about our interconnectedness with the natural world and underscored the need to collaboratively manage the Great Lakes using an ecosystem approach that prioritizes public health and social equity.”

What do you think the public needs to know about the Agreement?

Liz Kirkwood: “It is extraordinary to think that Canada, the U.S., and multiple Tribal, First Nations, and Metis sovereign nations share the globally unique responsibility of stewarding 20 percent of the planet’s fresh surface water.  The Agreement serves as an international expression and commitment to do so. As we look forward towards the next 50 years, we must recognize all peoples with a multilateral agreement for meaningful participation and inclusion.

“Canadians, Americans, and Indigenous peoples, particularly the 40 million people who depend on these waters in the Great Lakes region for drinking water, should call on their respective governments to fulfill the promise of this agreement and to serve as an example of how countries can and must work together to address water security and sustainability for future generations.”

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