New IJC Report Strengthens Case for Great Lakes Climate Change Framework

Just as water does not stop at the international boundary in the middle of the Great Lakes, climate change is having dramatic effects on both the U.S. and Canadian sides of the shared waters.

In its triennial report issued last week on Great Lakes water quality progress, the International Joint Commission (IJC) called for the two nations to begin coordinating the response to wide fluctuations in water levels, warming lake waters, shrinking ice cover, threats to biological diversity, and storms of increasing intensity that release large pollution flows to the Great Lakes and their tributaries.

Established under the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty between the U.S. and Canada, the IJC prevents and resolves boundary water conflicts between the two nations, and is charged under the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement with independently assessing and reporting on the governments’ progress.

The climate change threat to the Great Lakes requires more urgency from the U.S. and Canadian governments, the IJC said. Three years ago, the IJC said, “the unprecedented threat of climate change should compel both community and basinwide responses, and recommended that the Parties develop a binational approach to climate change adaptation in the Great Lakes as well as invest in a binational vulnerability assessment.” Neither nation has taken action on the IJC recommendation.

In last week’s report, the IJC said, “The Commission believes it is important that the [U.S. and Canadian governments] focus on climate adaptation and managing for resilience since mitigation measures at a regional scale like the Great Lakes basin may have limited potential to ameliorate impacts in the region, despite the incremental value that those actions have.” The IJC offered its services to convene key Great Lakes parties to identify and further explore essential elements of a binational climate adaptation and resiliency strategy.

“The climate crisis is time critical, and the IJC’s recommendation to develop a framework for responding to climate change impacts by adapting and building resilience is urgently needed,” said Liz Kirkwood, FLOW’s Executive Director. “The IJC’s offer to convene stakeholders in the region as a neutral third  party is exactly the kind of role the Commission was meant to play.”

Last year the IJC appointed Kirkwood to fill an at-large seat for a three-year term on the Great Lakes Water Quality Board. 

In a related recommendation, the IJC called for work to eliminate outbreaks of cyanobacteria algal blooms in Lake Superior. The outbreaks of cyanobacterial algae, formerly unknown in Lake Superior, have appeared in the western end of the lake near Duluth and Ashland in 2012, 2016, 2017, and 2018, and east of Thunder Bay in 2019. The southwestern shore of the lake experienced at least three extreme (500- or 1,000-year) storms beginning in 2012. The IJC said increasing evidence points to the increase in storm intensity and the onset of algal blooms as a climate-driven phenomena.

The report also calls for improved environmental reporting on the Great Lakes and better public engagement by the two nations. “…[For] some stakeholders and rights holders the Commission was told that the [U.S. and Canadian governments’] engagement is lacking. Commenters noted that the Agreement does not adequately formalize a ‘seat at the table’ to engage or institutionalize the participation of Indigenous and Métis governments in implementation decisions, and a number of individuals representing community groups and nongovernment organizations expressed concern about the adequacy of engagement of frontline communities in government decisions about the Great Lakes.”

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