Tag: Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement

History of The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement: Some progress, some problems

By Daniel Macfarlane

Daniel Macfarlane is an Associate Professor in the School of the Environment, Geography, and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. He is also a senior fellow at the Bill Graham Center for Contemporary International History, University of Toronto, and President of the International Water History Association. His research and teaching focus on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin. Macfarlane is the author or co-editor of six books, including Natural Allies: Environment, Energy and the History of U.S.-Canada Relations.

Pollution across the US-Canada water border, particularly from Detroit, was one of the main reasons for including a clause about pollution in the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty. Shortly after its creation, the International Joint Commission (IJC) addressed transboundary water pollution in the Niagara, Detroit, and St. Clair Rivers. The IJC recommended sewage treatment and water purification for human waste. But both nations mostly ignored the commission’s advice about restricting border pollution. Canada and the US did ink a treaty in 1920 about pollution, but it was not implemented.

By the early Cold War period, pollution in the Great Lakes basin was even worse. The two countries asked the IJC to investigate the state of the Great Lakes connecting channels. They found bacteria levels three to four times higher than during their 1912 investigation. And there was even more industrial waste than human waste entering the waters: two billion gallons of effluent daily versus 750 million gallons.

Many rivers in industrial areas, including the Cuyahoga River, caught fire in the 1950s and 1960s, leading to public demands for pollution cleanup of the Great Lakes.

By the 1960s, Lake Erie was widely considered “dead.” That was the result of excessive eutrophication – the process in which nutrient loading causes too much algae growth, and the algae in turn uses up the oxygen in the water when it decomposes. Cleveland’s grossly polluted Cuyahoga River repeatedly caught fire in the 1950s and 1960s, including the most famous blaze in 1969. But other rivers throughout the Great Lakes basin, such as the Rouge, Buffalo, and Chicago, also went aflame.

In 1964, Canada and the United States formally asked the IJC to study pollution in the lower Great Lakes. The IJC issued three reports that provided scientific evidence Cleveland’s grossly polluted Cuyahoga River repeatedly caught fire in the 1950s and 1960s, including the most famous blaze in 1969. But other rivers throughout the Great Lakes basin, such as the Rouge, Buffalo, and Chicago, also went aflame. attesting to the seriousness of the situation. However, Ontario and the various American governments were not willing to consider such measures at that time, and the report was mostly ignored. One impediment was Canada’s position that the 1909 BWT gave each country the right to contribute pollution up to half of the “assimilative capacity” of the waters, regardless of population.

The commission’s final report in 1970 concluded that municipal and industrial pollution was occurring on both sides of the boundary to the injury of health and property on the other side. Now the two countries were more willing to take action. Based on the IJC’s recommendations, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) was signed in 1972. This GLWQA only applied to the two lowest Great Lakes, Erie and Ontario, and the international section of the St. Lawrence River. The GLWQA committed each nation to develop common water quality objectives and regulatory standards for several pollutants, and to create and implement their own national programs to achieve these goals.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau of Canada and President Richard Nixon at the signing of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in Ottawa in April 1972.

The focus was point source pollution, chiefly excess nutrient loading from phosphorus and nitrogen. The main strategy to reduce the nutrient inflow involved improving municipal sewage treatment. Between 1972 and 1978, about USD $10 billion was spent on upgrades to water and sewage treatment. The bulk of this was through the US Clean Water Act. In both countries, the federal governments subsidized actions and regulations taken at the provincial and state levels.

Total phosphorus concentrations for Lake Erie soon declined, and the effect on water quality was readily apparent. Nevertheless, not all the phosphorus loading targets were being met. Moreover, the 1972 GLWQA did not apply to the three upper Great Lakes and it did not cover nonpoint sources of pollution nor hazardous toxics.

In 1978, the two governments replaced the 1972 agreement with a new GLWQA which widened to include all the Great Lakes. Through the 1978 Agreement, the two countries adopted a policy that the discharge of all persistent toxic substances be “virtually eliminated.” Timelines were established for municipal and industrial pollution abatement and control programs. The 1978 agreement also employed a broader ecosystem approach to basin management, recognizing that water, air, and land pollution were interlinked.

The amended Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1987 identified more than 40 polluted hotspots, known as Areas of Concern (AOCs), as priorities for cleanup.

The 1978 agreement has remained in place up to the present. Rather than a new agreement, changes and additions were made to the 1978 GLWQA. In 1987 an annex was added to the GLWQA. It created Areas of Concern (AOCs) for the most polluted parts of the basin, with Remedial Action Plans (RAPs) to clean them up. In 2012, a protocol was added.

However, both the 1972 and 1978 GLWQAs were non-binding – that is, they did not have the teeth of a formal treaty or diplomatic agreement. Rather, the GLWQA was a “standing reference” under the Boundary Waters Treaty. Since the GLWQA was a good faith agreement, it relied on the two countries to live up to its commitments. By the 1980s, they were already failing to do so. Most industries refused to appreciably curtail their discharges, and regulators were wary of cracking down on them. North American governments were often captured by the interests they were supposed to regulate, or let these industries police themselves. Unsurprisingly, the results were better for corporate bottom lines than for the lake ecosystem and public health.

A year after the 50th anniversary of the first GLWQA, the Great Lakes are arguably more degraded today than they were in the 1960s.

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was a watershed moment for environmental protection and became an international model for regulating transboundary pollution. Yet, a year after the 50th anniversary of the first GLWQA, the Great Lakes are arguably more degraded today than they were in the 1960s. Fueled by climate change, many old problems – like toxic algae – are returning, while new problems are appearing: microplastics, agricultural runoff, and toxics such as PFAS.

At 50 Years, How Much Progress Have We Made in the Fight for Clean Water?

Photo: Ford’s plant on the Rouge River

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

By Dave Dempsey

This year marks the 50th anniversary of two historically significant steps toward healthy streams and lakes, the U.S. Clean Water Act and the Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

But are these silver anniversaries truly green? Let’s take a look.

Signed by President Richard Nixon and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on April 15, 1972, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement formalized a partnership between the two nations to remedy the phosphorus pollution feeding severe algae blooms in western Lake Erie and bays and basins in some of the other Great Lakes. In subsequent years, the Agreement took on toxic pollutants and the cleanup of 43 pollution hotspots.

Enacted on October 18, 1972, through a Congressional override of President Nixon’s veto, the Clean Water Act provided the basic national framework for regulating water pollution and funding the construction of modern sewage treatment plans. The goal of the law was to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters. The interim goals of the Clean Water Act were to achieve “fishable and swimmable” waters by 1983 and eliminate all discharges of pollutants into navigable waters by 1985.

Neither of these goals has been met — or anything close to them. On the other hand, the nation’s waters, and the Great Lakes, have dramatically improved in some ways since 1972.

Nationally, in its first three decades, from 1972 through 2001, the Clean Water Act achieved major progress. More than 60% of lakes and more than 55% of rivers met water quality standards. But thousands of lakes and rivers fell short of the standards, and progress has been scarce since the turn of the 21st century.

As for the Great Lakes, the U.S. and Canada describe the ecosystem health of three of the five as fair, of one (Erie) as poor, and of only one, Superior, as good.

What’s going wrong?

One reason for the unsatisfactory state of many of the nation’s lakes and streams is a major gap in the Clean Water Act. Although it has substantially reduced pollution from factories and sewage treatment plants, it has done relatively little to curb runoff from farms and urban areas and the deposit of airborne toxic pollutants. One example is western Lake Erie, which is again in poor condition because of runoff from farms, including those with concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Algae blooms are an annual occurrence and in 2014 a severe bloom near Toledo’s Lake Erie drinking water intake resulted in a “do not drink” advisory for 400,000 customers for almost two days.

Neither the Clean Water Act nor the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement achieved its goals for another reason — aging sewage treatment plants. The 1972 version of the Clean Water Act provided federal grants of 75 percent of the cost of building the plants, resulting in nationwide construction and pollution reduction. Congress later converted the grants to loans, reducing the capital available for construction. Cash-strapped states and municipalities delayed upgrades and construction of sewage treatment plants.

Throughout the clean water silver anniversary, FLOW will explore this 50-year history. What can we learn from its successes and failures? How do we restore truly healthy Great Lakes?

The answers are neither simple nor easy — but Americans want clean water. The next 50 years will require a national commitment.