Tag: Great Lakes Water Quality Board

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.”

Public Support for Great Lakes Protection is Strong, But Surveyed Residents Say Lakes in Poor Shape

A recently-released survey of residents of the Great Lakes watershed reveals strong support for government funding and actions to protect the Lakes, but also suggests the public believes the lakes are not in good shape.

Sponsored by the Great Lakes Water Quality Board (WQB), which is appointed by the International Joint Commission, the survey found that 90 percent of 2021 randomized phone poll respondents and 95 percent of online poll respondents believe it is important to protect the Great Lakes.

The top three threats to the health of the Great Lakes named by phone poll respondents were:

  • Invasive species, 15 percent
  • Pollution in general, 13 percent
  • Industrial pollution/waste, 11 percent

As was true in polls administered by WQB in 2015 and 2018, “don’t know” was one of the leading answers when phone poll respondents were asked to name, on their own initiative, threats to the Great Lakes or waters that feed into the Great Lakes. The good news is that the proportion of respondents giving this answer was down by 9 percent from 2018.

The poll suggested that residents of the Great Lakes watershed have mixed to unfavorable opinions about the health of the Lakes and their overall water quality trend. Twenty-nine percent called the condition of the Lakes good or very good, 33 percent poor or very poor, and 18 percent neutral (neither poor nor good). Two in 10 did not know. Those most connected with Michigan, Erie and Ontario rated them poorest, while Superior and Huron scored the best. 

Thirty percent of the poll respondents believe the health of the Great Lakes is deteriorating while 18 percent believe it is improving. Thirty-three percent said it has stayed about the same.

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the U.S. and Canada calls for the Lakes to be safe for swimming, drinking and fishing. Forty percent of respondents said swimming is safe or very safe, but 30 percent called it very unsafe or not safe. The margin for drinking water was 36 percent very unsafe or not safe and only 29 percent safe or very safe. For consuming fish, 38 percent said it is very unsafe or not safe, and only 28 percent safe or very safe.

Additional targets were set for participation by First Nation, Métis and Tribal Nation members, assuring a total of 500 respondents. When asked how they engage culturally with the Great Lakes, indigenous peoples replied: fishing/ice fishing (29 percent), canoeing/kayaking/wind surfing/paddleboard (13 percent) and swimming/beach visits (12 percent.) When asked whether any of the ways they engage with the lakes are threatened or they are no longer able to participate in them because of the poor health and water quality of the lakes, 49 percent of indigenous respondents said yes and 45 percent said no.

The WQB gathered 4,550 responses from a traditional randomized phone poll and 4,674 responses to questions from an online poll that repeated questions from the phone poll, modified questions from the phone poll, and posed new questions. The margin of error for the total 4,550 poll sample in the phone poll is ±1.5 percent.