Tag: U.S.-Canada 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.

Remembering Lee Botts – A Faithful Friend of the Great Lakes

By Dave Dempsey

When Lee Botts died October 5 at age 91, the Great Lakes lost one of their best—and most faithful and effective—friends.

Although perhaps not well known in Michigan, Lee was a legend in the Great Lakes environmental community—particularly in northwest Indiana. She not only made our freshwater seas cleaner and more vibrant because of her work, but with constant, generous mentoring, passed her skills on to succeeding generations of advocates.

An Oklahoma native who moved to Chicago, then to northwest Indiana, Lee was an environmental giant when I met her in the 1980s. She was a co-founder and first director of the Lake Michigan Federation (now the Alliance for the Great Lakes), she was present at the creation of the advocacy group Great Lakes United, the former chair of the Great Lakes Basin Commission, and a citizen champion of the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. She convinced Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to make his city the first Great Lakes city to ban phosphates in laundry detergentsShe was a brilliant, often blunt, but warm-hearted, leader whose foes included men who couldn’t abide a strong woman. She showed them how advocacy should be done.

Jim Olson, FLOW’s founder and president, said, “When you met and worked with Lee, she became your mentor whether you knew it at the time or not. You knew she was a leader, one who led and worked passionately for the integrity of the Great Lakes, but also as a champion of the integrity of the process and the persons involved, whom she challenged to do the right thing. She was always prepared, saw the next strategical moves, and was fiercely articulate when she spoke or wrote. Her legacy includes much of the policy and values that protect the Great Lakes today.”

Long before I met her, Lee had begun a lifelong love affair with the remarkable sand dune region of northwest Indiana. In 1959, Lee had joined the Save the Dunes Council, an organization dedicated to saving what remained of the threatened dunes on Indiana’s Lake Michigan shoreline, sustaining a battle begun decades earlier that finally culminated when Congress established the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in 1966. She carried on the work in her later years.

Lee founded the Indiana Dunes Environmental Learning Center within the Indiana Dunes National Park. The center offers year-round environmental education programs and overnight nature-camp experiences for grade-school students and teachers. Around 14,000 students from Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois, visit the Center annually.

Lee schooled me and many young men and women in matters of the Great Lakes. She significantly influenced my outlook on, and understanding of, everything related to the Great Lakes, and Lee’s advice continues to shape my views today.  She was generous to me and many others with her time and attention.

Jane Elder, former director of the Sierra Club’s Great Lakes program, now executive director of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters, says, “Lee was fundamental in shaping what we think of as the modern movement to protect the Great Lakes.” She points out even more successes Lee won to safeguard the Great Lakes in countless ways.

“The Palisades nuclear plant was the last nuclear power plant built on the American shores of the Great Lakes, in large part, because of Lee and the precedents she and a few others set in challenging its licensing. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement became a powerful tool for holding the United States and Canada accountable for protecting the Great Lakes, in part, because she fought to make it so.  She believed fervently that we need to invest in the next generation of leaders, and was a mentor to so many, including me.”

Jane adds: “She was a master strategist, understanding policy, political power, and the power of public action. I was always impressed by the stacks of environmental impact statements and reports in her cottage. She chose to pay attention and act. She knew how to drive policy as an activist, and as a public employee, and nimbly shift from one role to the other over the course of her life and career. She knew when she was in the dumps, and feeling discouraged, and how to take a break, and renew her energies to keep making a difference. And, on top of all this, she was a great cook and generous friend.”

One of my favorite memories of Lee is a night I spent in her house in the Indiana Dunes. It was mid- to late June, the beginning of deep summer. It was sultry and breezy. As I recall, we drank wine as she told Great Lakes stories. The sound of Lake Michigan surf was faint in the background. The choir of frogs in the interdunal wetland was much louder. Here we were, less than 45 miles from downtown Chicago by car, and I could imagine that it had sounded and felt like this, at this place, 150 years earlier. It was Lee’s place.

Bill Davis, environmental attorney and long-time Great Lakes advocate, remembers Lee’s philosophy and spirit. “Lee had a very narrow definition of what was impossible, and from a political point of view, that is an extremely important and powerful concept. There was very, very little that Lee truly thought could not be done. I remember during the ’80s when the Great Lakes movement was discussing what our position should be on discharge of persistent toxins; it was Lee’s influence directly and through those she had mentored that led us to the position of zero discharge. I believe that would have been unthinkable without Lee.” 

“To this very day,” Bill continues, “that notion of a limited sense of the impossible sticks with me, as evidenced by the project I am currently working on to completely rethink how we manage water to ensure we protect human health and the environment. I am not sure I would have understood that that was a real option without Lee’s influence.”

She was an effective leader who became a Great Lakes defender when men still assumed they ran the world and knew better. She did not give them an inch. Her legacy to the women of succeeding generations in the Great Lakes environmental movement is mammoth, but she also left the men—including this one—with appreciation of our place on this Earth, the need to cherish it, and the tools to protect it.

Jane Elder says, “Her passing marks the end of an era in the Great Lakes, but her legacy will live on for generations to come in the beauty of the dunes she loved, the sparkle of clear water on a Great Lake, and a new generation willing to love them and fight for them to keep these treasures alive and thriving.”

Dave Dempsey is the senior policy adviser at FLOW.

The Detroit River’s Waterfront Porch

John Hartig is intimately connected with one of the most successful environmental restoration projects in the United States, the recovery of the once highly degraded Detroit River. He retired in 2018 after 14 years as manager of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge and more than 30 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In his new book, Waterfront Porch: Reclaiming Detroit’s Industrial Waterfront as a Gathering Place for All, he chronicles the exciting comeback of the river and the connection restoration efforts have forged between the community and the river.

What is the single most important thing a prospective reader should know about your new book?

Waterfront Porch is the story of building the Detroit RiverWalk as part of a strategy to reconnect people with nature, help revitalize Detroit and its metropolitan region, and help foster a more sustainable future. In its first 10 years, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy raised $110 million to build east riverfront portions of the Detroit RiverWalk and raised another nearly $40 million for an endowment to operate, maintain, steward, and program it with quality and in perpetuity. Economists have quantified that in the first 10 years of the Detroit RiverWalk, there was an over $1 billion return on this investment, with the potential for greater return in the future. All of this happened while Detroit became the largest city in the United States to go through bankruptcy. This was an amazing accomplishment that can be directly traced to the unique public-private partnership called the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and its approach of democratic design that ensured all stakeholders were involved and would benefit. If this can be done in Detroit, it can be done elsewhere and clearly gives hope to all.

You’ve dedicated much of your life and career to restoring the Detroit River. What motivates you and where did your relationship with the river begin?

I grew up in metropolitan Detroit in Allen Park during the 1960s. My family enjoyed picnicking and canoeing on Belle Isle and fishing in the Detroit River. In the summer, we would vacation up north in different cottages and my sister and I attended a church camp in a wilderness area of the northern portion of the Lower Peninsula. These formative years provided me with two polar-opposite experiences — one recreating in pristine lakes and rivers up north and the other recreating in and along the polluted Detroit River. I could not understand why there was such a stark contrast. Then in 1969, when I was a junior at Allen Park High School, the Rouge River caught on fire because of oil pollution. The next year, when I was a senior in high school, I attended an Earth Day Rally on the football field of Allen Park High School that opened my eyes to the environmental degradation that was occurring everywhere. I decided I wanted to help be part of the solution. While attending Eastern Michigan University I got hooked on the study of lakes and rivers, and have been fortunate to be able to combine my vocation with my advocation.

Why did the River deteriorate so much up to the 60s and what are the principal factors that turned it around?

During the 1960s, the Detroit River was one of the most polluted rivers in the United States. In 1960 and 1967, 12,000 and 4,700 waterfowl died in the Detroit River because of oil pollution, respectively. In 1969, the lower Rouge River, right before it discharges into the Detroit River, caught on fire because of oil pollution. In 1970, the “Mercury Crisis” caused the closure of commercial and sport fishing on the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River, and western Lake Erie because of mercury contamination. All of this led to public outcry over water pollution that contributed to the establishment of Earth Day in 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Together, public outcry over water pollution and regulation have been the driving forces behind the revival of the Detroit River.

How important was the work of the late Congressman Dingell to river restoration?

The late Congressman John Dingell had more impact on the cleanup of the Detroit River than any other person. He was the key author of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Together, these acts have been the driving force behind the cleanup of the Detroit River. In more recent years he was the author of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge Establishment Act of 2001 that helped change the perception of the Detroit River from that of a polluted river in the Rust Belt to an international wildlife refuge that brings conservation to the Detroit metropolitan area and helps make nature part of everyday urban life. He is a true conservation hero for our region, our country, and North America.

What remains to be done?

Clearly, much remains to be done to restore physical, chemical, and biological integrity of the Detroit River. Key challenges include addressing: human population growth, transportation expansion, and land use changes; continued loss and degradation of habitat; pollution from the runoff from our streets, parking lots, and roofs; remediation of contaminated river sediments and brownfields; introduction of exotic species; and climate change. To address these challenges, we need an informed constituency that cares about the river as their home, ensures continuous and vigorous oversight, and speaks out for continued cleanup and rehabilitation. A key part of this has been reconnecting people to the Detroit River through the Detroit RiverWalk, other greenways, parks like Belle Isle, and the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. Waterfront Porch is the story of building the Detroit RiverWalk as part of a strategy to reconnect people with the Detroit River, help revitalize the city and region, help foster a more sustainable future, and help develop a stewardship ethic within the citizenry. Completing the Detroit RiverWalk, greenway connections to neighborhoods like the May Creek Greenway and the Joseph Campau Greenway, and the Joe Louis Greenway that circumnavigates the city are key elements in reconnecting people with nature, developing greater environmental literacy, and developing a stewardship ethic so necessary for restoring and sustaining the integrity of the Detroit River. 

It is fair to say that the Detroit RiverWalk would not have been built without the cleanup of the Detroit River. But it is also true that continued cleanup of the Detroit River will require an informed and vocal constituency who cares for the river as their home and greenways like the Detroit RiverWalk help reconnect people with amazing natural resources right in their backyard, inspire a sense of wonder, and help foster a stewardship ethic.

Are you optimistic about the future of the River?  Why or why not?

I am optimistic about the future. The major accomplishment of the public outcry over water pollution in the 1960s was the establishment of major environmental laws and agreements like the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, the Canada Water Act of 1970, the U.S. Clean Water Act of 1972, the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972, and the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973. This is an amazing set of accomplishments from concerned citizens working together to speak out for clean water. In my opinion, the major accomplishment of more recent times is the establishment of a plethora of environmental organizations, conservation organizations, and other nongovernmental organizations. For the Detroit River it is organizations like the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, Friends of the Detroit River, the International Wildlife Refuge Alliance, the Detroit Greenways Coalition, the Belle Isle Conservancy, and many more. These organizations have picked up the environmental baton from citizen activists of the 1960s and 1970s and are continuing the long restoration race to ensure that a cleaner Detroit River is a gift to future generations. This gives me optimism and hope.