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The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement at 50: Celebrating successes and recognizing what still needs to be done

Lana Pollack headshotToday’s MI Environment story by Lana Pollack is from the State of the Great Lakes report.

Fifty years ago, facing public demands for environmental reforms, President Richard Nixon and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau signed the first Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA or Agreement), bringing the weight of their offices together to address a single issue – excessive algae in Lake Erie. That Agreement, like the three iterations that followed, had no enforcement mechanisms. Instead, the Agreements relied on recognition by both governments that protecting and cleaning up the Great Lakes would require binational collaboration, and that each country – plus the states and provinces that bounded the five Great Lakes – would have to pass and enforce laws to ensure desired outcomes. Sometimes this expectation was met; often it was not.

Early success in addressing Lake Erie algae problems under the 1972 Agreement followed when the State of Michigan and other Great Lakes jurisdictions passed legislation to control phosphorous. The first Agreement also prompted both countries and their subnational governments to make major investments in upgrading municipal wastewater treatment plants. This visible success and the persistence of other obvious pollution problems prompted public support for stronger Great Lakes protections and motivated the two countries to sign another Agreement in 1978.

This second Agreement set more ambitious goals – to rid the Great Lakes of persistent toxic substances. With only nascent environmental bureaucracies in either country, Canada and the United States opened a joint Great Lakes office in Windsor, Ontario, and substantially increased support for the International Joint Commission (IJC), which had been established without enforcement powers to address U.S.- Canada boundary waters issues under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. These additional resources supported the IJC’s new responsibility to convene binational meetings and report every two years on progress achieved under the goals of the 1972 and 1978 agreements.

In the third Agreement, signed in 1987, Canada and the United States designated 43 of the Great Lakes’ most polluted spots as Areas of Concern (AOC) and committed to cleaning them up. Although these massively expensive AOC cleanups were delayed for years due to lack of funding, in the last decade both countries ramped up their investments through programs like the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, engaged tribal governments and community stakeholders and restored several AOCs to create vibrant waterfronts and public recreational spaces. While only nine of the 43 AOCs have been removed completely from the list, progress has been made on many other AOCs. Finishing the remaining cleanups will require billions of dollars and is likely to take at least 20 more years. Another notable success of the third Agreement resulted from the challenge to make Lake Superior a “Zero Discharge” demonstration zone, targeting elimination of nine pollutants over 20 years and leading especially to substantial mercury and dioxins reductions.

After a 17-year period when both countries built their environmental bureaucracies and shrank investments in IJC’s binational activities, Canada and the United States signed a fourth GLWQA protocol. The 2012 GLWQA includes climate change concerns; reiterates the “obligation not to pollute boundary waters;” and keeps previous commitments to restore and maintain the Great Lakes’ chemical, physical and biological integrity.

Organized around 10 subject area annexes, the latest Agreement promotes enhanced binational collaboration on specific Great Lakes challenges. In one example of early success prompted in part by the latest Agreement, both parties agreed to ban the production and sale of personal care products containing plastic microbeads, one of several significant sources of plastics in the Great Lakes.

Unfortunately, however, the current protocol eliminated previous Agreement lists of hundreds of hazardous polluting and potentially polluting substances. This has created challenges for designating and setting standards for protection against harmful chemicals, including the now designated “chemicals of mutual concern.”

So, while we celebrate the Agreement’s 50th anniversary with a mature system of binational cooperation and recognition of its positive outcomes for the Great Lakes, we also recognize threats old and new. These include legacy contaminants, PFAS, and other “forever chemicals,” climate change impacts, invasive species, agriculture and other non-point source pollution – challenges that often fall hardest on underprivileged communities, communities of color and indigenous people.

More than anything, this birthday can best be celebrated with calls for both countries – as well as the states and provinces that bound the Great Lakes – to avoid further costly damages to Great Lakes waters by passing and enforcing the polluter pay and product life-cycle laws essential to realizing the Agreements’ most important promises.

Lana Pollack has spent her life as a leader on environmental issues. After serving three terms in the Michigan State Senate, she became president of the Michigan Environmental Council, and in 2010, President Obama appointed her as chair of the U.S. section of the International Joint Commission. Here, she provides a look back at the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

Caption: Lana Pollack