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Great Lakes: Protecting Our Shared Waters

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March 4, 2020

The Fourth Coast. The Inland Seas. The Rust Belt. The Opportunity Belt. All of these are names for what are collectively known as the “Great Lakes”, a collection of five lakes plus the St. Lawrence River that connects them, eventually, to the Atlantic Ocean. Shared between Canada and the U.S., they are an economic and ecological driver, boasting 20% of the world’s freshwater and a surrounding region that would be the world’s 3rd-largest economy if it were in one country. So how do Canada and the U.S. work together to ensure the Great Lakes continue to be that driver? Glad you asked.

Canada and the U.S. have a long-standing relationship coordinating management on boundary waters, dating back to the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty. This agreement focused each government on the management of the waters shared between the two countries, gradually expanding the focus on water quantity to include water quality.

The Treaty, which created the binational International Joint Commission, set the stage for the signing of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1972, between Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and President Richard Nixon. The Agreement specifically coordinates the two nations’ efforts “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Waters of the Great Lakes.” Big words, big ambition, and big results.

The agreement signing follows many decades of pollution that culminated in the infamous 1969 burning of Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, which feeds into Lake Erie and continued for multiple days. Since those days, Canada and the U.S. have restored many of these legacy contaminated areas, known as Areas of Concern, including fully cleaning up seven of these spots through the region.

Canada and the U.S. updated the Water Quality Agreement in 2012, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama, further expanding the focus of the agreement to include preventing threats, including invasive species. Additionally, the updated agreement placed increased emphasis on engaging non-federal governments, indigenous peoples, non-governmental organizations, and other stakeholders to restore and protect Great Lakes water quality. As part of these efforts, the International Joint Commission is tasked with reviewing and seeking public input on government’s progress towards these goals.

Through the Great Lakes Protection Initiative and the Nature Legacy, among other government programs and initiatives including climate resilience and green infrastructure, Canada and the U.S. partner across government levels and stakeholders to uphold our commitments under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. As the Agreement approaches its 50th birthday in 2022, Canada and the U.S. continue to make progress towards restoration and conservation of our shared Great Lakes.

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