International Joint Commission (IJC)
More than a century of cooperation protecting shared waters

Great Lakes Water Levels and Flows

Beachscape photo via USGS/Jim Nicholas

Natural factors, including precipitation and evaporation, are among the primary drivers of water levels, along with runoff. The IJC provides oversight at three control structures that impact international water levels and flows in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River: in the St. Marys River, the Niagara River, and the St. Lawrence River near the outlets of Lake Superior, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario. The Canadian and U.S. governments have provided references to the IJC to examine issues surrounding Great Lakes water levels and flows.

Plan 2014

The International Joint Commission, after 14 years of scientific study and public engagement, advances Plan 2014 as the preferred option for regulating Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River water levels and flows.
Plan 2014 is designed to provide for more natural variations of water levels of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River that are needed to restore ecosystem health. It will continue to moderate extreme high and low levels, better maintain system-wide levels for navigation, frequently extend the recreational boating season and slightly increase hydropower production. More year-to-year variation in water levels improves coastal health.

Protection of the Waters of the Great Lakes

Following a controversial proposal by a private company to export Lake Superior water in tankers to Asia in 1998, the Canadian and US governments asked IJC to look into the issue of protecting the waters of the Great Lakes from diversion and bulk export.  In 2000, in response to a reference from Governments of Canada and the United States, the IJC issued a report, Protection of the Waters of the Great Lakes, with 10 major recommendations, largely directed at state and provincial actions to conserve water and protect the Lakes.

The report recommended that no permits for removing water from the basin be issued unless there are no practical alternatives, and called for periodic IJC reviews of progress in protecting the lakes and their sustainable uses.

The IJC completed its second review of progress in January 2016 following the first review in 2004. The report describes efforts to protect the Great Lakes from consumptive uses, diversions and exports and calls the findings “for the most part a good news story.” 

2015 Review of the recommendations of the Protection of the Waters of the Great lakes report 

2004 Review of the recommendations of the Protection of the Waters of the Great Lakes report
2000 Protection of the Waters of the Great Lakes 

Review of Lake Superior Regulation

International Upper Great Lakes Study
In 2007, the IJC estalished the International Upper Great Lakes Study Board to undertake the studies required to provide the IJC with the information necessary to evaluate options for regulating levels and flows in the Upper Great Lakes system to benefit affected interests and the system as a whole.

The study was released in March 2012. The report examines whether the regulation of outflows from Lake Superior through the compensating works and power dams on the St. Marys River at Sault Ste. Marie might be improved to take into consideration the evolving needs of users on Lakes Superior, Huron, Michigan and Erie. The report also examines the potential future impacts of climate change, a management strategy to better anticipate and respond to future extreme water levels, the feasibility and implications of restoring water levels in Lake Michigan-Huron and multi-lake regulation and its impacts throughout the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence system.