IJC calls on governments to set specific targets to accelerate Great Lakes restoration, protect drinking water and eliminate releases of untreated sewage
November 28, 2017
In its First Triennial Assessment of Progress under the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (Agreement), the International Joint Commission (IJC) calls on Canada and the United States to set specific timelines and targets for making critical improvements to wastewater and drinking water infrastructure, reducing nutrient runoff and eliminating releases of chemicals of mutual concern.
The IJC commends the two federal governments for considerable progress they have made to accelerate the cleanup of contaminated Areas of Concern, set new loading targets for the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Erie to reduce harmful algal blooms, and establish the work groups and processes needed to implement the Agreement. However, the IJC finds that work needs to be increased in several key areas.
The IJC identifies specific gaps in achieving the human health objectives of the Agreement for drinkable, swimmable and fishable waters, and recommends that the governments set an accelerated and fixed period of time for effectively achieving zero discharge of inadequately treated or untreated sewage into the Great Lakes. To achieve this goal, the governments must also increase funding for infrastructure and provide support to communities to improve their capacity to respond to extreme storm events, especially as related to combined sewer overflows.
"Our municipalities must not be permitted to dump sewage into our drinking water and we call for a 'zero discharge’ objective, which will bring to an end the all-too-frequent beach closings," said IJC Canadian Co-chair Gordon Walker.
While governments provide safe drinking water nearly everywhere in the Great Lakes basin, unsafe drinking water incidents have occurred in major cities, and some First Nations and Tribes have had longstanding boil water advisories. The IJC recommends that infrastructure be improved to eliminate all longstanding boil water advisories and persistent drinking water violations for communities everywhere in the Great Lakes basin, and that governments monitor and report on source water protection plans.
"Providing 100 percent clean drinking water to everyone, everywhere is the only acceptable situation," said Commissioner Benoît Bouchard.
The IJC also finds that the water quality of western and central Lake Erie remains unacceptable. In order for governments to achieve their new phosphorus loading targets and reduce harmful algal blooms, the IJC recommends that they include the following in their federal, state and provincial action plans: details on timelines, responsibilities for action, and expected deliverables, outcomes and quantifiable performance metrics in order to assure accountability. Actions must include enforceable standards for applying agricultural fertilizer and animal waste, better linkages between agricultural subsidies and conservation practices, and designation by Ohio of the western Lake Erie basin as impaired under the US Clean Water Act.
"Voluntary measures have failed to protect Lake Erie from extreme algal blooms. Enforceable standards are essential if governments are to achieve their phosphorus reduction loading targets and the public is to regain access to a more swimmable and fishable lake," said Lana Pollack, US Co-chair of the IJC.
The IJC finds that progress to address toxic chemical releases under the Agreement has been disappointingly slow. In the first three years of Agreement implementation, only eight chemicals of mutual concern have been identified and no binational management strategies for these chemicals have been completed. The IJC recommends that the governments accelerate work on binational strategies with clear timelines set and met for development and implementation. These strategies should have the principle of zero discharge at their core. Governments should also focus on policies and programs based on extended producer responsibility for a broad range of products, including flame retardants, to help prevent releases toxic contaminants at every stage in a product’s lifecycle.
"Manufacturers need to take more responsibility for ensuring that their products do not release chemicals of mutual concern, particularly at the end of a product’s life cycle, rather than leaving local governments and others to cope with the issue," said Commissioner Rich Moy.
The IJC also finds that the governments need to strengthen public engagement, accountability and funding to achieve the Agreement’s objectives. Governments need to incorporate more robust public engagement into their activities, including engagement with diverse communities and Tribal, First Nations and Métis governments. Clear, time-bound targets for action are needed as are long-term aspirations for improvements in the status and trends of Great Lakes indicators against which progress can be more definitively assessed. And to support further progress, the IJC recommends that governments’ financial investment in restoration and prevention continue at current or higher levels.
"The IJC firmly believes that achieving the Agreement’s purpose and objectives will happen only if all sectors of the Great Lakes community are involved," said Commissioner Richard Morgan.
As a binational organization created by Canada and the United States under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, the International Joint Commission serves as an independent assessor of the progress made by the two governments to achieve the objectives of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. In preparing its First Triennial Assessment of Progress, the IJC reviewed progress reports from the governments, considered the work of its Great Lakes advisory boards and sought views from the public through an extensive consultation effort.
The First Triennial Assessment of Progress on Great Lakes Water Quality is available online:
Sally Cole-Misch 519-257-6733 Colemischs@windsor.ijc.org
Sarah Lobrichon (bilingual) 613-992-5368 Lobrichons@ottawa.ijc.org
Frank Bevacqua 202-736-9024 Bevacquaf@washington.ijc.org
Backgrounder on IJC’s First Triennial Assessment of Progress
Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement
The governments of Canada and the United States commit to restore and maintain the physical, chemical and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem. Since the first Agreement was signed in 1972, subsequent agreements have evolved to reflect a changing scientific understanding. The current Agreement, signed in 2012, includes 10 annexes that address a range of issues from nutrient loadings to climate change.
Triennial Assessment of Progress
The Agreement charges the IJC with providing an assessment of progress to the governments every three years. To meet this requirement, the IJC has issued its First Triennial Assessment of Progress on Great Lakes Water Quality, a Highlights Report, a Technical Appendix and a Summary of Public Comment Appendix.
The IJC calls special attention to three of the 16 principles advanced by the Agreement: foremost is prevention, which anticipates and averts pollution and other threats. Preventing harm to Great Lakes water quality is not only a duty of good ecological stewardship but also sound public health and fiscal policy. Accountability consists of setting clear objectives, public reporting and transparent evaluations of progress. Engagement provides opportunities for the public to participate in Agreement activities.
Implementation of the 2012 Agreement
The IJC salutes the governments of Canada and the United States for making remarkable progress to formalize mechanisms and meet initial deadlines in the first three years under the new Agreement.
Protecting Human Health
The IJC finds that the governments have not demonstrated sufficient progress toward achieving human health objectives, particularly the Agreement objectives for drinking water and recreational water uses.
The IJC also finds that the continued input of inadequately treated and untreated sewage into the Great Lakes is unacceptable.
The IJC finds that progress on chemicals of mutual concern has been insufficient relative to the threat that toxic pollutants pose to the health of humans, wildlife and aquatic organisms in the Great Lakes basin. Clear timelines should be set to identify these chemicals and to implement strategies for their reduction or elimination based on the principle of zero discharge, with policies and programs that include the principle of Extended Producer Responsibility.
The IJC acknowledges the progress made by the governments, including setting phosphorus reduction targets for the western and central basins. However, the poor condition of Lake Erie warrants swifter action to achieve the targets, including domestic action plans with enforceable standards for applying agricultural fertilizer and animal waste, better linkages between agricultural subsidies and conservation practices, and designation by Ohio of the western Lake Erie basin as impaired under the US Clean Water Act.
The IJC finds significant progress in preventing the introduction of aquatic invasive species to the Great Lakes. However, continued vigilance is required to prevent Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes and new invasive species entering via the ballast water of ocean-going ships. Work is also needed to control the spread of species that have already been introduced, which are altering lake ecosystems in several ways. The IJC recommends that the governments permit the use of safe and effective control measures to reduce the spread of invasive species within the next triennial reporting period. In addition, the IJC recommends that governments create an intensive, well-focused binational program to control and eradicate Phragmites, a terrestrial invasive plant species, within the next triennial period.
Addressing Areas of Concern
The IJC finds that the first work cycle under the 2012 Agreement has been a time of great progress for Areas of Concern. Half of the 62 beneficial use impairments eliminated to date in the United States and 20 percent of the 65 impairments eliminated to date in Canada were removed between 2013 and 2016. The IJC recommends that the governments set a goal to complete remedial actions for all Areas of Concern in the next 15 years.
Coping with Climate Change
A changing climate has been influencing the Great Lakes for some time. Further climatic change is built into the future, due to rising carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. A wide variety of water quality related impacts will occur, ranging from more favorable conditions for the growth of algae and bacteria to increases in polluted runoff from intense storms. The IJC recommends that the federal governments demonstrate global leadership by jointly developing, in cooperation with other government jurisdictions, including indigenous governments and organizations in the Great Lakes, a binational approach to climate change adaptation and resilience in the Great Lakes.
The IJC finds that the governments have not fully incorporated robust public engagement into their Agreement activities. In particular, the IJC recommends that the governments accelerate and deepen their approach to public engagement in Lakewide Management Plans and that they include more opportunities for public engagement with diverse communities and more thoroughly engage Tribal, First Nations and Métis governments.
The IJC finds that the governments have substantially improved Agreement accountability by producing the Progress Report of the Parties and improving the selection of indicators to support the State of the Great Lakes report. To further improve reporting and accountability, the IJC recommends that the governments set clear, time-bound targets for action and also longer-term aspirations for improvements in the status and trends of Great Lakes indicators. Governments should also strengthen support for a comprehensive binational Great Lakes monitoring program. Finally, the next Progress Report of the Parties, expected in 2019, and those following should include reporting on how the recommendations in this triennial assessment of progress are being addressed.