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Diplomacy and Cooperation under International Watersheds Initiative

kevin bunch
Kevin Bunch
rainy river minnesota

The International Joint Commission (IJC) was created to help manage and recommend resolutions to water-related disputes along the shared Canada-United States border. This is a task it has fulfilled for more than a century thanks to efforts of Commissioners and staff, and the hard work of boards across the continent. Since its creation 25 years ago, the International Watersheds Initiative (IWI) has been an important component in managing these at-times thorny issues.

Before the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, there were points of contention and deliberation with shared waters between the two countries. The US Congress created the International Waterways Commission in 1902, with the Canadian government agreeing to send three Commissioners the following year. The Waterways Commission investigated a number of matters, but it had limited success in having its recommendations implemented and its existence was relatively short.

Negotiations for a new treaty began in 1907 and, by 1909, the Boundary Waters Treaty was signed, leading to the creation of the IJC. For much of the 20th century, the IJC helped prevent and resolve issues related to water quantity through its control boards and apportionment duties and addressed water quality problems through pollution boards. Near the end of the 1900s, the IJC recognized how interconnected watersheds are and the need to consider all these aspects holistically when managing them. In 1998, the governments provided a reference under the treaty for the IJC to pursue the watershed approach further, which helped create the International Watersheds Initiative (IWI).

The treaty and IWI are examples of water diplomacy.

Water diplomacy is “the use of diplomatic instruments to existing or emerging disagreements and conflicts over shared water resources with the aim to solve or mitigate those for the sake of cooperation, regional stability, and peace,” according to the Global Water Forum.

Water diplomacy could be fractious in the earlier years of the IJC and Canada-US transboundary cooperation. It was not unusual to see two boards for one waterway to manage separate responsibilities, such as those in the Red River and Rainy-Lake of the Woods basins. These boards were filled typically by state, provincial and federal members, not necessarily best connected to local issues and concerns in particular basins.

The IWI watershed approach recognizes that a key component to any watershed are the people who live and work there. The IWI succeeds by building local relationships with these communities, which provide a basis for understanding the issues and leveraging informed perspectives to prevent disputes before they become significant problems. Indigenous communities, local residents and stakeholders representing industry, recreation, regulators and ecology are brought to the table to ensure satisfactory solutions are reached on water quantity and water quality issues. This is water diplomacy at its best and makes the IWI a model for international water management.

One such example has been the return of alewives to the St. Croix River.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Canadian and US settlers constructed a series of dams on the river to support hydropower and logging activities, blocking fish passage upstream and affecting species, such as alewives, that return to freshwater streams and rivers from the sea to spawn.

Following concerted habitat restoration and fish passage improvements in the 1960s and ‘70s, the native alewife population rebounded significantly in the late 1980s into the ‘90s. The rebounding population caused concerns in Maine that the alewives were harming the recreational smallmouth bass fishery in the connected Spednic Lake. The state restricted fish passage up the river. New Brunswick didn’t agree, and started trucking fish upriver around the dams.

Through the IWI, the International St. Croix River Watershed Board studied the issue, issuing a scientific review in 2005. After several years of study and discussions with community groups, New Brunswick Power, the Maine Department of Marine Resources, the Passamaquoddy Tribal Council and the Peskotomuhkati Nation, the river was reopened to alewives in 2013.

The board was able to provide a forum for its partners to discuss and define the issue, scientifically study it, and conclude that ultimately the alewives were not seriously impacting the smallmouth bass fishery and that both could be managed successfully. Since then, these partners have been monitoring the restoration of the river’s alewife population.

The IWI also played a role in ongoing developments to resolve water quality issues in the Red River and Lake Winnipeg. The International Red River Watershed Board spent many years studying excessive nutrients in the river, which flows into Lake Winnipeg, to develop water quality objectives for phosphorus and nitrogen at the international crossing. Excess nutrients in Lake Winnipeg have exacerbated harmful algal blooms that develop on the lake in the summer months.

In 2019, after years of study, consultation with local communities, regulators and external experts, the board issued its recommendations, which were accepted by governments in 2022. Through the IWI, the IJC has been helping resolve the nutrient issue.

The IJC and the watershed approach have been key players in settling what could have become thorny diplomatic problems in a collaborative, community- and science-driven manner. The IJC looks forward to another 25 years of IWI assistance in managing these shared waters in a thoughtful, collaborative way.

kevin bunch
Kevin Bunch

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.