Developing sound recommendations for a shared a body of water is a lot like following a recipe: if you don’t know how ingredients will interact, the results can end up falling short of what you were expecting. In this sense, IJC’s International Watersheds Initiative (IWI) provides the tools and the pantry for ensuring that IJC boards have the resources to make science-based decisions about managing water levels and flows.
The IWI is designed to help boards take an ecosystem approach to managing a water body, not just its water levels. Through much of the 20th century, several IJC boards were isolated when working on water flow regulation or monitoring for specific pollutants. In 1998, the IJC recommended these boards combine efforts to avoid duplicating work or missing problems that were only obvious if they were seeing the big picture at the watershed scale.
Part of the new watershed approach included adding local members to IJC boards who know what’s happening in their own backyards. It also included US and Canadian federal funding for studies and projects through IWI that contribute to understanding these water systems. IWI studies and projects contribute the data and resources to boards so that their decisions or recommendations are based on solid science. For the Great Lakes, this is focused on the activities of the three water regulation boards.
In the Great Lakes, there are separate boards dealing with water levels and water quality. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement led to the creation of IJC’s Science Advisory Board and Great Lakes Water Quality Board. These provide science and policy advice to the IJC on issues of water quality.
Additionally, regulation boards manage Great Lakes water levels and flows separately, under the authority of the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty. Three such boards make decisions about levels and flows at control structures on the St. Marys, Niagara and St. Lawrence rivers. The IWI provides resources to the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee (GLAM), which often leads on IWI project work that the Great Lakes control boards can use to help broaden understanding of the physical and ecological effects of water regulation in the system.
A new IWI Fifth Report to Governments published in December 2020 notes that the IWI has supported useful and innovative projects across the transboundary. In the Great Lakes, these include looking at the impacts of high water levels and water regulation over a five-year period, from 2015 through 2019.
Several projects have focused on the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River system and include studies on the ecological impacts of low water levels on Lake St. Lawrence, shore protection condition assessments after flooding in 2017, monitoring wetlands along Lake Ontario, assessing the extent of the invasive common reed in Lake Ontario’s wetlands, and surveys of 2017 flood impacts on businesses and residents.
For the broader Great Lakes, IWI funding through the GLAM Committee has helped with projects developing remote sensing assessment measures for different kinds of wetlands across the Great Lakes, creating a new model for the Great Lakes water balance that more closely matches measurements over the past century, and working on new computer modeling tools that accurately capture all sources of water that come into the Great Lakes– information useful for managing flows and projecting what the lakes may look like in the near future.
The report indicates that there is an opportunity for GLAM to receive funding for its projects outside of IWI objectives–in its 2016 budget, the Canadian government proposed $5 million over five years in funding for adaptive management in the Great Lakes, contingent on the United States matching that amount.
In December 2019, the US government passed a budget that included $1.5 million for an expedited review of the IJC’s Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Regulation Plan 2014, which qualified for matching funds from Canada under the 2016 budget proposal. As part of that work, the expedited review is assessing Plan 2014 under a slew of water supply and level extremes on both the high and low ends to determine the risks to all interests along the waterway if changes were made to the regulation plan.
In addition to this, the $1.5 million each from Canada and the United States is funding specific expedited review projects that may have otherwise qualified for IWI funds. As a result, IJC staff are able to channel IWI funds to other proposals across the transboundary region.
The Fifth Report also touches on the IWI program’s priorities through 2025. For example, ensuring that all its boards are aware of how climate change may impact their responsibilities and their work in the decades to come is a top transboundary concern for the IJC and its Commissioners.
This extends to the Great Lakes, where the GLAM committee collects and analyzes new data to help refine computer models used to set regulation plans. This includes information on hydroclimate trends, the impacts from high and low water levels and socio-economic activity in the region. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement boards also examine issues of climate change and water quality. While water quality in general remains a top concern under IWI, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement is the primary instrument to address Great Lakes water quality issues.
Indigenous engagement is another top priority for the Commission and the IWI program. There are numerous First Nations, tribes and citizens of the Métis Nation in the basin who bring their own concerns and expertise on the Great Lakes. The IJC recognizes how vitally important incorporating Indigenous voices, expertise and perspectives has been and will continue to be in the years ahead. Through the IWI, this can include developing proposals with Indigenous Nations, tribes and organizations and incorporating traditional knowledge into those studies.
The IWI and IJC will continue to support government agencies as they maintain and update water data from both countries that, through IWI, has been harmonized to be readily useful to researchers in Canada and the United States. The IWI also plans to continue supporting updated water models using the SPAtially Referenced Regression On Watershed Attributes, or SPARROW, model – which in turn relies on that harmonized data. This includes updating the Great Lakes model as new data emerges.
Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.