Pause for Earth Day: Steps by IJC to Protect the Environment

IJC staff
April 14, 2014
St Lawrence River

Earth Day is celebrated on April 22. It’s a time to reflect on the needs of our planet, and steps the IJC takes to prevent and address environmental damage.

The IJC has been around for more than 100 years, and was set up in part to help Canada and the United States protect the waters shared by the two countries. That includes advising the respective governments on addressing historical environmental damage and averting emerging threats.

Article IV of the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, which created the IJC, says that “waters flowing across the boundary shall not be polluted on either side to the injury of health or property on the other.”

IJC has conducted numerous studies since its inception to help the governments put this principle into practice. Back in 1918, an IJC Report on Pollution of the Boundary Waters – the largest water quality study in history at that time - described water quality as “generally chaotic, everywhere perilous and in some cases disgraceful.”

On Earth Day (and every day) we should celebrate the substantial progress made since that time.

One of the latest environmental initiatives for the IJC under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement is the Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority (LEEP), undertaken to help governments and citizens combat a resurgence of algal blooms in the most biologically productive of the Great Lakes. A LEEP report issued by IJC in February includes new science and recommendations to Canada and the U.S. on how the lake’s water quality can be restored.

The IJC also considers the environment when reviewing the operation of dams that affect water levels and flows across the international boundary.

For instance, in 2001 the IJC issued an Order prescribing the method of regulating the levels of the boundary waters of Rainy and Namakan lakes along the border between Ontario, Canada, and Minnesota in the U.S.

That rule curve is now being reviewed, as called for in the Order. The assessment has resulted in 19 studies, and almost all of them address environmental values, including habitat restoration and sturgeon spawning.

The St. Lawrence River from the Thousand Islands Bridge. Credit: Chris M. Morris.The St. Lawrence River from the Thousand Islands Bridge. Credit: Chris M. Morris.

In the near future, the IJC plans to a report to the two federal governments on water levels and flows in the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River System. The IJC’s goal is to provide for present and future needs, including a healthy environment. Last summer, the IJC held hearings on a new plan that would take a step toward more natural water levels, restore the health of wetlands and continue to substantially reduce the severity of high and low levels on Lake Ontario.

Finding the right balance is not always an easy task, but the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty has helped the two countries successfully find their common interests for more than 100 years.

The treaty provides general principles, rather than detailed prescriptions, for preventing and resolving disputes over waters shared between the two countries and for settling other transboundary issues. It’s up to the IJC to put those principles to work in specific cases.

The IJC's recommendations and decisions take into account the needs of a wide range of water uses, including drinking water, commercial shipping, hydroelectric power generation, agriculture, industry, fishing, recreational boating and shoreline property.

The 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty was clearly ahead of its time, but continues to be a guiding instrument for Earth Day and every day.

IJC staff