Image of books focusing on the history of the barge canal

On November 19, 1998 the governments of Canada and the United States sent twin letters (see Canadian letter and U.S. letter) to the International Joint Commission (IJC). The letters called on the IJC to form the International Watersheds Initiative (IWI). The driving force behind this initiative was the desire to address water issues on an ecosystem level, as opposed to confining focus to a specific dam or source of pollution in isolation. In the IWI’s early years, the Commission worked to strengthen existing boards in transboundary watersheds, and to combine boards within the same watershed. Recognizing that solutions often emerge from local communities, the IJC has ensured that the memberships of these boards reflect the diversity of watershed stakeholders and interests. 

The two governments provided special funding to implement the IWI, and in 2005 the commission released its second report, which called for increased public outreach, coordination, and further scientific studies to better understand the watersheds. In 2007 the St. Croix River Watershed Board was designated as the first international watershed board by merging two existing boards and adding local members. In doing so, the IJC expanded the board’s scope, directing it to take an ecosystem approach to water quality and quantity issues.  By the time of the third IWI report in 2009, the IJC was able to highlight considerable progress in many areas from board structure and membership to scientific studies to conflict resolution, all of which was made possible with funding from the two governments.

IWI work in recent years has included two IJC strategic initiatives: the transboundary data harmonization initiative and the SPARROW water quality modeling initiative.
The fourth IWI report, released in 2015, highlighted further successes and challenges, and identified a new set of priorities for going forward, focused on studying and adapting to man-made changes to ecosystems.

IWI funding has been used on a limited basis to help local institutions develop the capacity to solve water use issues in their watersheds. Some notable successes include:

  • Conducting scientific fisheries and monitoring studies that helped convince the Maine Legislature to reopen in 2013 the fishway at the Grand Falls dams in the St. Croix River to the passage of alewife fish.
  • Conducting a conveyance study of the Rainy River in the Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed using a two-dimensional hydrodynamic model (Telemac) in order to better understand flooding issues in the basin, and installing four new permanent hydrometric (water quantity) monitoring stations needed to supplement the current basin network.
  • Supporting the annual International Lake of the Woods Watershed Forum that brings experts together to discuss the basin’s water quality issues.
  • Conducting a comprehensive three-year fish pathogens and parasites sampling program conducted from 2006-2008 in the Red River basin investing the risk posed by pathogens and parasites entering the Red River system through the direct discharge of water from Devils Lake. 
  • Developing and calibrating a two-dimensional hydrodynamic model for the Pembina River basin in the Red River Watershed to accomplish the challenging task of understanding and modelling flows in prairie streams with very low slope.
  • Helping the International Souris River Board develop a SPARROW model of the Red-Assiniboine basin, including the Souris basin, to better understand nutrient loading and data monitoring in the binational region.
  • Providing funding to develop a plan of study, requested by the governments of Canada and the United States and released in 2013, to mitigate flooding in the Lake Champlain and Richelieu River basin in response to record floods in the spring of 2011.
  • Working with the Accredited Officers of the St. Mary-Milk Rivers in Montana and Alberta to modernize the water apportionment process between Canada and the United States, which greatly improves the efficiency and effectiveness of apportioning the waters.