Great Lakes - Shared Water, Shared Responsibility


Twenty per cent of the world's fresh water is located in the North American Great Lakes (IJC, 2006). Because the Great Lakes are shared between Canada and the United States, both countries must share the water and share the responsibility of protecting this global resource. However, both federal governments by and of themselves do not have the regulatory authority, the physical resources nor the fiscal imperative to solve water issues ranging from clean drinking water, to fisheries management, to water diversion, and to ecosystem sustenance and protection.

Through this paper I will examine the ecopolitical relationship between Canada and the United States, and more specifically the many stakeholders in the region, as they collaborate and cooperate on strategies to foster the protection of the overall water quality and the rehabilitation of several 'Areas of Concern' (AOC) within the Great Lakes. Although no single entity can provide a complete regime for protecting water resources, "the combined jurisdictions of the federal, provincial, (state), territorial and First Nations governments along with the engagement of municipal government and an informed and diverse citizenry, present real opportunities to carve out a dynamic and resilient approach" (Muldoon & McGlenaghan, 2007).


Under the direction of the International Joint Commission (IJC), Canada and the United States signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) in 1972 to establish a cooperative effort to address the cumulative build-up of pollution and to ensure a higher standard of water quality in the Great Lakes basin, home to thirty-seven million people (IJC, 2006) and the heart of covering some 767,000 sq. kilometres of area transcending the borders of two Canadian provinces and eight states in the United States of America (Heinmiller, 2007).

The GLWQA was revised in 1987 to identify 43 Areas of Concern (AOC), hotspots of contamination needing urgent attention for cleanup to restore sites in both countries (twenty-six in the U.S., twelve in Canada and five bi-national sites) (IJC, 2006) to acceptable levels of known contaminants such as phosphorus, nitrates, ammonia, copper-cadmium, Poly-chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other toxic chemicals leading to eutrophication, loss of fish and wildlife habitat, degradation of benthos, beach closings or any of other fourteen Beneficial Use Impairments (BUI) identified in the GLWQA (IJC, 2003).

Also in 1987 an Annex (2) amended the original agreement to create a Remedial Action Plan (RAP) for each AOC, a tool to bring governments, citizens, industry and other stakeholders together to monitor and direct the restoration of the AOCs (Krantzberg, 2003). Since that time, three AOCs have been 'delisted' by the IJC and progress has been made in the other areas with varying degrees of success and at different rates. One success on the Canadian side was the 1994 delisting of Collingwood Harbour, the first location to achieve this designation (Krantzberg, 2003). Hamilton Harbour, the case study for this paper, has made progress on reducing contaminates entering the water system and the restoration of wetlands and the shoreline and opened up access to the waterfront which creates interest in the harbour by the general public.

Implementation of remedial plans can take twenty years or more depending on the extent of ecological damage, the range of challenges posed and the levels of consistent government funding to support remedial efforts (IJC, 2003). As of 2003, the latest figures available from IJC, Canada had invested $33 million CAD on sediment remediation and $270 million on wastewater infrastructure improvements while the U.S. had spent $160 million USD and $3 billion respectively (ibid). Restoring all of the Great Lakes AOCs was estimated to cost an additional $9 billion USD (ibid). The Brookings Institute, an international U.S.-based think tank has estimated that $26 billion is needed to restore and protect the Great Lakes (GLU1, 2011).


The jurisdictional overlap of dealing with two national governments, ten sub-national governments, hundreds of municipal governments each with their own agencies and departments adds to the complexity of finding solutions as different regulations and responsibilities must be sorted through to determine which entities are accountable for the clean up.

The Canadian system, in particular, must deal with three types of jurisdictional fragmentation: federal, provincial and interprovincial (Saunders & Wenig, 2007). "Making this task even more challenging is the fact that such a government framework must integrate a broad array of water issues, ranging from drinking water protection and human health, to fisheries management and other economic interests based on water systems to ecosystem sustenance and protection" (Muldoon & McClenaghan, 2007). In addition, governments, industry, recreational and environmental organizations (local and national), and millions of citizens within the Great Lakes Basin all have needs, concerns, and recommendations on how the remediation of the lakes and harbours should take place.


Management of water resources poses a challenge for any government but may be particularly difficult when aggravated by constitutional responsibilities or when the water in question crosses political boundaries (Saunders & Wenig, 2007). Muldoon & McClenaghan (2007) believe that the governance capability of federal and provincial governments is subject to political and leadership paralysis due to diverse views of stakeholders involved in the policy debate.

"Ottawa simply lacks the resources to adequately identify, monitor, and solve the myriad (of) water problems that occur at local levels" (Saunders & Wenig, 2007). "In addition, top-down management may preclude the kind of local 'buy-in' that is often necessary for implementing management decisions" (ibid).

But this 'paralysis' is not confined to Canada alone. The International Joint Commission in its Status of Restoration Activities report noted, "that many of the actions being implemented in United States Areas of Concern are driven by a multiplicity of programs with different priorities" (IJC, 2003). Indeed, a number of charters, agreements, laws and regulations that concern different aspects of the Great Lakes must be sorted through to avoid conflicts and duplication. An additional impediment to efficient government action, because of the international nature of these arrangements, is the fact that Provinces and States by themselves are unable to sign treaties across international boundaries (MNR, 2005).


The United States approach to remediation tends to result from litigation (polluter pays) under federal and state legislation such as The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (Superfund), the Clean Water Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Oil Pollution Act and many state statutes, regulations and initiatives (IJC, 2003).

The Canadian approach to remediation tends to result from environmental protection legislation and to a lesser extent, litigation, with an acceptance that much environmental degradation was committed under the banner of economic development and that society as a whole has benefited from that development. At the federal level the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Canadian Environmental Act, the Canada Water Act, and other legislation is used. In Ontario there is the Ontario Water Resources Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Pesticides Act, the Nutrient Management Act, the Environmental Protection Act, and the Municipal Industrial Strategy for Abatement regulations, and other relevant laws are the tools for environmental protection (IJC, 2003). There is also the Canada-Ontario Agreement Respecting the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem (COA) that specifically addresses the roles and responsibilities between those two levels of government in combination with industrial and community partners. The current COA provides a framework of 13 goals, 37 results, and 183 commitments, a total of 850 projects to be addressed (EC & OMoE).

As new concerns such as invasive species and climate change develop, and additional new chemical compounds enter the system, both national governments have requested that the GLWQA be reviewed to face these new challenges (GLU2, 2011). "Unlike previous processes, there has been very limited discussion with citizen's groups or anyone else not on the negotiating team, and there are no citizen observers in this process as there were in 1987. The Canadian delegation does have an advisory group. The U.S. delegation declined to provide this opportunity, claiming the inconvenience of dealing with FACA (Federal Advisory Committee Act) rules" (ibid).

The GLWQA review was initiated in 2006 with an intended target date for a new agreement of 2010. However, the IJC has not released a new agreement and has only this summer (2012) released minor details other than it will increase protection. This development seems to conflict with the position the IJC took in its 11th Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality. "The Commission is convinced that the Great Lakes region cannot hope to successfully receive support as a national priority without a publicly accepted, comprehensive plan for restoring the Great Lakes through remedial efforts, particularly sediment cleanup" (IJC, 2002).

The good news is that tens of thousands of community volunteers have taken matters into their own hands across the Great Lakes region and have been involved in wetland and shoreline clean-ups, monitoring of creeks and lakes, and spreading news of the progress of RAP projects to the community at large (Krantzberg, 2003).

Residents, with assistance from governments, have formed advisory councils or committees to administer these RAPs drawing on technical expertise from government agencies and community knowledge of local ecological and social impacts resulting from the environmental degradation. Through consultations and public meetings, it became imperative for these committees to include representation from a diverse range of stakeholders - industry, agriculture, business, citizens-at-large, educational institutions, municipal governments, native peoples, conservation authorities and businesses dependent on water quality for their livelihoods (Krantzberg, 2003). This would help ensure that potential polarization was avoided and the maximum opportunity for community support was available.

Mark Sproule-Jones (2002) succinctly describes several approaches taken by various RAPs,
"The favoured method of implementing RAP recommendations is through 'pooled coupling' which relies on multiple organizations for implementation (so that if one project is stalled other projects may still proceed). Each is a lead or designated agency for a different activity. Some 47 per cent of RAPs use this as their major strategy. Eight per cent attempt to use 'sequential' and 'reciprocal' coupling as the predominant method, in which there is joint control of all activities. Roughly, 42 per cent were attempting to implement RAP recommendations under more hierarchical arrangements, whereby one agency was the designated lead in control of implementation."

Public involvement during the implementation phase of Remedial Action Plans enables community engagement and participation in remediation. Although new models of community collaboration are being developed and applied, the fiscal restraints of governments have reduced funding to some local committees, which has particularly affected the ability of community groups to enhance their expertise through the sharing of experiences. (Sproule-Jones, 2002)

In its 2003 Status of Restoration Activities report, the IJC states:
"In Canada and the United States, cases exist where community-based groups have developed formal agreements with different levels of government and/or business/industry to take the coordinating role (e.g. Toronto and Region, Ashtabula River). These Remedial Action Plan participants have demonstrated promising results and effective management practices. The community groups are active and knowledgeable and are dedicated to restoring beneficial uses. In particular, community representatives receive help from such alliances in developing project proposals, acquiring matching funding and generating more technical data in support of project development and implementation" (IJC, 2003). This is cause for some optimism as exemplified by the Hamilton Harbour RAP experience.


Hamilton Harbour, also known as Burlington Bay, is a 2,150 ha embayment located at the western end of Lake Ontario, fed by three major watersheds Grindstone Creek, Spencer Creek and the Red Hill Creek, and by municipal effluent from the cities of Hamilton and Burlington (Hiriart-Baer, et al. 2009, Hall et al., 2006). The City of Hamilton still adheres to the mid-1800 plan of drawing its drinking water from the larger Lake Ontario while pumping municipal sewage into the slower moving bay (Hall & O'Connor, 2012).

To accommodate shipping and industry for the city, some 25% of the surface area of the bay along the south and eastern shoreline has been filled in over the years (Hall & O'Connor, 2012). Industries built on the new land added their effluents to the harbour as well. As far back as 1958, Hamilton Harbour had been viewed as a ruined ecosystem, called "the world's largest and most beautiful septic tank" by a Toronto planning professor (Hughes, 2002). The observation was concurred in the House of Parliament 11 years later when an unnamed MP called the harbour "a stinking, rotten quagmire of filth and poisonous waste" (ibid). By the middle of the 1900's, the tradeoff between economic development and environmental protection had been set.

Today, twenty-five years after the AOC designation, it is estimated that over $800 million CAD has been invested by federal, provincial and municipal governments, and by industry partners (BARC, 2007). Another $650 million is required (ibid). The Hamilton Harbour RAP (HHRAP) believes that progress has been made in all basic areas (Water Quality, Toxic Contamination, Fish & Wildlife, Land Management, and Public Access) and that the project is just past the halfway point in meeting its objectives (BARC, 2007, Hall et al., 2006).

The Great Lakes Quality Agreement requires that remedial action plans be developed and implemented in three stages. Stage 1 requires extensive research and monitoring to assess environmental quality. This was completed by the HHRAP in 1989 and updated in 1992 (EC, OMoE, HHRAP, 2010). Stage 2 identifies recommended remedial actions. HHRAP identified fifty-seven recommendations with an implementation target of 2012-2015 (ibid). Stage 3 initiates the 'delisting' process when the fourteen BUIs have been resolved. Originally, the target date for this stage to begin was 2015 (ibid) however, due to disputes over funding between governments and industry and lack of progress on the largest target (Randle Reef), the clean up of a large area of contaminated sediment has been pushed off to 2022 or 2023 (Leitner, 2012). The area is considered the second-most contaminated site in Canada after the Sydney Tar Ponds in Nova Scotia ( Environment Canada, 2010, Pecoskie, 2011).

The HHRAP process involved a number of committed individuals and agencies over a lengthy period. Following the designation of Hamilton Harbour as an AOC, a group of stakeholders met through a series of meetings between 1985 and 1992 to devise a plan that was inclusive, had commitments to timelines and adopted an ecological approach to the remediation of Hamilton Harbour (Hall & O'Connor, 2012). Using expertise from the nearby Canadian Centre for Inland Waters (a federal research facility largely funded by Environment Canada) situated on the eastern shore of the harbour, formal plans were drawn up (Hall & O'Connor, 2012).

The original group dissolved and split into two entities, the Bay Area Implementation Team (BAIT) made up of representatives from government, industry and the public, and the Bay Area Restoration Council (BARC) a community volunteer organization with seven hundred members. BAIT undertook the research, monitoring, planning and creation of reports. BARC mainly monitored the progress of BAIT and reported this to the general public through a series of workshops, annual and specific topic reports, education programs and community environmental activities such as shoreline cleanups and watershed restoration (Hall & O'Connor, 2006).


A diverse group of stakeholders, if well organized and presented with a well-defined plan and framework of reference can accomplish many of the objectives of the RAP. There will be a need for conflict resolution guided by strong and independent facilitators as the conflicting views and priorities come to the surface throughout the process. Public engagement is essential to provide constant and persistent agitation of governments and industry for funding and action. Research and consistent monitoring of each and every target area keeps the project moving forward. Parallel projects avoid objectives from being deferred if one project gets delayed. In addition, progress in some areas helps to boost the resolve of other project leaders and encourages the entire stakeholder group.

The clean up and eventual protection of the Great Lakes will take many years to accomplish and will see a succession of governments and community volunteers. It is key to provide extensive documentation so that future generations will see the progress and recognize that they too have a responsibility to 'carry the torch' and persevere. Though it would be easy to suggest that the federal government should set up one agency to deal with the problem, doing so would ignore jurisdictional control and stifle local input. Citizens might fall into the belief that they have no responsibility and that the government will take care of environmental degradation. Active and ongoing communication from other like-minded residents ensures continued participation.

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