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Backgrounder

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement addresses critical environmental health issues in the Great Lakes region and is a model of binational cooperation to protect water quality. The Agreement was initially signed in 1972 and was last updated in 1987.

On September 7, 2012, Canada and the United States amended the Agreement. The updated Agreement facilitates United States and Canadian action on threats to Great Lakes water quality and includes measures to prevent ecological harm. New provisions address the nearshore environment, aquatic invasive species, habitat degradation, and the effects of climate change. It also supports continued work on existing threats to people’s health and the environment in the Great Lakes basin such as harmful algae, toxic chemicals, and discharges from vessels.

Both governments sought extensive input from stakeholders before and throughout the negotiation process, which started in 2009. Additionally, the revised Agreement expands opportunities for public participation in Great Lakes issues.

Based on stakeholder input, the United States and Canada retained the overall purpose of the Agreement, which is “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes” and the portion of the St. Lawrence River that includes the Canada-United States border. The Agreement also assigns responsibilities to the International Joint Commission to share information, assess progress, and advise the two governments on science, policy and action.

The amended Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement commits the United States and Canada to cooperate and coordinate efforts on issues such as:

  • Preventing environmental threats before they turn into actual problems.
  • Updating phosphorus targets for open waters and nearshore areas of each lake and taking actions to reduce phosphorus levels that contribute to harmful algae.
  • Preventing the introduction and spread of invasive species.
  • Developing plans to protect and restore nearshore areas, the primary source of drinking water for Great Lakes communities and where most commerce and recreation occurs.
  • Reaffirming actions necessary to restore and delist Areas of Concern.
  • Identifying new toxic substances, and implementing pollution prevention and control strategies.
  • Preventing and controlling harmful discharges from ships and other vessels.
  • Developing conservation strategies to protect native species and restore habitat.
  • Identifying and helping coastal communities understand the impacts of climate change on water quality.
  • Developing water quality and ecosystem health objectives.
  • Reviewing Great Lakes science and establishing binational priorities for future work.
  • Providing notification of activities that could impact the Great Lakes.
  • Reporting progress to the public regularly.
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