Siese, April
Great Lakes region marks half a century since adoption of Water Quality Agreement
Daily Kos [online news and advocacy page], Friday April 15, 2022
Daily Kos
Original Date

A good overview of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement on its 50th Anniversary.

  • Bookwood Historical Collection, Star Lake

Great Lakes region marks half a century since adoption of Water Quality Agreement

April Siese
Daily Kos Staff
Friday April 15, 2022 · 7:34 PM EDT

This week marked the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, a key piece of legislation that both the U.S. and Canada entered into to protect and restore what many believe is one of the best collections of fresh surface water on the planet. Prior to the agreement, pollution and contamination were a rampant problem, to the point that pesticides were threatening and killing wildlife and oil spills into nearby rivers were similarly destroying this valuable ecosystem. The 1972 agreement aimed to address that, establishing the Great Lakes Water Quality Board and Research and Science Advisory board, both of which have been key in studying the lakes and better ensuring their protection.

Over the years, additional provisions have been added to address invasive species, environmental and health threats, and climate change, the latter of which For Love of Water (FLOW) executive director Liz Kirkwood has especially kept an eye on. “The biggest threat to the Great Lakes is undoubtedly climate change,” Kirkwood said in a statement. “It will alter the waters of the Great Lakes Basin in many ways, only some of them not foreseeable. Warming groundwater, changes in the aquatic food web, and increasing algae blooms are among the expected impacts.” Being that the Great Lakes make up 20% of the planet’s fresh surface water, those changes could severely impact the ecosystem. Around 40 million people rely on the Great Lakes region for drinking water, and the lakes are considered a vital carbon sink.

Kirkwood, whose group advocates for Great Lake preservation, is one of 28 members of the International Joint Commission that makes up the Great Lakes Water Quality Board. She marked the anniversary of the agreement’s signing with a realistic assessment of its efficacy, writing that toxic algae blooms have recently plagued sections of the lakes and that, though the amount of toxic chemicals found in the lakes is lower, much more can be done to restore the lakes to a more pristine condition.

“Yes, the Great Lakes are better off than they would be without the Agreement,” Kirkwood wrote. “The two countries have coordinated efforts to clean up the lakes for decades, keeping the commitment they made 50 years ago. That commitment is to ‘restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Waters of the Great Lakes…’ But the Agreement’s 1972 goals are unfulfilled. In particular, the Great Lakes are not ‘free from nutrients entering the waters as a result of human activity in concentrations that create nuisance growths of aquatic weeds and algae.’”

Much can still be done to better protect the Great Lakes and advance this important agreement, including ensuring that protective measures are equally implemented in both the U.S. and Canada. Additionally, Indigenous input is absolutely key to good stewardship of the lakes. It took until 2012 to codify measures that allowed for and encouraged more involvement from First Nations, Métis, and Tribes. It should not take a moment longer for additional environmentally just policies to be implemented as conservationists look toward what the next 50 years could bring for the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

“Canadians, Americans, and Indigenous peoples, particularly the 40 million people who depend on these waters in the Great Lakes region for drinking water, should call on their respective governments to fulfill the promise of this agreement,” Kirkwood said. “And to serve as an example of how countries can and must work together to address water security and sustainability for future generations.”