The International Joint Commission's First Triennial Assessment of Progress was released November 28, 2017. Image Credit: IJC.
The International Joint Commission’s First Triennial Assessment of Progress was released November 28, 2017. Image Credit: IJC.

In its First Triennial Assessment of Progress under the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the International Joint Commission calls on Canada and the United States to set specific timelines and targets for making critical improvements to wastewater and drinking water infrastructure, reducing nutrient runoff and eliminating releases of chemicals of mutual concern.

As a binational organization created by Canada and the United States under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, the International Joint Commission (IJC) serves as an independent assessor of the progress made by the two governments to achieve the objectives of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (Agreement).

In a press release, the IJC said it commends the two federal governments for considerable progress they have made to accelerate the cleanup of contaminated Areas of Concern, set new loading targets for the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Erie to reduce harmful algal blooms, and establish the work groups and processes needed to implement the Agreement. However, work needs to be increased in several key areas, according to the IJC.

The IJC identifies specific gaps in achieving the human health objectives of the Agreement for drinkable, swimmable and fishable waters, and recommends that the governments set an accelerated and fixed period of time for effectively achieving zero discharge of inadequately treated or untreated sewage into the Great Lakes. To achieve this goal, the IJC said governments must also increase funding for infrastructure and provide support to communities to improve their capacity to respond to extreme storm events, especially as related to combined sewer overflows.

“Our municipalities must not be permitted to dump sewage into our drinking water and we call for a ‘zero discharge’ objective, which will bring to an end the all-too-frequent beach closings,” said IJC Canadian Co-chair Gordon Walker.

The IJC said that, while governments provide safe drinking water nearly everywhere in the Great Lakes basin, unsafe drinking water incidents have occurred in major cities, and some First Nations and Tribes have had long-standing boil water advisories. The IJC recommends that infrastructure be improved to eliminate all long-standing boil water advisories and persistent drinking water violations for communities everywhere in the Great Lakes basin, and that governments monitor and report on source water protection plans.

“Providing 100% clean drinking water to everyone, everywhere is the only acceptable situation,” said Commissioner Benoît Bouchard.

The IJC said it also finds that the water quality of western and central Lake Erie remains unacceptable. In order for governments to achieve their new phosphorus loading targets and reduce harmful algal blooms, the IJC recommends that they include the following in their federal, state and provincial action plans:

  • Details on timeline;
  • Responsibilities for action; and
  • Expected deliverables, outcomes and quantifiable performance metrics in order to assure accountability.

According to the IJC, actions must include enforceable standards for applying agricultural fertilizer and animal waste, better linkages between agricultural subsidies and conservation practices, and designation by Ohio of the western Lake Erie basin as impaired under the U.S. Clean Water Act.

“Voluntary measures have failed to protect Lake Erie from extreme algal blooms. Enforceable standards are essential if governments are to achieve their phosphorus reduction loading targets and the public is to regain access to a more swimmable and fishable lake,” said Lana Pollack, U.S. Co-chair of the IJC.

The IJC said it finds that progress to address toxic chemical releases under the Agreement has been disappointingly slow. In the first three years of Agreement implementation, only eight chemicals of mutual concern have been identified and no binational management strategies for these chemicals have been completed. The IJC recommends that the governments accelerate work on binational strategies with clear timelines set and met for development and implementation. These strategies should have the principle of zero discharge at their core. Governments should also focus on policies and programs based on extended producer responsibility for a broad range of products, including flame retardants, to help prevent releases toxic contaminants at every stage in a product’s lifecycle.

The IJC also finds that the governments need to strengthen public engagement, accountability and funding to achieve the Agreement’s objectives. Governments need to incorporate more robust public engagement into their activities, including engagement with diverse communities and Tribal, First Nations and Métis governments. Clear, time-bound targets for action are needed, as are long-term aspirations for improvements in the status and trends of Great Lakes indicators against which progress can be more definitively assessed. And, to support further progress, the IJC recommends that governments’ financial investment in restoration and prevention continues at current or higher levels.

In preparing its First Triennial Assessment of Progress, the IJC said it reviewed progress reports from the governments, considered the work of its Great Lakes advisory boards, and sought views from the public through an extensive consultation effort.

The First Triennial Assessment of Progress on Great Lakes Water Quality is available here (PDF).

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