Article courtesy of James P. Bruce and Chris Wood | September 16, 2012 | The Star | Shared as educational material
This month in Washington, Environment Minister Peter Kent and Lisa Jackson, the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, initialed a third renewal of a 40-year old agreement between Canada and the United States to “restore and maintain” the quality of the water in the Great Lakes.
It was a somewhat diminished event from the signing of the first Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) in 1972. That was a full state affair, with U.S. president Richard Nixon and prime minister Pierre Trudeau overcoming their private mutual loathing before the media in Parliament’s Confederation Room. But then, this is a very diminished agreement.
GLWQA-4 sets eloquent objectives and worthy principles. But it neglects two critical factors in the success of its predecessors: hard number goals, and actions to reach them.
There are some improvements in the new agreement. It devotes more attention to the multiple threads of aquatic ecology, with approaches to issues such as aquatic invasive species and habitat protection. For the first time, the new agreement confronts the challenge that climate change poses to management of the Great Lakes. That subject was not on the horizon in 1972, nor when the GLWQA was renewed with additions in both 1978 and 1987.
But these advances are less than they appear. Better recognition of the complex of factors that contribute to a healthy habitat — for humans as much as wildlife — is certainly welcome, but the agreement puts off for further negotiation the setting of any clear targets or indicators for their protection.
Likewise, an annex on climate change is a belated recognition of an unfolding reality. But the program of research it sets out, while worthy on its own, is to a degree superfluous. The broad strokes of the disrupting effects of climate change on the hydrology of the Great Lakes Basin where nearly two in three Canadians live are already fairly evident.
Winter ice cover has plummeted, releasing more evaporation. Surface water temperatures are rising faster, incubating algal blooms and prolonging the stratification that leaves deeper water deprived of oxygen. At the same time, heavier rainfall and more concentrated snowmelt are washing more nutrients and contaminants into the lakes from agricultural and urban landscapes.
As a result, threats that helped to prompt the original GLWQA in 1972 are back. “Dead zones” are reappearing in Lake Erie. Algae that may release deadly liver and other toxins are blooming over growing expanses. Yet human health issues are not prominent in GLWQA-4, except in a general way in the most heavily polluted areas of concern — an inventory held over from the old agreement.
Nor does the new GLWQA contain any special remedial measures to adapt to these changing conditions.
Across all of these fronts, the 2012 version of the GLWQA omits a foundational concept that made the original agreement one of the most successful instruments of environmental co-operation between the two countries since the creation of theInternational Joint Commission on Boundary Waters in 1909.
That essential idea, familiar to every manager, was simply to set clear, measurable goals. The original agreement, and its 1970s and ’80s updates, agreed on specific objectives that could be independently demonstrated, for example of maximum concentrations of contaminants such as mercury, lead and a number of pesticides. Each country committed to a suite of pollution control measures to achieve those objectives.
In 2012, these are left to the two countries to work out over the next five years. Meanwhile, GLWQA-4 includes no clear commitment to continue working toward unmet or ongoing commitments from earlier versions.
The new version of the agreement is a step back in other ways as well, some perhaps inconsequential, others more revealing. The period for reporting to the public on progress under the agreement is stretched from every two years to three. The IJC retains an oversight role, but will find it challenging to assess progress without, for the most part, any clear numerical benchmarks or targets to refer to. The ongoing and largely unresolved issue of “persistent toxic chemicals,” has been discreetly renamed one of “chemicals of mutual concern.”
Meanwhile the water in the Great Lakes continues to backslide.