The International Joint Commission called for "unambiguous accountability" in its Thirteenth Biennial Report on the Great Lakes, released earlier this month. The twenty-page document focuses entirely on accountability, recognizing both the strengths and weaknesses of the Canada/United States Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. In particular, the IJC draws much-needed attention to the reasons why both countries' current approach to restoring and protecting the Great Lakes is no longer enough.
The IJC was formed in 1909 to help the United States and Canada address significant issues facing waters that cross our shared boundary. In 2005, the IJC travelled to Canadian and American communities around the Great Lakes in search of opinions on the future of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the two countries. They asked the public the following questions:
Is the Agreement helping to protect the quality of Great Lakes waters?
Does the Agreement do enough to protect the quality of Great Lakes waters?
Where does the Agreement fall short of its goals?
What new approaches, if any, should be instituted to ensure the Agreement protects the quality of Great Lakes waters?
This consultation formed the basis for the IJC's latest report, which advises Canada and the United States to Develop a Rigorous Plan, Monitor and Assess, Report, and then Use Reports to Review and Adjust Plans. The IJC suggests that these four steps will help the two countries create accountability for Great Lakes water quality initiatives, thus restoring the public's ability to safely swim, drink and fish in the lakes.
The IJC also highlights the importance of consulting with the public:
In our democracies the public has a pivotal role to play in all matters of public policy. Public consultation on the progress of Great Lakes restoration can empower the citizens of both countries to monitor and, in informed ways, comment on the governments' performance. Through such direct engagement, citizens could more effectively join and support government actions to restore and protect their Lakes.
Each of the IJC's three broad recommendations reflects concerns raised by environmental organizations and members of the public during the public consultation period: lack of accountability, unclear deadlines, and limited opportunities for public participation.
Lake Ontario Waterkeeper's major comments included:
There must be a renewed commitment to meeting the objectives of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Success can only be claimed when these objectives are entirely met in every community.
In order to overcome the public's cynicism, the International Joint Commission must be empowered to create a public process by which any resident in Canada and the United States can bring forward evidence of noncompliance with the objectives of the Agreement and/or information regarding new science and emerging issues that will help keep the Annexes relevant and effective. This public process can be modeled on the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation's "Citizen Submission on Enforcement Matters" process. Such a program will help to ensure the GLWQA is both transparent and effective.
The International Joint Commission should assume a leadership role in ensuring that the deadlines set out in the GLWQA are met. Lack of progress helps fuel public frustrations.
The public supports the intent of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, but at the same time we are often frustrated by the lack of meaningful progress in recent years. On every lake, fish consumption restrictions, posted beaches, and drinking water advisories remind us there is still a long way to go. The IJC's report is a very important step in making the Agreement clear, potent and workable.