Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Saving the Great Lakes (Again)

The world’s largest freshwater lakes are facing new and more toxic hazards.

Photograph by Brendan Hoffman (Getty)

On June 13, 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon met in Niagara Falls, Canada, and announced plans to amend the landmark 37-year-old Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement to modernize it to meet new challenges.

Residents in both countries welcomed the news—but with considerably less enthusiasm than when they greeted the signing of the first agreement by then-President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

Why the decline in confidence? Blame it, in part, on success. The promises in the 1972 agreement and subsequent amendments in 1978 were largely met. Concentrations of contaminants such as DDT and mercury have declined significantly in monitored fish species. Programs to reduce algae-producing phosphorous inputs through improved sewage treatment and phosphate-detergent bans have been as successful as similar-scale efforts elsewhere in the world.

But today, the capacity of governments to enforce regulations that meet the current challenges— and their appetite to do so—is on the decline. In both countries, there is rising doubt about governments’ willingness and ability to fulfill their promises.

And with reason: progress on newer commitments set forth in a 1987 protocol has been slow, with only three areas removed from the list of “hot spots” over two decades. The protocol called in fact for remedial action plans for 43 areas of concern (designated because they contained contaminated sediments, inadequately treated wastewater, non-point source pollution, inland contaminated sites, or degraded habitat)…


Tags: Canada, Forum for Leadership on Water, Great Lakes, Hilary Clinton, Lawrence Cannon, water issues
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