U.S.-Canadian Great Lakes treaty falls short, advocates say
An agreement United States and Canadian officials signed Friday to protect and restore the Great Lakes could have gone further, environmental advocates said.
“While there’s lots of very good language [and] new issues addressed, how they are going to be tackled is completely unknown,” said Gail Krantzberg, director of the Center for Engineering and Public Policy at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. “The actual procedures, programs, methods for implementing the agreement are really not defined.”
The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was originally signed in 1972. Many of its tenets inspired parts of the landmark Clean Water Act signed that same year by U.S. President Richard Nixon.
Though advocates applaud the updated focus on issues like climate change and invasive species, many said more should have been done.
“We were wanting real targets [like] eliminating certain things, certain percent habitat restoration, things of that nature that are clear targets with guidelines,” said John Jackson, interim executive director and program director for Great Lakes United, an association of Great Lakes advocates.
Although the agreement gives much needed basis for problems to be solved, specific ways to solve the problems were lacking, said Jackson.
The U.S. and Canadian federal agencies in charge of renegotiating the agreement were criticized for a lack of transparency and accountability, said Krantzberg.
The officials have a history of not reporting the progress of their negotiations, and those negotiations often took place behind closed doors without involvement from those who would be affected, critics said.
Both Krantzberg and Jackson said it is necessary for agencies to report to the public to ensure their plans are developed efficiently.
“Our frustration is that these planning processes can take far too long and we need action now,” Jackson said. “Lake Erie can’t wait three years for you to decide what your targets are and for [another] five years before you develop an action plan.”
More accountability would mean that the voices of industry, farmers, environmental groups and other communities would be heard, Jackson said.
Those voices should be critical in the development and the implementation of the plans laid out in the agreement.
Those issues aside, Krantzberg, Jackson and others welcomed additions to the agreement and affirmed the vital role the agreement has played since the 1970s.
Over the past four decades, the agreement played a significant role in stopping nutrient and sewage pollution, said Andrew Buchsbaum, co-chair of the Healing Our Waters Coalition, an association of environmental organizations. Amendments made in 1987 slowed and then rolled back the levels of toxic pollutants like mercury and polychlorinated biphenyl,
There was a lot of great progress tackling phosphorus, upgrading sewage plants and banning phosphorus detergents that came from the original agreement, she said.
The new focus on climate change and invasive species are particularly welcome because they reflect new realities in the region.
Advanced scientific methods that have bettered our understanding of water quality are also reflected in the agreement’s focus, said Jackson.
“Those [issues] weren’t on people’s agendas back in ’87,” said Jackson. “Now they’re a big deal.”
The agreement also includes plans to solve problems regarding near shore environments, biodiversity, groundwater contamination and nutrient pollution, said Krantzberg.
The renegotiated agreement was signed in Washington, D.C. by Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson.