Ecojustice Blog – Nature Posted on June 12, 2013 (updated: June 12, 2013)

The Great Lakes Need a Strong International Joint Commission

Our Great Lakes blogger — Dr. Anastasia Lintner, an Ecojustice Staff Lawyer and Economist — has turned today’s post over to a fellow defender of the Great Lakes and an important issue that you can help resolve.

By Nancy Goucher, Water Campaign Manager at Environmental Defence

There is nothing like the Great Lakes Basin anywhere else in the world. This vast, interconnected system of freshwater lakes holds the largest amount of available surface freshwater in the world, supports more than 3,500 species of plants and animals, and has over 17,500 km of coastline.

The Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River are collectively managed and utilized by two nations, numerous tribal and First Nations, two provinces, and eight states. The fact that there are many players involved has significant implications for how water is used, how information is collected, and how decisions are made about this shared resource.

Some of the largest issues facing the region today — including water levels, invasive species, and nutrient loading — cannot be addressed by one jurisdiction alone. Solutions require collaborative action on both sides of the border.

What is the International Joint Commission?
When it comes to protecting water sources shared by Canada and the U.S., the International Joint Commission (IJC) is one of the most important institutions that exist today. Created by the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty, the Commission is mandated to prevent and resolve disputes over water bodies shared by the two countries. Importantly, it is one of the few institutions where Canada has an equal say over resources shared with our southern neighbour.

Missing Canadian voices
But right now, Canada’s voice on the Commission is significantly stifled, with only one of three Canadian seats occupied by representatives. Lyall Knott completed his term as a commissioner in April, and another of Canada’s members, Pierre Trépanier, left the group more than a year ago. The only commissioner currently on the Canadian section is Joseph Comuzzi, who is scheduled to finish his term in the next six months or so.

Without an equal voice on the International Joint Commission, how can we be sure that Canada’s interests are considered when making important decisions regarding the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence region?

Upcoming recommendations on water regulation
For instance, after almost 15 years of technical and scientific studies, the International Joint Commission is about to make important recommendations to the two federal governments on the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River water regulation plan.

The International Joint Commission’s proposed plan will change the flow management regime for the system, restoring the ecological integrity of coastal wetlands and river habitats that are vital to birds, fish, and other animals. In many ways, the plan is a no-brainer. It will greatly benefit the environment while minimally impacting other interests, including property owners and recreational boating enthusiasts.

Challenging the opposition
But that doesn’t mean the plan is without controversy. There are a few loud voices on the U.S. side that are against any change. Without strong Canadian representatives to outweigh a few dissenting voices, it is less likely that such a great plan will make it through federal political channels. It’s therefore essential that Canada have a full complement of commissioners at the table to speak on behalf of the environmental benefits of a new flow regime at this critical time.

Over 25 million Canadians, countless birds, fish and other mammals call the Great Lakes home. Having the capacity to make good decisions about the management of water in the Basin is not just about protecting the environment, it is also critical to the health of residents and the well-being of much of Ontario’s economy.

Given the importance of the International Joint Commission’s role in protecting Canada’s interests in the Great Lakes, it is essential that we appoint commissioners in a timely manner that are intelligent, capable and able to interpret science to make reasonable decisions that are in the best interest of all communities on both sides of the border.

For more on this issue, check out the open letter to the Prime Minister’s Office by the Forum for Leadership on Water.

Also, set up a meeting with your member of Parliament or write them a letter today to ask them to support the appointment of effective commissioners to the Canadian section of the International Joint Commission.

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