Great Lakes an Arena for Canada-U.S. Water Issues
Written by Embassy   
Wednesday, 18 January 2006 16:18

Water is the oil of the 21st century and Canada has lots of it. So much water in fact, that the Water Poverty Index rates us as one of the worst nations in the world to practice water conservation. Unfortunately, many of us take water for granted -- but not Herb Gray.

"There is nothing more important than water and the air above it," says Mr. Gray.

As Chair of the Canadian section of the International Joint Commission (IJC), Mr. Gray is one of six commissioners (three American, three Canadian) tasked with dealing with trans-boundary environmental issues. He has been in the job for four years and like his fellow commissioners, was required to sign a declaration of impartiality.

The IJC is an independent bi-national organization established by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. Its purpose is to help prevent and resolve disputes relating to the use and quality of boundary waters and to advise Canada and the United States on related questions.

Over the years, under other agreements such as the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the commission has been given the task to deal with water quality. And with the International Air Quality Agreement, the commission has a role in dealing with trans-boundary air pollution.

"Despite the disparity of size of populations and economies of the two countries, the treaty and the commission created by it operate on the basis of absolute equality. We make our decisions together. By tradition, we make them by consensus we don't vote," said Mr. Gray.

Sixty people work for the IJC in three offices in Ottawa, Washington and Windsor, Ont. This year is shaping up to be a busy one for the IJC.

The Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence Study Board will issue its final report soon and the IJC will have to determine if any changes to the control order regulating flows along that waterway are necessary. Since the control order has not been updated since 1958, any changes to it (which ultimately change water levels) will affect millions of people. More than 200 people worked on the $30 million report (paid for equally by both Canadian and U.S. federal governments).

Other big-ticket issues include resolving the apportionment of water the state of Montana receives from the St. Mary and Milk Rivers. This dispute has been going on since 1921.

The soon-to-be-released Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement Review has taken much of Mr. Gray's time.

"Our current priorities are to complete a report on the meetings the governments asked us to carry out through a formal reference, to get the opinion of people around the Great Lakes on how to change or update the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. That agreement was first signed in 1972 and last updated in 1987," says Mr. Gray.

The IJC held 14 public meetings with people who live around the basin, and also hosted a web dialogue on its website. People on both sides of the border have many concerns about the integrity of the Great Lakes. These include: contaminated sediments on the bottom of Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, invasive species such as zebra mussels (one of 17 alien species to have invaded the Great Lakes), pharmaceutical substances in waste water, shrinking wetlands, the effect of climate change on the Great Lakes, waste water management and sewage treatment. The good news about sewage is that no raw sewage is currently being pumped into the Great Lakes -- which is the largest fresh-water ecosystem in the world, and a source of drinking water for 40 million people.

The problem, however, is that in the future more than 40 million people will demand access to the lakes.

The IJC issued a report in 2000 that found only one per cent of the waters of the Great Lakes were renewed each year by snow melt and rain. It concluded that the removal of water from the basin reduces the resilience of the system and its capacity to cope with unpredictable stresses, such as climate change.

Last December, Ontario, Québec, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin signed the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

"For the first time it establishes a common environment standard across the basin and puts in place a virtual prohibition against diversions from the Great Lakes," says Kevin Wilson of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. "It puts in place a requirement to build conservation programs that would be implemented at the state and provincial level."

Not everyone is happy with the agreement.

"I am very critical on the annex agreement on a number of fronts," says Susan Howatt, national water campaigner at the Council of Canadians in Ottawa. "I find the governance of it very weak. The federal government should have been the lead negotiating agency but instead it was left to the provinces and the IJC was not empowered as the dispute resolution mechanism," she adds.

"Another exception [to the agreement]

is a gift to the bottled water industry. If water comes out of the Great Lakes and is put in a container under 20 litres it is not regulated as a diversion -- which means it does not trigger any of the regulations or conservation provisions and it is not accounted for," Ms. Howatt says.

The agreement still has to be passed in all the provincial and state legislatures and well as by both federal governments before it becomes law. This could take years.

Prime Minister Paul Martin has pledged $1 billion over 10 years to clean up major waterways if he is re-elected. Mr. Gray, a former Liberal politician with 40 years experience, declined to comment.

"It is not our mandate," he says.

In the meantime, Mr. Gray soldiers on in his office on the 22nd floor of an office building overlooking Parliament Hill. There are reports sitting on his desk that demand his attention. He has no plans to retire any time soon.

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