Thought Leadership

The Protection of the Great Lakes Began More Than 50 Years Ago – That History Matters Today for Funding Important Projects. But Why?

September 5, 2023

Coastline of Lake Michigan

By Cam Davis – Vice President, GEI

In an era when climate change is touching almost every aspect of our lives, it’s becoming clearer by the day that if we want our ecosystems to take care of us, we need to take care of them. The same is true for the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, comprising about 20 percent of the Earth’s fresh surface water and providing a source of drinking water for some 40 million North Americans.

The Great Lakes system also supports more than 1 million jobs and $82 billion in wages, according to Michigan Sea Grant. It’s also connected via the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, to 31 states in the interior of the U.S.; states as far away as Montana and Louisiana.

Like all systems, however, the Great Lakes require upkeep. More than a century of toxic contamination, invasion by nuisance species, polluted runoff, coastal erosion, and habitat loss (particularly in waterways surrounded by some of the most productive agricultural land on the planet), have taken their toll. Beyond economics, the Great Lakes are also home to beaches, recreation, some of the cleanest drinking water on Earth, and an unparalleled quality of life. And without funding, upkeep for these uses is impossible.

This five-part series describes the advent of the U.S. and Canada’s commitments, starting in 1972, to protect the Great Lakes (Part 1). With that groundwork having been laid, you’ll see that binational commitments didn’t translate into actual protection at the breadth and pace needed to save the ecosystem. Recently, however, that’s changed with the U.S.’s establishment of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative or “GLRI” (Part 2). You’ll also learn about how stakeholders can access GLRI funds to help the Great Lakes (Part 3), a recently announced complementary Canadian counterpart to the GLRI (Part 4), and some insights into political and other headwinds the U.S. and Canadian programs may face in the future that could affect project funding (Parts 4 and 5).

Timeline of Great Lakes Restoration Progress

As always, we welcome your feedback, questions, and hearing about your needs.

The U.S. & Canada Pledge to Protect the Great Lakes Together

“Nixon Go Home! Nixon Go Home!” shouted throngs of protesters in Ottawa as the U.S. president entered Parliament to visit with Canada’s Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

But the protesters were decrying the U.S. war in Viet Nam, not the reasons for Nixon’s visit: To sign a pact for the two countries to coordinate in protecting the Great Lakes. The civic tension on that day would signal another kind of friction: The push and pull of adequate pledges juxtaposed with inadequate resources to make those pledges mean something.Nixon and Trudeau Signing Agreement

Signed that gray, cold day, on April 15, 1972, the Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (Agreement) recognized—finally—that the largest body of fresh surface water on the planet was in peril largely from sewage that starved the lakes (and aquatic life) of oxygen. Two forces pushed the leaders to that moment: First, scientists were on the brink of declaring the shallowest and most sensitive of the five lakes, Erie, as “dying.” The two countries outlined steps in the Agreement to improve water quality. Second, citizens in both countries organized while seeing the horror of the Cuyahoga River catching on fire, and waves of dead fish and algae washing up on their beaches.

Later that year, the U.S. passed the modern Clean Water Act to provide billions of dollars in sewage treatment, proving that national funding to back up binational commitments on paper was critical. But it didn’t take long for the public to see that problems far outpaced pledges, and funding.

In 1978, Canada and the U.S. revised the Agreement, this time to pledging to “virtually eliminate” the pernicious role of toxic pollutants, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury, dioxin, and others in the Great Lakes and their food chains.

Again, however, progress couldn’t keep pace with the problems posed to the public and environment. The two countries again revised the Agreement with significant new concepts and commitments. Among the most important, Canada and the U.S. recognized the “ecosystem approach” to Great Lakes management. In other words, Great Lakes protection required an integration of efforts across media (water, air, land). And, in a landmark move, the nations called for the identification of “Areas of Concern” (AOCs), more than 40 toxic hotspots in industrialized rivers, harbors, and ports on both sides of the border. They also articulated “beneficial use impairments,” criteria for places to become AOCs and, conversely, once addressed, for the same places to be considered restored for “de-listing.”

Again, neither country dedicated funding commensurate with its pledges.

US and Canada officials signing documents

In 2012, the two countries again significantly revised the Agreement, this time to recognize climate change, provide direction on important subjects like invasive species, habitat, science coordination, and groundwater. Even more importantly, the 2012 Agreement recognized the vital role of tribes, first nations, Métis, municipalities, states, and provinces, among others, in collaborating for Great Lakes protection. It also recognized the binational stretch of the St. Lawrence River from Lake Ontario to Akwesasne, Ontario/St. Regis, New York as part of the Great Lakes system.

This time, however, at least in the U.S., history didn’t repeat itself: A significant new jolt of funding came before the 2012 commitments.

Next, we’ll discuss the future of Great Lakes Restoration Funding. If you have questions, please get in touch.