About the Great Lakes
Water Quality Agreement

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) was first signed in 1972 to coordinate the actions of Canada and the United States. For over forty years, the GLWQA has served as a guidepost for the binational management of the Great Lakes and as a model of international cooperation for the protection of water quality in other large lakes of the world.

The purpose of the GLWQA is:

“…to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Waters of the Great Lakes.”

The 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was amended in 2012 to better identify and manage current environmental issues, and prevent emerging environmental issues from affecting the waters of the Great Lakes, while upholding and modernizing commitments made in previous Agreements. The 2012 GLWQA entered into force on February 12, 2013, following an exchange of diplomatic notes between Canada and the United States.

In the 2012 GLWQA, Canada and the United States have established a comprehensive shared vision and common objectives and commitments to science, governance and action that will help to restore and protect Great Lakes water quality and ecosystem health.

Both Canada and the United States sought extensive input from governmental and non-governmental organizations and various stakeholders before (through an extensive binational review process) and during negotiations to amend the GLWQA. These deliberations played an essential part in developing a forward-thinking, modernized and strengthened new Agreement.

Objectives of the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement

Canada and the United States have committed to work to attain the following nine general objectives:
The Waters of the Great Lakes should:

  1. Be a source of safe, high-quality drinking water;
  2. Allow for swimming and other recreational use, unrestricted by environmental quality concerns;
  3. Allow for human consumption of fish and wildlife unrestricted by concerns due to harmful pollutants;
  4. Be free from pollutants in quantities or concentrations that could be harmful to human health, wildlife or organisms, through direct exposure or indirect exposure through the food chain;
  5. Support healthy and productive wetlands and other habitats to sustain resilient populations of native species;
  6. Be free from nutrients that directly or indirectly enter the water as a result of human activity, in amounts that promote growth of algae and cyanobacteria that interfere with aquatic ecosystem health, or human use of the ecosystem;
  7. Be free from the introduction and spread of aquatic invasive species and free from the introduction and spread of terrestrial invasive species that adversely impact the quality of the Waters of the Great Lakes;
  8. Be free from the harmful impacts of contaminated groundwater; and,
  9. Be free from other substances, materials or conditions that may negatively impact the chemical, physical or biological integrity of the Waters of the Great Lakes.

The 2012 GLWQA includes measures to prevent environmental threats before they cause ecological harm, while continuing to support work on existing threats to the quality of the waters of the Great Lakes.

The 2012 GLWQA is organized as a series of Articles and Annexes. The Articles describe the general and specific objectives of the Agreement, define principles and approaches, and lay out the structure and process for its implementation, including a commitment for Canada and United States to report on progress every three years to document domestic and binational actions relating to GLWQA. As described in Article 7 of the 2012 GLWQA,  the International Joint Commission is tasked with reviewing and seeking public input on progress.

The ten Annexes, listed below, describe commitments on specific environmental issues that can affect the quality of the waters of the Great Lakes:

  1. Areas of Concern
  2. Lakewide Management
  3. Chemicals of Mutual Concern
  4. Nutrients
  5. Discharges from Vessels
  6. Aquatic Invasive Species
  7. Habitats and Species
  8. Groundwater
  9. Climate Change Impacts
  10. Science

Partners in Implementation

One of the biggest changes in the 2012 GLWQA is the increased importance both countries have placed on engaging the broadest range of governments, organizations, and the public in work to restore and protect Great Lakes water quality. This website is the primary tool of both countries for notifying the public of engagement opportunities.

While Canada and the United States are responsible for final decision-making under the GLWQA, the involvement and participation of State and Provincial Governments, Tribal Governments, First Nations, Métis, Municipal Governments, watershed management agencies, local public agencies, and the Public are essential to achieve the objectives of the Agreement.

Background and History

Canada and the United States have a long history of working together to restore and protect the Great Lakes. Over the years, the challenges facing the Great Lakes have changed, and so too has the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in order to effectively address current and future challenges.

GLWQA Timeline

The original 1972 GLWQA focused primarily on reducing algae. Both countries agreed that a coordinated approach to limiting phosphorus inputs was the key to controlling excessive algal growth. Actions taken in support of the Agreement reduced excess algae growth. Phosphorus levels in the Great Lakes declined significantly during the 1970s and 1980s. At the time, this was an unprecedented success in achieving environmental results and demonstrating the value of binational cooperation.

In 1978, the GLWQA was revised to reflect a broadened goal “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem.” The two significant shifts of the 1978 GLWQA were the introduction of the “ecosystem approach”- the notion of taking the whole ecosystem into account (and not just certain parts) – and the call for “virtual elimination” of toxic pollution.

In 1983, a supplement was added to the GLWQA to further limit phosphorus discharges and Canada and the United States committed to prepare and implement plans for reducing phosphorus.

The GLWQA was amended in 1987 to incorporate new commitments to reduce toxic pollutants through development and implementation of Lakewide Management Plans for each lake and to clean up Areas of Concern through the implementation of Remedial Action Plans. These plans emphasized the engagement of citizens and local governments to restore water quality and rapidly reduce the levels of toxic pollutants in the lake ecosystem.

For More Information

Environment and Climate Change Canada
United States Environmental Protection Agency

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