Milestone Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement Turns 50

Is it Really a Time for Celebration?

“If we pollute the air, water and soil that keep us alive and well, and we destroy the biodiversity that allows natural systems to function, no amount of money will save us.”                                       – David Suzuki, Canadian scientist, environmental activist and host of the CBC TV program ‘The Nature of Things’

“It is never too late to go quietly to our lakes, rivers, oceans, even our small streams, and say to the sea gulls, the great blue herons, the bald eagles, and the salmon, that we are sorry.”                         – American novelist and nature writer Brenda Peterson

A Commentary by Niagara At Large reporter and publisher Doug Draper, followed by a Statement from the Canadian and U.S. governments on the 1972 signing of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement

Posted April 18th, 2022 on Niagara At Large

A News Commentary by Doug Draper –

The Great Lakes, the largest source of fresh, drinkable water in the world, if we have the sense to look after them.

By the time citizens gathered in cities and towns around the world for the very first Earth Day in April, 1970, the Great Lakes and so many of the rivers and creeks flowing into them were on just about every environmental scientist who was paying attention critical list.

These massive reservoirs of fresh water – home to tens-of-millions of humans and a rich diversity of wildlife – were by then so seriously contaminated with petro-chemical waste from a multitude of sources on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border that fish-eating birds, from gulls to bald eagles, were dying off and at least one river flowing to the lower Great Lakes from Ohio literally caught fire.

Scientist were examining fish from the lakes and the watersheds feeding them that were suffering from exterior tumors the size of those marbles kids played with on the schoolyard.

At the same time, mats of rotting algae were washing up and stanching Great Lakes shores.

Great Lakes fish, washing up the shores in lethal mats of rotting algae

A product of nutrients (mostly phosphorus and nitrogen agents entering the lakes from farmlands treated with chemical fertilizers, and from urban sewers, the algae choked the lakes of the oxygen they needed to sustain fish life.

Lake Erie, the shallowest of the lakes and therefore the most vulnerable to growths of this oxygen-robbing plight, was declared in front-page headlines across North America to be “on the verge of dying.”

Two years after the first Earth Day, on April 16, 1972, then Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (father of the current prime minister) and then U.S. President Richard Nixon set aside the beefs they had with each other on so many other issues and signed a binational Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement aimed at saving the lakes from those threats and more.

U.S. President Richard Nixon (second from left) and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (right) in April. 1972,, signing the Canada/U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement

Through two revisions of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, in 1978 and 1987, and through the first 25 or 30 years of its initial signing, a great deal of progress was made by the two federal governments, by the Province of Ontario and the U.S. states bordering the lakes, and by municipalities and other bodies in both countries to bring these vital, life-sustaining water bodies back from the brink.

Tests showed Great Lakes fish were safer to eat, bald eagles began nesting in the Great Lakes region again and herring gull colonies on Lake Ontario were once again reproducing.

Then, by the mid- to late-1990s, the progress began to slow and in a number of cases, even recede.

Governments began cutting and in some cases, taking a meat axe to ministries and departments responsible for environmental protection, and many of the rules and regulations put in place to safeguard ecosystems were either weakened or eliminated completely.

The late Margherita Howe, a Niagara-on-the-Lake citizen activist and head of the group Operation Clean Niagara ,. received the Order of Canada in the 1980s for the pressure she and her activist friends were putting on governments in Canada and the United States to reduce the discharge of toxic chemicals to the Niagara River

In the past few decades, we also saw the end of some of the citizen groups that played such an important role in pressing governments to action. They include groups like Pollution Probe, Great Lakes United and, with the passing of citizen activists in Niagara like Laura Dodson and Margherita Howe, Operation Clean in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Meanwhile, and even while American neighbours in this region of the Great Lakes have continued to do some important work on their side of the Niagara River watershed with respect to cleaning up rivers and creeks and protecting and preserving woodlands and wetlands, the record on the Niagara, Ontario side has not been very good.

With the exception of citizen-based groups that have adopted some of Niagara’s creeks and green places with an eye to protecting them, too many of our politicians and bureaucrats at the municipal, provincial and federal level have given a pass to domestic and foreign investors and developers who want to build on or around even more of what is left of our woodlands and wetlands.

With provincially significant wetlands near the shore of the Niagara River, including those in the Thundering Waters Forest in Niagara Falls and around Frenchman’s Creek in Fort Erie, now in developers’ target range, the day may one day come when the Canadian side of one of the Great Lakes’ major connecting channels and all of the life in and around it no longer receive a life-sustaining infusion from these vital resources.

Provincially significant wetlands like this, located in the Thundering Waters Forest in Niagara, Falls, Ontario and vital to the health of the Niagara River watershed, may soon vanish forever. due to urban development our political leaders is allowing to procd proceed. file photo by Lori Monroe

It is also shameful that more than two years after government representatives and citizen groups on the American side of the Niagara River came together to celebrate the designation of their side of the river as a globally significant wetland under a 1981 international treaty signed by Canada and close to 170 other nations at a convention in Ramsar, Iran, we still can’t even get that done on the Canadian side.

Except for a majority on the Fort Erie and Niagara Regional councils, and on the board for the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA), councils for the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake and City of Niagara Falls, Ontario (two municipalities that have benefited economically and aesthetically from the presence of the Niagara River), have so far refused to support such a designation.

So far, the councils for Niagara Falls, Ontario and the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, and the Niagara Parks Commission are refusing to support a designation for the Niagara River as a wetland of international importance.

More shameful than that, the current honchoes at the Niagara Parks Commission (NPC), supported and in a few cases appointed by Ontario’s Doug Ford government, told a group of Niagara citizen volunteers that the commission (created more than a century ago to help protect natural features along the Niagara River corridor) that it would not sponsor any such designation. It has also refused to tell the public why.

So no celebration of a global wetland designation on the Niagara, Ontario side of the river – at least not unless enough of us use this year’s upcoming provincial and municipal elections to hire more politicians that care about the Great Lakes environment.

One piece of good news I have heard in the last few days is that a new citizen’s organization is coming together across the Canadian side of the Great Lakes to serve as a voice for more protection and preservation.

I will be posting more information on that on Niagara At Large in the days ahead. So stay tuned.

  • Doug Draper, Niagara At Large

Now here is a Statement on the anniversary of the Great Lakes agreement from the Canadian and American government

A Joint Statement by Environment and Climate Change Canada and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the 50th Anniversary of the signing of the United States-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement –

Originally circulated April 14, 2022 -United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael S. Regan and Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault, issued the following statement:

Canada and the United States have a long history of collaboration on issues that significantly affect the health and prosperity, and well-being of people living on both sides of the border. Shared management of the Great Lakes ecosystem, one of the largest freshwater systems on earth, is a primary example of our united action.


Fifty years ago on April 15, 1972, in response to the significant deterioration of water quality, our two countries affirmed our commitment to work closely together to restore and protect the Great Lakes through a new framework for binational cooperation, the United States-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

Under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, Canada and the United States have engaged state and provincial governments, municipalities and local authorities, First Nations, Métis and Tribal governments, industry, nongovernment organizations and the public in working together to achieve a healthy and sustainable Great Lakes ecosystem for the benefit of present and future generations.

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, in concert with other complimentary U.S. and Canadian environmental programs, has been tremendously effective in improving and protecting the water quality of the Great Lakes.

For example, we have achieved dramatic reductions in toxic substances in the environment that are harmful to fish and wildlife, some by more than 90 percent.

We have restored and continue to restore especially degraded areas on both sides of the border, and we have implemented measures that have resulted in the return to the Great Lakes region of important species including Bald Eagle and Lake Trout. Our shared environmental progress is a testament to the strength of Canada-United States relations. 

As we celebrate 50 years of collaborative efforts, we recognize that our job is far from finished and that continued action by both countries is needed to protect this invaluable resource. We are proud to reflect on the accomplishments made under the Agreement thus far, and we reaffirm our shared and deep commitment to continue to work together to restore and protect the Great Lakes into the future.

The United States and Canada will further recognize and celebrate this important milestone as well as discuss opportunities for the protection of the Great Lakes over the next 50 years at the Great Lakes Public Forum in Niagara Falls, Ontario, the week of September 26, 2022.

Finally, here is a Statement on the from Niagara Centre Liberal MP and Co-Chair of Great Lakes St. Lawrence Taskforce, Vance Badawey –

Niagara Centre Liberal MP Vance Badawey

“Historically speaking, Canada and the United States have not always worked well together but starting in the mid part of the 20th Century, that trend changed for the better, and the Great Lakes were a catalyst for that change.

Today we collectively benefit from several important Great Lakes treaties, and our pact on Great Lakes Water Quality is proof positive that collaboration works for all of us. As we celebrate a half century of success on water quality, it is equally important to celebrate the entire suite of binational agreements protecting the Great Lakes. Great Lakes water levels, shipping, fisheries, and water quality are each subject to Canada/US treaties, and we all reap the many benefits of working closely with our US neighbours.”

For more information on the Canada/U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, click on –

NIAGARA AT LARGE Encourages You To Join The Conversation By Sharing Your Views On This Post In The Space Following The Bernie Sanders Quote Below.

“A Politician Thinks Of The Next Election. A Leader Thinks Of The Next Generation.” – Bernie Sanders


One response to “Milestone Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement Turns 50

  1. Robert Milenkoff

    It seems that back in the day Politicians were only concerned about the environment for political gain and would try to out do their opponents with a better environmental policy. The results were no doubt beneficial to the world and made it a better place. Today most politicians are just as much concerned about political gain but have put the environment on the back burner and are more concerned about the economy. Read on …….


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