American leaders and their Canadian counterparts seem to agree on the importance of protecting the Great Lakes. The challenge is getting the president and prime minister, congressmen, provincial leaders, state representatives and environmental advocates of both countries organized enough to accomplish this task.
Right now, efforts are much too disparate. On the U.S. federal level alone, there are at least 140 programs aimed at cleaning up the Great Lakes, which include Lake Ontario. Yet swimming remains off limits at Charlotte beach for about a third of the summer because of health hazards. New York's freshwater beaches are considered the most polluted, but similar problems exist throughout the Great Lakes system.
As American and Canadian leaders move forward on two major agreements concerning Great Lakes water quality, they must eliminate duplication and disorganization that are diluting efforts to protect the Earth's largest freshwater resource.
The national governments of the United States and Canada are currently trying to update the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which was signed by President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1972, and hasn't been updated since 1987. An executive committee representing both governments is considering better ways to combat invasive species, for example.
Meanwhile, governors and premiers of states and provinces that border the Great Lakes have outlined solutions for this same goal in their Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact. This agreement, which must be ratified by all states and provinces, would provide a system of regional lake management and cooperative oversight of water withdrawal.
With all the work that must be done — from cleaning up toxic pollution, to protecting water levels, to restoring wildlife habitats, to blocking rampant algae growth — national, state and provincial efforts to protect the lakes should be more tightly linked.
Cooperation has certainly improved since 1972, when it was considered groundbreaking for the United States and Canada to adopt a bilateral agreement. It can and should get even better.