Editorial: Great Lakes plan still not
Published January 24th, 2005
Ending a long and perplexing silence, Ottawa has finally
taken a position on a plan developed by governors of the
eight Great Lakes states and the premiers of Ontario and
Quebec for managing the Great Lakes waters. In a recent
submission to the Council of Great Lakes Governors, the
federal government has joined the chorus of criticism
coming from water experts, environmentalists, a Commons
committee and more recently, the Ontario government itself.
Like the others, Ottawa now says the proposed agreements
are "too permissive" on the fundamental issue
of withdrawals or diversions of Great Lakes waters, and
too imprecise on other key issues.
The stakes are extremely high. As one U.S. newspaper,
the Toledo Blade puts it, at issue "is how the United
States and Canada view their relationship with each other
in regard to the freshwater lakes as North America is
expected to face its greatest water crisis this century.
The lakes hold 20 per cent of the Earth's fresh surface
That is why Ottawa is encouraging the governors to bring
their proposals into conformity with recommendations made
by the International Joint Commission, the Canada-U.S.
binational body that has had responsibility for the health
of the Great Lakes for the past 97 years.
The federal government also wants the text of the governors'
draft agreements changed to acknowledge the primacy of
the obligations of both Canada and the U.S. as set out
in the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty and the Great Lakes
Water Quality Agreement. Such changes, Ottawa suggests,
would reduce the exposure of initiatives taken under the
governors' agreements to potential legal challenges.
While this might sound like a lot of legal mumbo-jumbo,
it is critical that the agreements spell out in the clearest
terms the precedence of the Boundary Waters Treaty should
a conflict arise, and the International Joint Commission's
central role in resolving any disputes.
In its submission to the council, Ottawa asserts that
"obligations under the Boundary Waters Treaty and
Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement are unaffected by
the proposed agreements," and "any project that
affects the natural level or flow of boundary waters will
require an independent approval by the International Joint
Commission, or a special agreement by the governments
of Canada and the United States."
Other critics, though, do not share the government's
confidence that the treaty would protect Canadians against
water withdrawals or other actions the Americans might
take under the governors' agreements. The critics' greatest
fear is that if the governors' agreements were accepted
in their current form, Canadians could lose the protections
they now enjoy.
The only way to assuage those fears is for the governors'
agreements to spell out in detail that they take a back
seat to the treaty and its guarantee of Canada's shared
sovereignty over the Great Lakes.