International Joint Commission: Great Lakes watchdog

The International Joint Commission is an independent organization charged with protecting the waters of the Great Lakes for both the United States and Canada.

Lighthouse on Lake Michigan.

The Great Lakes holds approximately 20 percent of all the fresh water in the world. It is bordered by eight states and Canada. Over 35 million people (24 million people in the U.S. and about 9.8 million in Canada) rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water, jobs and their way of life. That breaks down to.

One of the guardians of these water is the International Joint Commission (IJC). The IJC is an independent binational organization established by the governments of the United States and Canada under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. Its role was expanded in 1972 with the signing of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

The mission of the IJC is to prevent and resolve disputes between the United States of America and Canada and pursue the common good of both countries as an independent and objective advisor to the two governments.

The IJC is guided by the Boundary Waters Treaty. The document outlines general principles, rather than detailed guidelines, for preventing and resolving disputes over waters shared between the two countries and for settling other transboundary issues. Specific applications of these guidelines is decided on a case-by-case basis.

“Canada and the United States created the International Joint Commission because they recognized that each country is affected by the other's actions in lake and river systems along the border. The two countries cooperate to manage these waters and to protect them for the benefit of today's citizens and future generations.” (IJC website)

The IJC has two main responsibilities:

  1. approving projects that affect water levels and flows across the boundary and
  2. investigating transboundary issues and recommending solutions.

Recommendations and decisions by the IJC take into consideration the needs of a wide range of water uses, including drinking water, commercial shipping, hydroelectric power generation, agriculture, ecosystem health, industry, fishing, recreational boating and shoreline property.

The IJC also works to protect the overall transboundary environment, including air quality that may impact land and water resources.  It attempts to reduce/eliminate bilateral disputes between the two governments by following emerging issues.

The Commission has six IJC Commissioners – three from the U. S. and three from Canada. The Commissioners are appointed by the Cabinet in Canada and the President (after Senate confirmation) in the United States. Commissioners do not answer to their respective countries but do usually work in consensus to find solutions that are in the best interests of both countries. The Commission has professional staff in Washington DC and Ottawa, Ontario. There are regional offices in Detroit and Windsor also.

Canada and the United States each appoint three of six IJC Commissioners. One Commission from each country serve concurrently as Chairs. The Commission currently has two vacancies. A quorum of four is required for the Commission to meet.

The Commissioners are appointed by the highest level of government in each country, the Cabinet in Canada and the U.S. President (after Senate confirmation). Commissioners do not take direction from their governments, but traditionally work by consensus to find solutions that are in the best interest of both countries. The commission is governed by co-chairs – one from each country. Currently the commission has two vacant chairs. A quorum consists of 4 members to enact decisions.

The Commissioners are supported by professional staff in in Washington, D.C. and Ottawa, Ontario, as well as a regional office in Windsor to support water quality work in the Great Lakes.

An important role of the IJC staff is to track emerging issues and provide information and reports.  One of their most recent reports completed in October, 2018 looks at the environmental and ecological impacts of transport and potential spills. 

Look for future articles on this report’s conclusions and recommendations to protect the Great Lakes.

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