Whose Waters Are They? The Great Lakes and International Boundaries

The Great Lakes, a group of five inland lakes in North America, have long been a source of contention between the United States and Canada. With over 20% of the Earth’s freshwater, these lakes are a valuable resource for both countries. But who does the water belong to? This question has sparked heated debates and legal battles over the years. In this article, we will explore the complex history and current status of the Great Lakes as a shared resource, and examine the various agreements and treaties that have been put in place to govern their use.

The Great Lakes: A Shared Resource

The Great Lakes: A Brief Overview

Location

The Great Lakes are a group of five freshwater lakes located in North America, straddling the border between Canada and the United States. They are, in order from west to east, Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario.

Size

The Great Lakes are the largest group of freshwater lakes in the world by total area, covering around 94,250 square miles (244,100 square kilometers). To put that in perspective, the entire country of Switzerland is smaller in size. The lakes hold about 21% of the world’s surface freshwater, with Lake Baikal in Russia being the only other lake with more water.

Importance

The Great Lakes are of significant economic, cultural, and ecological importance to both Canada and the United States. They provide habitat for numerous species of fish and wildlife, generate half of the combined electricity produced by both countries, and serve as a major transportation route for commercial shipping. Additionally, the lakes are a vital source of drinking water for millions of people living in the region.

Shared Resources, Different Priorities

Fishing

The Great Lakes provide a significant source of fish for both recreational and commercial purposes. However, due to their shared nature, the management of fish populations can be a contentious issue. For instance, some species of fish are more abundant in certain lakes, leading to disputes over allocation of fishing quotas. Moreover, some states prioritize commercial fishing, while others prioritize recreational fishing, which can further complicate the issue.

Navigation

The Great Lakes are a critical route for commercial navigation, transporting goods worth billions of dollars annually. However, different states have varying priorities when it comes to navigation. For instance, some states prioritize the movement of raw materials such as iron ore and coal, while others prioritize the transportation of finished goods. This can lead to disputes over the allocation of resources and the prioritization of different types of shipping.

Water Quality

Water quality is another shared resource that is managed differently by different states. The Great Lakes are facing numerous challenges, including pollution, invasive species, and climate change. However, the allocation of resources for addressing these challenges can vary significantly among states. For instance, some states prioritize the reduction of phosphorus and nitrogen levels in the lakes, while others prioritize the control of invasive species. These different priorities can lead to disagreements over the allocation of resources and the most effective strategies for addressing water quality issues.

International Boundaries and the Great Lakes

Key takeaway: The Great Lakes, located in North America and straddling the border between Canada and the United States, are the largest group of freshwater lakes in the world and of significant economic, cultural, and ecological importance to both countries. However, their shared nature presents challenges in managing resources such as fishing, navigation, and water quality, which are managed differently by different states. The 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty and the 1920 Convention between the United States and Canada with Respect to the Great Lakes, as well as the Great Lakes Compact, establish frameworks for managing and resolving disputes related to the shared water resources. The International Joint Commission plays a crucial role in ensuring the sustainable use and conservation of the Great Lakes, while Annex 1972 provides a framework for peaceful resolution of disputes between the two countries.

The 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty

Purpose

The purpose of the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty was to establish a framework for managing the shared water resources of the Great Lakes, which are located along the international border between Canada and the United States. The treaty aimed to address issues related to water usage, navigation, and conservation in order to ensure the sustainable management of these valuable water bodies.

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Key Provisions

The 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty included several key provisions that continue to shape the management of the Great Lakes today. Some of the most significant provisions included:

  • The establishment of a International Joint Commission (IJC) to oversee the implementation of the treaty and resolve disputes related to the shared water resources of the Great Lakes.
  • The recognition of the right of both Canada and the United States to use the waters of the Great Lakes for navigation, fishing, and other purposes, subject to certain limits and regulations.
  • The requirement for both countries to maintain and operate structures such as dams and locks in a manner that is consistent with the treaty and the conservation of the Great Lakes.
  • The commitment of both countries to cooperate in the conservation and management of the Great Lakes, including through the exchange of information and the implementation of joint research and monitoring programs.

Overall, the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty was a significant milestone in the management of the Great Lakes, and it continues to play an important role in ensuring the sustainable use and conservation of these valuable water resources.

The 1920 Convention Between the United States and Canada with Respect to the Great Lakes

The 1920 Convention Between the United States and Canada with Respect to the Great Lakes was a treaty signed by both countries in order to establish guidelines for the use and management of the Great Lakes.

  • Purpose
    • The purpose of the Convention was to ensure the conservation and development of the water resources of the Great Lakes, and to promote cooperation between the United States and Canada in the management of these waters.
  • Key Provisions
    • The Convention established the International Joint Commission (IJC), an independent bi-national organization, to oversee the management of the Great Lakes and to resolve disputes between the two countries.
    • The Convention also established regulations for the use of water from the Great Lakes, including the allocation of water between the two countries and the construction of structures that could affect the flow of water.
    • The Convention provided for the joint management of the fisheries in the Great Lakes, and established a process for the resolution of disputes related to fishing.
    • The Convention also provided for the establishment of boundary markers and the delimitation of the boundaries between the two countries in the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes Compact

Background

The Great Lakes Compact is a legally binding agreement between the eight states that border the Great Lakes. The agreement aims to protect the Great Lakes from potential mismanagement and ensure that the water resources are used sustainably.

The compact was signed into law in 2008, after several years of negotiations and discussions among the states and other stakeholders. The primary goals of the compact are to protect the integrity of the Great Lakes Basin, prevent diversion of water outside the basin, and promote cooperation among the states and other interested parties.

One of the key provisions of the compact is the establishment of a governance structure to oversee the management of the Great Lakes water resources. This includes the creation of a Great Lakes Commission, which is responsible for developing policies and recommendations for the protection and management of the lakes.

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The compact also establishes strict rules for water diversions and withdrawals, with a focus on ensuring that the water is used for beneficial purposes such as drinking water, agriculture, and industry. Any proposed diversion or withdrawal of water outside the basin must be approved by the compact council, which is made up of representatives from each of the eight states.

Overall, the Great Lakes Compact represents a significant step forward in the protection and management of one of the world’s most important freshwater resources. By promoting cooperation among the states and other stakeholders, the compact provides a framework for ensuring that the Great Lakes remain healthy and productive for generations to come.

Key Provisions

Water Withdrawals

  • Limitations on water withdrawals from the Great Lakes for non-consumptive uses such as power generation, industry, and navigation.
  • Prohibition of water exports from the Great Lakes basin to areas outside the basin.
  • Requirement for approval from the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Water Resources Compact before any large water withdrawals can occur.

Management and Regulation

  • Creation of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Water Resources Compact to oversee the management and regulation of the waters of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River.
  • Responsibility for water management and regulation shared by the eight Great Lakes states and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec.
  • Requirement for cooperation and coordination among the participating states and provinces in the management and regulation of the waters.

Shared Decision-Making

  • Establishment of a framework for shared decision-making among the participating states and provinces in matters related to the management and regulation of the waters of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River.
  • Provision for the development of binding agreements among the participating states and provinces to guide the management and regulation of the waters.
  • Requirement for public participation and involvement in the decision-making process related to the management and regulation of the waters.

Dispute Resolution Mechanisms

International Joint Commission

The International Joint Commission (IJC) is an independent bi-national organization established under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 between Canada and the United States. Its primary purpose is to help resolve disputes and ensure the equitable management and protection of the shared water resources between the two countries.

The IJC plays a crucial role in the management and conservation of the Great Lakes, which are shared by both Canada and the United States. The Commission’s role is to ensure that the waters of the Great Lakes are used sustainably and equitably, taking into account the needs of both countries. The IJC is also responsible for reviewing and reporting on the environmental, social, and economic impacts of human activities in the Great Lakes basin.

The IJC’s role in resolving disputes is significant, as it provides a platform for both countries to come together and find mutually beneficial solutions to water management issues. The Commission has a long history of successfully resolving disputes between Canada and the United States, including disputes related to water levels, water quality, and the use of water for various purposes.

One of the key strengths of the IJC is its ability to bring together experts from both countries to work collaboratively on issues related to water management. The Commission’s Board of Commissioners, which is made up of both Canadian and American members, is responsible for overseeing the work of the IJC and ensuring that its activities are in line with the objectives of the Boundary Waters Treaty.

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In addition to its role in resolving disputes, the IJC also plays an important role in promoting public engagement and education on issues related to water management in the Great Lakes basin. The Commission works closely with a range of stakeholders, including government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and local communities, to ensure that the views and concerns of all parties are taken into account when making decisions related to the management of the Great Lakes.

Annex 1972

The Annex 1972 is a legal instrument aimed at providing a framework for the peaceful resolution of disputes arising between the United States and Canada over the use of the waters of the Great Lakes. It is designed to promote cooperation and coordination between the two countries in the management of the shared water resources.

Procedures for Resolving Disputes

The Annex 1972 outlines a set of procedures for resolving disputes between the United States and Canada. The first step is for the parties to attempt to resolve the dispute through direct negotiations. If negotiations fail, the parties may refer the dispute to an international tribunal for settlement. The tribunal is composed of five independent members, with each country appointing two members and the fifth member being chosen by the two appointed members. The decision of the tribunal is binding on both countries. The Annex also provides for the establishment of a Great Lakes Science Advisory Board to provide technical advice and assistance to the parties in the resolution of disputes.

FAQs

1. Do the Great Lakes belong to the U.S. or Canada?

The Great Lakes are shared between the United States and Canada. They are a group of five large lakes that are located in North America, and they are the largest group of freshwater lakes in the world by total area. The lakes are shared by the two countries, and they are both responsible for managing and protecting them.

2. Whose waters are they?

The waters of the Great Lakes are considered to be shared waters between the United States and Canada. Both countries have sovereignty over the waters of the lakes and are responsible for managing and protecting them. The International Boundary Waters Act of 1909 established the framework for cooperation between the two countries in the management of the lakes.

3. How are the Great Lakes managed?

The Great Lakes are managed by a variety of government agencies and organizations on both sides of the border. In the United States, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are responsible for regulating and managing the lakes. In Canada, the responsibility for managing the lakes falls under the jurisdiction of the provinces and the federal government.

4. What are some of the challenges facing the Great Lakes?

There are a number of challenges facing the Great Lakes, including pollution, invasive species, and climate change. The lakes are also facing issues related to the decline of certain species of fish and wildlife, as well as issues related to water levels and the impacts of human activities on the lakes.

5. What is being done to protect the Great Lakes?

A number of efforts are underway to protect the Great Lakes, including the development of policies and regulations aimed at reducing pollution and protecting the lakes from invasive species. There are also efforts to restore and protect habitats for fish and wildlife, and to promote sustainable practices around the lakes. In addition, the U.S. and Canada have a long-standing commitment to working together to protect and manage the Great Lakes.

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