Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (1978)

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Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (1978)

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1978 amended and strengthened the International Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the United States, which was signed in 1972. The original agreement established a framework for research, clean-up, and pollution control based on goals determined by the two nations. The existing International Joint Commission , in cooperation with the newly-created International Great Lakes Water Quality Board, was to oversee the implementation of the agreement. Chief goals of the agreement were to reduce the amount of phosphorus being dumped into the lakes by 50 percent, to require all municipal sewage treatment plants to be at the secondary level (removing nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen ), and to control toxic water pollution .

The impetus for action in 1972, and again in 1978, was the decreasing water quality in the Great Lakes. Two incidents best symbolized this to the nation. First, the massive algal blooms in Lake Erie , due to eutrophication, led many commentators to declare that the lake was dead. And second, when the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire in 1969, it provided a clear visual message to the rest of the country about the state of pollution in the Great Lakes. Perhaps not as visible, but just as serious, the Great Lakes were also suffering from toxic chemical pollution, which was a problem for water use, and also for sports and recreational fishing. Limits, and in some cases, bans, were placed on how much fish from the lakes could be consumed.

The 1978 Agreement substantially strengthened the 1972 accord. The new agreement focused especially on toxic pollutants and phosphorous, the chief nutrient responsible for eutrophication in the Great Lakes. A stricter definition of a toxic substance was included, as well as specific water quality objectives for certain heavy metals , polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), and pesticides, and a list of hundreds of hazardous and potentially hazardous materials. Phosphorous entering the lakes would be reduced further in certain lakes, primarily by improved municipal solid waste plants. Additional sections of the agreement dealt with pollution resulting from airborne toxins , dredging , shipping, and nonpoint source pollution. A contingency plan between the two nations to respond to spills or other severe pollution episodes was also to be created. The Agreement is an Executive Agreement with no force of law in either Canada or the United States. Rather, each nation must depend on existing laws to meet these joint goals.

The Great Lakes Critical Programs Act, passed in 1990, was designed to increase the efforts of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the states in cleaning up the Great Lakes. Evaluations of the 1978 Agreement indicated that neither the EPA nor the states had been putting sufficient effort into the implementation of the necessary programs.

By the middle 1990's, significant progress had been made on reducing phosphorous pollution and improving municipal sewage treatment by building new plants and improving existing plants. Phosphorous loadings were below 1978 target loads for Superior, Huron, and Michigan, and at or near target loads for Erie and Ontario. Hence, this aspect of the water quality agreement has largely been achieved. There has also been significant improvement on point source pollution of toxic chemicals such as PCBs. Toxic substances in the lakes remain a major problem due to air pollution , runoff (non-point source pollution), and releases from already contaminated sediments. For instance, the source of over 75% of the PCBs entering Lake Superior and 95% of the lead entering the Great Lakes is air pollution. In 1995, Canada and the United States agreed to develop a coordinated binational strategy to virtually eliminate persistent toxic substances from the Great Lakes Basin. That same year, the EPA launched the Great Lakes Water Quality Initiative as a framework for achieving that goal.

See also Agricultural runoff; Chemical spills; Heavy metals and heavy metal poisoning; Oil spills

[Christopher McGory Klyza ]



Ashworth, W. The Late, Great Lakes. New York: Knopf, 1986.

Council on Environmental Quality. Environmental Quality: 21st Annual Report. Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990.


"U. S., Canada Reach Pollution Pact." New York Times, June 1, 1978, B6.