Addressing Climate Change Impacts in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement

Rachel M. Gregg
Posted on: 2/06/2013 - Updated on: 3/02/2020

Posted by

Rachel Gregg

Project Summary

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (Agreement), initially signed in 1972, is a binational accord between the United States and Canada to protect regional water quality in the Great Lakes basin. An amendment to the Agreement was released in September 2012; among the additions is an annex dedicated to climate change.


The Great Lakes and their associated tributaries are major drinking water sources and are important to the region’s ecosystems, commercial sectors, and recreational activities. Primary threats to water quality in the Great Lakes include toxins, pollutant loading, and harmful algae, all of which may be exacerbated by the onset of climate change and have negative impacts on human and ecosystem health. For example, changes in temperature may affect the toxicity of certain chemicals and/or interact with nutrient pollution to enhance algal blooms.

The Agreement has guided transboundary efforts to protect water quality in the Great Lakes region since 1972, building upon and reaffirming the binational cooperation outlined in the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. The Agreement has been amended in the past as new and pressing issues have emerged; the previous amendment was signed in 1987. A new amendment process began in 2009 to address urgent and emerging issues, including aquatic invasive species, habitat degradation, and climate change, among others.


The Agreement, signed in September 2012 by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent, commits the United States and Canada to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes basin” (Great Lakes Water Quality Protocol of 2012). It calls for the United States and Canada to cooperate on a variety of water quality issues in order to limit or eliminate environmental threats. Climate change impacts are included along with other issues in annexes of the Agreement. These sections include:

  • Annex 1 – Areas of Concern
  • Annex 2 – Lakewide Management
  • Annex 3 – Chemicals of Mutual Concern
  • Annex 4 – Nutrients
  • Annex 5 – Discharges from Vessels
  • Annex 6 – Aquatic Invasive Species
  • Annex 7 – Habitat and Species
  • Annex 8 – Groundwater
  • Annex 9 – Climate Change Impacts
  • Annex 10 – Science

The purpose of Annex 9 is to outline objectives “to identify, quantify, understand, and predict the climate change impacts on the quality of the Waters of the Great Lakes, and [to share] information that Great Lakes resource managers need to proactively address these impacts” (Great Lakes Water Quality Protocol of 2012). This section recognizes climate change impacts on water quality  and the need to have broad cooperation between and among all levels of government in both countries with respect to climate science and actions to build adaptive capacity. The Annex recognizes the need for the Parties to consider climate change impacts when implementing the entire Agreement. In addition, the Annex determines that the countries need to: (1) develop and/or improve regional climate models, (2) improve the links between climate models and other regionally-relevant chemical/physical/biological models in order to assess impacts on ecosystem and human health as accurately as possible, (3) improve monitoring of impacts, (4) develop and enhance analytical tools to assess risk and vulnerability, and (5) coordinate binational monitoring, modeling, and analysis of climate change impacts.

Outcomes and Conclusions

The Agreement is a model of a binational, ecosystem-based approach to the management of water quality. Emerging issues of concern, including aquatic invasive species, nutrient and chemical pollution, habitat and species loss, and climate change, were integrated into a new version of the accord in 2012. The Amendment outlines a number of activities that will allow for the United States and Canada to be held accountable for progress made on improving the water quality of the Great Lakes. These measures include:

  • Creating a Great Lakes Executive Committee to oversee the Agreement’s implementation. Each country will act as a co-chair and also have representation from other federal, state and provincial, tribal, and local government entities. This committee will meet at least twice per year and create Annex-specific sub-committees;
  • Requiring triennial progress reports on all facets of the accord, including activities specifically identified in the annexes;
  • Convening a Great Lakes Public Forum to meet every three years to allow for public stakeholder engagement on progress made on the Agreement’s outlined objectives and to inform future priorities and activities;
  • Encouraging open access and exchange of any relevant data or information pertaining to water quality between the two countries; and
  • Establishing the International Joint Commission as an independent science advisor to both countries.


Gregg, R.M. (2012). Addressing Climate Change Impacts in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement [Case study on a project of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Canadian Ministry of the Environment]. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE:… (Last updated October 2012)

Project Contact

John Haugland
Environmental Protection Specialist
[email protected]

Affiliated Organizations

The Great Lakes National Program Office (GLNPO) coordinates U.S. efforts with Canada under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem, which includes Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario. GLNPO brings together federal, state, tribal, local, and industry partners under the strategic framework of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) to accomplish the objectives of GLRI action plan which in turn fulfills the aims of the GLWQA.  We:

Ontario's Ministry of the Environment (MOE) has been protecting Ontario's environment for over 40 years. Using stringent regulations, targeted enforcement and a variety of innovative programs and initiatives, the ministry continues to address environmental issues that have local, regional and/or global effects.