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AFTER 25 YEARS, LAKES PANEL REFLECTS

"The central question for the future of the Great Lakes regime is whether the processes of the Water Quality Agreement will continue to nurture the community that has been so essential to its vigor in its first quarter of a century. Its future is more uncertain now than at any time since the agreement was signed in 1972."

-- The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement: Its Past Successes and Uncertain Future,
By Lee Botts and Paul Muldoon

As a watershed meeting of the International Joint Commission on the Great Lakes approaches, there is a cloud of doubt, a sense of apathy and, for some, anger, as the United States and Canada gather to mark the 25th anniversary of a historic agreement that is a milestone in efforts to restore one of the planet's largest supplies of fresh water.

The IJC's effort has been at once frustrating and rewarding, but now serious questions are being asked about the critical next 25 years. Is there sufficient momentum to carry through? Is there the political will? Does the public really care? Are those who have worked tirelessly for more than two decades simply burned out?

Lee Botts, a longtime environmental advocate and former government official, and Paul Muldoon, lakes activist and counsel to the Canadian Environmental Law Association, have set forth the history, framework and operations of the agreement, along with the challenges it now faces. Working through the Dartmouth College Institute of International Environmental Governance, they have compressed into 150 pages a rich lode of information fascinating for anyone and important for all to examine as the commission prepares to meet Nov. 1 and 2 in Niagara Falls, Ont., to discuss Great Lakes water quality.

The current commission -- comprising three U.S. and three Canadian representatives whose job it is to oversee progress on meeting terms of the restoration agreement -- is a far cry from the past, when activist commissioners were out in front and on top of issues. Its current pattern of passive oversight is provoking doubts and concern because its success or failure directly impacts on thousands of basin residents' health and ability to safely use the water for drinking, fishing and recreation.

Overwhelmed by the success of a four-day meeting in Duluth, Minn., attended by 2,000 people, the IJC elected to dump the traditional biennial meeting. But after a public outcry, the commission relented, and agreed to conduct a two-day "forum." It was the very outpouring of activists at several recent biennial meetings that focused attention on the lakes. This column and a second will examine some of the issues.

Botts and Muldoon voice concern over potential erosion of public interest. They note: ". . . questions remain about whether various constituencies within the regime will continue to work together with the intensity that led to past successes in solving Great Lakes problems."

They say the focus has become blurred, with some concentrating on toxics and virtual elimination of persistent chemicals, others focusing on biodiversity and habitat while others zero in on fishery management.

The Dartmouth study cites a number of problems, ranging from changes in the way the IJC operates, the dilutive effects of creating a separate State of the Lakes group that goes its own way, the changes in government and threats to funding and environmental operations within both countries.

"Two major questions confront the Great Lakes community for the future of the Great Lakes Agreement. First, how can the community come together to give priority to the restoration and protection of the Great Lakes ecosystem? Second, will the integrity of the Great Lakes Agreement be maintained in the review by the governments that is scheduled to occur in 1999?" the study states.

A serious document, sometimes couched in academic language, the study by Botts and Muldoon is nonetheless a call for action meriting attention. One ponders the need for a blue ribbon committee to review and hold public hearings on the state of the agreement, of conducting a separate, but basin-wide forum to consider its implications or calling on President Clinton and Premier Chretien to examine the recommendations and act. All could take time and leave wheels spinning, but it is apparent that the machinery is in need of tuning up.

Among the dozen recommendations:

Any government review should leave the present agreement intact.

Governments, institutions and citizens must rally around the agreement, recommitting to its goals and adopting a common set of priorities for achieving a clean lakes system.

The commission should strive to maintain its binational character; and to further its ability to act, the governments must provide the information necessary for the IJC to assess progress and whether terms of the agreement are being met.

The commission, to ensure accountability and access to information, should encourage non-governmental groups, perhaps through creation of a citizens advisory panel as a forum for debate and greater participation.

The governments should clarify the status of the IJC with other agencies, such as the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, created under NAFTA, but with overlapping and often competing activities a far as the Great Lakes are concerned.

Ironically, with the IJC meeting just around the corner, neither the United States nor Canada has bothered to respond to recommendations made by the Commission two years ago on steps the countries, eight states and two provinces should take to keep their part of the bargain. That perhaps sums up a lot that is lacking in commitment and reason enough for citizens to be anxious about the future.

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