Canada and the United States have updated a decades-old agreement to protect the Great Lakes, adding new commitments to protect aquatic habitats, curb invasive species and help coastal communities adapt to climate change.
The changes were widely praised by environmental groups, who said they help provide a more relevant framework for bi-national protection and should improve governmental accountability.
"We've been waiting for a long time to see a bi-national commitment to updating the approach to managing the Great Lakes," said Bob Oliver, chief executive officer of Pollution Probe in Canada. "This amendment actually takes it beyond the classic definition of water quality and expands the scope of responsibility."
The agreement calls for more work on reducing nutrients that can cause algae blooms – a particular problem in Lake Erie – and better clean-up efforts for heavily polluted areas.
But as officials met in Washington to sign off on the changes, environmentalists on both sides of the border expressed concern that the enhanced agreement could be toothless unless Canada and the U.S. are willing to spend the money that's needed to monitor and restore the Great Lakes.
"We're just getting out of the gate at this point," Mr. Oliver said. "Then there's the actual implementation, when the rubber hits the road, the money has to flow."
Ongoing pollution from ships and agricultural activities, combined with a growing concern about invasive species such as zebra mussels and Asian carp, mean governments must constantly monitor and, when necessary, perform major clean-up projects to keep the lakes healthy.
While United States has stepped up funding significantly – committing more than $1-billion over the past three years to its Great Lakes Restoration Initiative – Canada's investment has remained relatively stagnant in recent years.
The U.S. investment represents "tremendous progress," particularly in cleaning up toxic hotspots, said Andy Buchsbaum, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes office, in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"For awhile, Canada was ahead on that, but now I think they've fallen much further behind," he said. "When the U.S. was not stepping up its fair share, that was hurting Canadian waters. And now that Canada is not spending nearly as much as it should, that's hurting U.S. waters – as well as Canadian waters."
Canada, by comparison, has committed close to $50-million to remediating contaminated areas, $8-million a year for remediation of areas of concern in the Great Lakes, and $16-million to combat the re-occurance of toxic algae – targeted largely at Lake Erie, according to Environment Canada.
Another $17.5-million comes from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to protect against Asian carp.
Environment Minister Peter Kent said Canada's commitment to the Great Lakes shouldn't be measured on those projects alone, and pointed to infrastructure funding and waste water management as elements that are important to the health of the Great Lakes, but don't get recognized as such in the budget.
"While the current U.S. administration has made a wonderful and huge contribution, previous governments haven't," he said. "If you look at the Canadian government's performance over the [past] 40 years, you'll see that … we're doing our part. We're batting our weight."
Lana Pollack chairs the U.S. section of International Joint Commission, which monitors how the Great Lakes agreement is implemented. She said her group can make recommendations to Canadian and U.S. governments, but it's up to the public to call on officials to do a better job protecting the lakes.
"The lakes have the good fortune to be located between two great democracies, but pressure for doing anything well has to rise up from the public," she said after the agreement was signed. "At the end of the day, the only thing any of us have is public outrage if the Great Lakes aren't being protected."