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Canada, U.S. set to sign updated Great Lakes accord

Still from the film Waterlife The Great Lakes, pouring toward the Atlantic Ocean, as seen from space. The lakes contain approximately 20 per cent of the surface fresh water on earth and more than 90 per cent of that available to the United States.

Mark Alberts

Canada and the United States will sign an amended Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement on Friday, the first time the landmark bi-national accord will be altered in 25 years.

Details of the changes have not yet been made public, but they are expected to include new commitments to curbing invasive species, adaptation to climate change for coastal communities and added emphasis on protecting habitats and species in the Great Lakes.

The new version of the agreement will also put more stock in preventing future harm to the lakes and include greater opportunities for public input, according to a blog post written by lead U.S. negotiator Cameron Davis and posted on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's website.

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The agreement was first signed in 1972 to guide environmental protection of the Great Lakes basin and is focused on restoration and maintenance of the waters' integrity. It was amended once in 1987, but hasn't changed since then.

The amendments could also include a new requirement for governments to give formal notification when planning anything that could impact on the environment of the Great Lakes, including the storage or transfer of nuclear waste, mining activities and oil and gas pipelines, according to a public presentation by the binational committee that oversees the agreement. That presentation was made last year, but reflects similar information to that posted on Mr. Davis's blog.

The agreement will be signed on Friday afternoon by Environment Minister Peter Kent and Lisa P. Jackson, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator.

A spokesman for Great Lakes United, an environmental coalition focused on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, said the changes sound promising – but added that without additional funding to support scientific monitoring in the Great Lakes, they may not make much difference.

"The lakes would be in far better shape today if the [previous] agreement had been implemented," said John Jackson, the organization's interim director. "But not enough money, not enough staff time was put into it."

He said both Canada and the United States have expressed varying degrees of commitment to the Great Lakes over the years, often depending on the interests of the government.

"If they sign the agreement [Friday], and as well say 'Here are the specific dollar commitments in terms of carrying it out,' I will be thrilled," Mr. Jackson said.

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Environmentalists worry that boats that travel on the Great Lakes will bring more invasive species – such as Asian carp – into the ecosystem. The amended agreement is expected to include plans to prevent new introductions and control the spread of those species that are already in the lakes.

And the new section on habitat and species will look to conserve, protect, and restore native species in the Great Lakes and their habitats.

A spokesman from Environment Canada declined to comment on the changes before the agreement is signed.

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