Controlling Great Lakes Pollution: A Study in United States - Canadian Environmental Cooperation

Michigan Law Review, Vol. 70, No. 3, pp. 469-556, January 1972

Univ. of Wisconsin Legal Studies Research Paper Archival Collection

90 Pages Posted: 14 Apr 2010

See all articles by Richard Bilder

Richard Bilder

University of Wisconsin Law School

Date Written: 1972


This article is a study of the then proposed 1971 U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the long history of developing U.S.- Canadian cooperation that preceded it. The article suggests that this experience: (1) offers guidance for the solution of problems that other programs of international environmental cooperation may face, including questions of framework and approach, institutional organization and function and authority; (2) demonstrates the important contribution that can be made by bilateral and regional cooperative arrangements to the management of international environmental problems; and (3) indicates some of the limitations as well as potentialities of the concept of international environmental cooperation.

The article first describes the background and setting of U.S.-Canadian cooperation regarding Great Lakes and other boundary water pollution problems and, in particular, the 1909 U.S.-Canada Boundary Waters Treaty, the U.S.-Canada International Joint Commission and its procedures, the Commission’s activities regarding pollution prior to 1971, and the proposed Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. It then discusses, in detail some particular aspects of the U.S.- Canadian experience in attempting to deal jointly with Great Lakes and other boundary water pollution and other problems including: (1) the need for international cooperation; (2) the role of legal prohibitions and remedies; (3) institutional structure; (4) determining objectives; (5) apportioning burdens; and (6) coordination and implementation.

The article concludes with a discussion of prospects and problems relating to the proposed agreement and future U.S.- Canadian environmental cooperation as well as some tentative lessons that might be drawn from this experience. These suggested lessons include: (1) large scale environmental problems such as Great Lakes pollution often transcend mere scientific and technological treatment, engage strongly competing interests, become deeply involved in the political process, and consequently can become extremely difficult to solve; (2) where environmental problems are largely localized, as is often the case, they can usually best be addressed by primarily national or bilateral or regional arrangements rather than broader international measures; (3) governments will be reluctant to subject their flexibility and freedom of action regarding their environmental policies to international constraints; (4) even where countries do accept international environmental constraints, they may do so only at the lowest common denominator level of obligations, although again, bilateral or regional arrangements may be more attainable than broader commitments; (5) governments will often prefer loose cooperative international environmental arrangements to techniques of formal legal prohibition; (6), the possibilities for successful environmental cooperation on particular problems may however, be enhanced by a formal acknowledgment of their international character, such as in the 1909 Boundary Waters treaty; (7) the U.S.-Canadian experience demonstrates that international environmental cooperation can, if well crafted, yield useful dividends at relatively low costs and with limited political risks; (8) some of the functions involved in international environmental cooperation, such as monitoring, surveillance, and the presentation of technical objectives and options, seem best performed by institutions acting in a relatively expert and apolitical capacity; (9) even limited patterns of cooperation may produce useful secondary effects, with the work of the expert boards or other joint institutions resulting in continuing contacts and relationships among working level officials and the establishment of important informal channels of communication, coordination and influence; and (10) since the problem of Great Lakes pollution has much in common with similar problems in many other areas of the world, international initiatives to promote the exchange of experience in this regard will be useful and appropriate.

Keywords: U.S. Canada relations, Great Lakes, Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, Great Lake water quality, U.S. Canadian environmental cooperation, international environmental law, U.S. Canada international joint commission, international water pollution problems, international environmental cooperation, U.

JEL Classification: K40, K32, Q20, Q25, Q28, R58, N42, N52

Suggested Citation

Bilder, Richard, Controlling Great Lakes Pollution: A Study in United States - Canadian Environmental Cooperation (1972). Michigan Law Review, Vol. 70, No. 3, pp. 469-556, January 1972, Univ. of Wisconsin Legal Studies Research Paper Archival Collection, Available at SSRN:

Richard Bilder (Contact Author)

University of Wisconsin Law School ( email )

975 Bascom Mall
Madison, WI 53706
United States

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