World Water Day 2024: Navigating the Waters of Canada-US Cooperation

With World Water Day 2024 having a focus on peace and cooperation, this blog explores the water cooperation centred around Lake Ontario, on whose shores the upcoming IWA World Water Congress & Exhibition will take place in Toronto, Canada, on 11-15 August 2024.

Looking out at Lake Ontario from Toronto’s CN Tower, it is hard not to be struck by the water. H2O as far as the eye can see. Even though it is one of the smallest of the Great Lakes, Lake Ontario alone has more surface freshwater than all the US Southwest put together.

The border separating Canada from the United States, and Ontario from New York State, is out there in Lake Ontario, equally invisible from up close or far away. In other parts of the world, water scarcity has frequently resulted in conflict. In the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, however, water abundance has more often produced cooperation over the last century.


The Boundary Waters Treaty & International Joint Commission

In 1909, Canada and the United States signed the Boundary Waters Treaty (BWT). The BWT notably granted equal navigation access to shared waters and adopted regulations concerning alterations to border water levels. Any changes in the level of a boundary water henceforth needed agreement through the International Joint Commission (IJC) created by the 1909 treaty (or a special agreement between the federal governments). The IJC is a six-member body with an equal number of Canadian and US appointees who are technically independent from their governments.

The BWT also prohibited cross-border pollution – one of the earliest instances of this globally. Indeed, BWT and IJC have been characterized as pioneering forms of international water governance and as a foundation stone for contemporary Canada-US ecopolitics.


Water Projects

The BWT and IJC have been invoked in myriad water projects along the Canada-US border – from the west coast to the east coast and most places in between. But the IJC has been most active in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, both in terms of water quality and water quantity. Focusing on the Lake Ontario region, there have been many different cross-border agreements to build hydro-electric and navigation megaprojects such as the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project and Niagara Falls power developments (which included reshaping and shrinking the famed waterfall).

Hydroelectricity played an outsized role in shaping the political imaginary, economics, and politics of Ontario and Canada as a whole. Long before Canada became a petro state, it was a hydro state. The abundance of hydroelectric and water resources created a societal expectation of growth and abundance. Such expectations were frequently shaped by hydraulic nationalism, which involves a distinctive linking of Canadian identity with freshwater resources, particularly those in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin.

Historically the Canadian state has also displayed a pronounced hydraulic imperialism in which First Nations – as well natural environments – have borne the heaviest brunt of hydroelectric developments. This type of colonialism is apparent with many different water and energy projects across the continent and around Lake Ontario. For example, two different Haudenosaunee territories were directly affected by the creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project: Kahnawake Mohawk Territory near Montreal and the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne (St. Regis) that straddles the Canada–US border near Cornwall. Around Niagara Falls, territory had been taken from various First Nations communities, on both sides of the border, going back several centuries. For the creation of the Robert Moses Generating Station, in the 1950s the Power Authority of the State of New York claimed it needed a huge swath of land from the Tuscarora Reservation for a reservoir. This Haudenosaunee community’s resistance and legal challenges successfully reduced the total acreage that was appropriated, though they still ultimately lost 550 acres.

All that growth and abundance produced copious amounts of pollution. By the 1960s, Lake Ontario and Lake Erie were clearly suffering. Canada and the US therefore signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) in 1972; in 1978 the two governments replaced it with a new GLWQA. The GLWQA created a framework for Canada and the US to cooperatively restore and protect the biochemical and geophysical integrity of their border waters. In doing so, it became an international model for addressing transboundary pollution.



Despite significant achievements, Lake Ontario faces unprecedented degradation today. Problems with toxic pollution, sewage overflows, microplastics, fluctuating levels, and biodiversity loss – plus climate change – continue to bedevil the Great Lakes.

In a way, this aquatic degradation is the result of too much cooperation – the type that stresses growth and economic development above all else. Nevertheless, Canada and the United States have a history of cooperating to peacefully govern, protect, and share these resplendent Great Lakes. The type of cooperation we choose moving forward will determine the future health of Lake Ontario. Water professionals are pivotal in addressing these challenges. By convening, sharing research, advocating for improved water management, and inspiring change, we can forge a path towards sustainability.


Join us at the IWA World Water Congress & Exhibition in Toronto, Canada, on 11-15 August 2024 to share insights on the many opportunities to advance water management. Register now to secure your spot and take advantage of the early bird discount before 5 May 2024. Let’s work together to safeguard the future of our precious water resources globally.

Daniel Macfarlane

Associate Professor, Western Michigan University
Dr. Daniel Macfarlane is Associate Professor in the School of Environment, Geography, and Sustainability at Western Michigan University, as well as President of the International Water History Association and Senior Fellow in the Bill Graham Centre ... Read full biography