Water Diplomacy and Collaborative Governance in the Great Lakes Basin

The North American Great Lakes shared by the United States and Canada contain 20 percent of the earth’s fresh surface water.1 These shared waters include Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario as well as the channels that connect these lakes. The entire Great Lakes Basin—the watershed—covers an area of 76,405,000 hectares. About a third of that, 24,346,000 hectares, is water, and the other two thirds (approximately 52,059,000 hectares) is the surrounding land that drains into those waters.2

More than 41 million people rely on the Great Lakes for their drinking water.3 Great Lakes water is also used for industrial operations, agriculture, power generation, commercial shipping, recreational boating, and tourism. In addition, many US-based Native American tribes and Canadian First Nations use the Great Lakes and their tributaries.4 See Figure 2.1 for a map of the basin.

The North American Great Lakes face challenges experienced by other large aquatic ecosystems: pollution from urban and agricultural sources, emerging contaminants, decaying and inadequate water infrastructure, invasive species and attendant food web disruptions, and habitat destruction—all of which are exacerbated by climate change. Leading Great Lakes institutions concerned with water have relied on collaborative governance to engage in water diplomacy. This chapter examines four Great Lakes institutions and their use of collaborative governance to effectuate water diplomacy.

Institutional arrangements and water diplomacy

Two nations, eight US states, two Canadian provinces, hundreds of tribes and First Nations, and thousands of local units of government

Great Lakes Basin

Figure 2.1 Great Lakes Basin.

have some mandate or authority to manage portions of the shared waters and surrounding watershed—the most water-rich and most institutionally complex portion of the shared United States-Canada boundary across North America.5

Institutional arrangements for transboundary cooperation in the Great Lakes Basin

Four transboundary water management institutions—the International Joint Commission (IJC), the Great Lakes Commission (GLC), the Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC), and the Conference of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers (the Conference)—operate as boundary organizations (institutions that straddle the shifting divide between science and politics).6 This chapter examines how water diplomacy occurs in the binational Great Lakes Basin and what role the different institutional arrangements play in this context.

Analysis of these institutions will draw upon the integrative framework for collaborative governance outlined in Kirk Emerson and Tina

Nabatchi’s Collaborative Governance Regimes, and explore how each entity engages in what can be considered “water diplomacy.”7 The Emerson-Nabatchi Collaborative Governance Regime (CGR) framework identifies three driving dynamics for CGRs: principled engagement, shared motivation, and capacity for joint action. The framework offers a deliberate lens through which to examine the collaborative elements of transboundary governance. A fundamental characteristic of CGRs is that they seek “to influence the surrounding set of conditions that create, aggravate, or sustain a problem.”8 CGRs are further defined as having: (1) a sponsor, initiator, or lead convener; (2) a collective purpose; (3) a particular geographic scale; (4) processes for participant selection or recruitment; and, (5) some level of consensusbased decision-making authority.9

Water diplomacy defined

Diplomacy is commonly understood as that part of international relations that involves conducting negotiations, forming alliances, discussing treaties, and reaching agreements. Early thought-leaders on the concept of water diplomacy observe that water diplomacy differs from “water cooperation” or “transboundary water management” due to the presence of higher level political/government engagement and that it occurs within the broader desired outcomes for enhanced peace and stability. In this view, cooperative or transboundary water management can be a means to achieve water diplomacy or vice versa.10 This definition is supported here, which also aligns with what has been labeled as “track 1.5 diplomacy” where official (government) and nongovernmental actors cooperate in conflict resolution, or conflict prevention.11

Water diplomacy is defined in this chapter as “activities that reduce uncertainty, mitigate disagreement and prevent conflicts, build trust, and promote stability and cooperation with respect to water resources.” This more nuanced and fluid definition acknowledges that while peace may be implicit and omnipresent, water diplomacy does not require and is not defined by conflict, nor does it have to explicitly state peace as a goal. Rather, water diplomacy involves a series of actions that occur to reduce uncertainty, instability, and disagreement and that allow for more systematic, predictable, and agreed approaches and processes to carry out water management activities.

Context of water diplomacy in the Great Lakes Basin

The North American Great Lakes Basin is part of a region marked by historic peace and stability, yet persistent water resource challenges give rise to recurring uncertainty, instability, and disagreement. In the early 1900s, water-related tensions between the United States and Canada arose from a recognition that most of the boundary between the two countries was demarcated by waterways. In the 1950s, the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic Ocean and the collapse of the Great Lakes fishery were key areas of concern—and potential conflict.

Severely degraded water quality in the 1960s marked by infamous events such as the Cuyahoga River catching on fire and widespread eutrophication in Lake Erie prompted binational negotiations that led to new binational agreements and institutions in the early 1970s. Repeated attempts (some successful) in the 1990s and 2000s to divert or transfer large amounts of water from one part of the Great Lakes to another or out of the Great Lakes Basin altogether are the most recent issues requiring diplomatic interventions. These areas of tension, and the diplomatic efforts in response to those tensions, align with track 1.5 diplomacy. In the Great Lakes context, water diplomacy occurs to enable better management of water quantity as well as water quality that supports related ecosystem services.

The majority of the rest of the chapter discusses the four water governance regimes in the Great Lakes Basin mentioned earlier, focusing on drivers and dynamics. The CGR integrative framework identifies four drivers: uncertainty, interdependence, consequential incentives, and initiating leadership (see Figure 2.2). The framework further characterizes collaboration dynamics to include principled engagement, shared motivation, and capacity for joint action (see Figure 2.3).12

CGR drivers

Figure 2.2 CGR drivers.

Source: Victoria Pebbles, 2019; adapted from Emerson and Nibatchi, Collaborative Governance Regimes.

CGR dynamics

Figure 2.3 CGR dynamics.

Source: Victoria Pebbles, 2019; adapted Emerson and Nabatchi, Collaborative Governance Regimes.

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