Great Lakes Commission

The GLC is an interstate agency comprised of the eight Great Lakes States—Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio,

Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—established by the Great Lakes Basin Compact (Basin Compact) of 1955.15 The Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario participate in the GLC as Associate Members—a status that has evolved over more than six decades. Approximately 30 staff provide secretariat support to the GLC at their offices in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


A variety of conditions drove the Great Lakes States to bind themselves together via the Basin Compact. Key among them was the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, thereby augmenting the region’s role in commercial navigation and international trade. By the early 1950s, the Welland Canal—the first water infrastructure that allowed safe passage between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, bypassing Niagara Falls—was proving insufficient for growing commercial navigation needs. Mounting desires on the Canadian side to have a waterway that could accommodate larger vessels culminated in a threat by the Canadian government to build a new seaway entirely within Canada.16 This ultimately led to an agreement between the two countries to build the binational St. Lawrence Seaway in 1954—a year before the Basin Compact came into effect.

Opening of the Seaway—with its attendant promises of increased maritime commerce along with uncertainties and fears that it might also inadvertently pit states against states, or states against provinces to compete with one another—was a prime impetus for the Basin Compact. Negotiations leading up to agreement about the Seaway as a binational infrastructure project took the better part of half a century. Although there were tensions during parts of the negotiation period, once the two countries agreed, the Seaway construction period was a swift five years.17 Interestingly, invasive species coming into the Great Lakes from the ballast of overseas vessels was not formally noted among the fears associated with the Seaway but has become one of the most significant wicked water diplomacy challenges of the early twenty-first century.

While the worries about interstate competition or heavy-handed federal management of the Seaway on either side of the border might have been the main drivers, the architects of the Basin Compact envisioned a much broader array of potential areas of conflict that could benefit from a subnational institutional framework at the stateprovincial level. An interstate compact affirmed that the states would have a say in the future of how the Great Lakes Basin was managed.

Water diplomacy 57 Indeed, the Basin Compact conveyed broad powers and duties to the Great Lakes Commission to advise and convene the states to manage all issues related to Great Lakes water. Article 1 specifies the purposes of the compact: to promote integrated and comprehensive development, use, and conservation of resources, with the aim of deriving the maximum benefits for populations while maintaining a balance between users.

The acknowledgment of interdependency was explicit in the selected policy mechanism: an interstate compact.18 Such agreements require two levels of institutional approval: signing of the compact—the interstate agreement—itself and subsequent passage of enabling legislation by each entity that is party to the compact: in this case the Great Lakes States. As with the IJC, the creation of an interstate agency was the “initiating leadership” driver that established the GLC as the forum for collaborative problem-solving. Consequential incentives are explicit in the Basin Compact, which ascribes a broad suite of water resource powers and duties ranging from collecting and reporting data to making recommendations, including recommending uniform laws and regulations on a variety of issues, including navigation, public works, shoreline erosion, flooding, fisheries management, and water diversions (see Articles VI and VII). To further cement the incentives proffered in the compact—that they would have consequence— Article VII specifies that each of the party “is obligated to consider the Great Lakes Commission’s recommendations.”

While an interstate compact is a US legal construct, the authors of the Basin Compact clearly communicated their intent for the newly-created collaborative governance regime to be binational.19 However, when Congress granted its consent to the compact in 1968 (Public Law 90-419)—13 years after it was signed by the states—it softened the language relative to the binational nature of the Great Lakes Commission.20 Between 1968 and 1999, the provinces participated formally in GLC activities as observers: they were not formally engaged in GLC strategic planning or other activities. Ontario and Quebec’s role on the GLC was ultimately formalized in 1999 via a “Declaration of Partnership,” which elevated their status to “Associate Members” and enabled the provinces to appoint representatives to the Great Lakes Commission “for the purpose of participating in meetings and activities as provided for in the Great Lakes Basin Compact.”21 The Declaration of Partnership can be safely described as a diplomatic agreement between the leadership of the US states and Canadian provinces.

Somewhat paradoxically, the GLC’s nonregulatory agency status has enabled it to evolve into an effective boundary organization and

CGR that engages in water diplomacy. Its broad powers and duties enable the GLC to convene multiple interests, providing necessary leadership for developing shared motivations and delivering outcomes to address a wide number of wicked problems facing the Great Lakes. The specific issues that require water diplomacy change over time. Habitat protection, water quality, and aquatic invasive species are the among key issues where the GLC currently provides a leading collaborative governance and water diplomacy role. The conference also provides a supportive role to other institutions with issue-based mandates (e.g., GLFC for fishery issues, and the Compact Council and Regional Body for water withdrawals and diversions).

Collaborative dynamics practiced by the GLC illustrate how it leverages its broad duties and authorities to empower voluntary actions. These collaborative dynamics occur at two levels: formal collaboration among the commissioners; and collaboration among participants on various issue-based committees.

Article IV of the Basin Compact specifies the GLC makeup of three to five commissioners from each state as well as processes for decisionmaking. The GLC’s bylaws provide more detail on GLC operations (e.g., leadership, officers, meetings, committees, rules of order).22 The Board of Directors is the executive and governing body of the GLC, headed by a chair and vice-chair, and the chairs of the Ontario and Québec delegations serve in an associate (nonvoting) capacity on the board.23 In practice, the provinces are fully engaged in the debate and discussions about actions and priorities of the GLC and most of its decisions are made without formal voting.

Operational decisions of the board and the full commission are formally documented by staff and approved by the board or full commission as internal-facing minutes. Policy recommendations, which are also drafted by staff with commissioner input and approved by the board or full commission, typically take the form of public-facing resolutions that call for action by the US Congress or federal agencies, but sometimes also reflect back toward the GLC member jurisdictions.24 These nonbinding policy resolutions are a key mechanism used to empower voluntary actions among the states and provinces.25 The vast majority of GLC resolutions are adopted through a consensus-building process that results in the approval process being one of unanimous consent. Differences are debated and generally resolved prior to formal consideration of a resolution. Voting seldom occurs. In practice, the option to vote is used more as a backstop to encourage consensus-building than as a means to execute decisions.

Over time, formal committee processes laid out in the GLC bylaws have given way to more collaborative ones that better exemplify CGR dynamics. For example, Article V, Section I of the GLC bylaws states:

each committee, special committee, or task force shall consist of persons from each interested state and province, nominated by the Chair of the delegation and appointed by the Chair. Each state shall be entitled to one vote on each committee, special committee and task force.

While the GLC Board of Directors still provides initial approval to establish issue-based committees, since the early 2000s staff have primarily led a process of principled engagement to enable participation by a broader group of interests with a stake in the issue at hand.

In addition to state and provincial representatives, these committees also generally include federal and local governmental representatives, environmental nonprofit organizations, industry representatives, academic institutions, subject-matter experts, consultants, and/or tribes and First Nations. Commissioners are asked to assist with recruitment, but staff lead the collaborative engagement process that brings stakeholders to the table and engages them iteratively to discover, define, deliberate, and determine group composition, rules of engagement, and outputs that drive joint action.

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