The Conference (and the Great Lakes Regional Body and Compact Council)

The nonprofit Council of Great Lakes Governors was established in 1983 to encourage environmentally responsible economic development. The organization renamed itself in 2015 as the Conference of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers (the Conference).

In the interim, a series of events led to the Conference becoming the secretariat for the binational Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Agreement (Water Resources Agreement) and the binational Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Regional Body (Regional Body), as well as the US interstate Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact (Water Resources Compact) and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Council (Compact Council).37 These policies and institutions play a leading role in Great Lakes water diplomacy involving water withdrawals, diversions, and consumptive uses. The Conference is located in Chicago and has five staff.


The Water Resources Agreement is a good-faith agreement among the Great Lakes States, Ontario and Québec, to be implemented in the two Canadian provinces through provincial laws, and in the eight US states through the Water Resources Compact, a legally-binding agreement.38 The need for more sophisticated regional water use agreements grew out of multiple conflicts among the US states and Canadian provinces over intrabasin water transfers, water diversions, and consumptive uses, which created a perpetual state of uncertainty about how to manage existing and anticipated future requests.39 A logical and defensible framework was needed to make Great Lakes water management decisions.40 The reasons the Conference was selected over an existing interstate compact agency with a mandate to “plan for the welfare and development of the water resources of the Basin” and recommendations regarding “diversion of waters from and into the Basin”41 are not well documented and are beyond the scope of this chapter.

Looking at the evolution of the Conference from a CGR lens, one can observe that it most certainly grew out of wicked problems creating high levels of uncertainty (large scale water uses and diversions), and inherently based on the interdependence of the eight states and two provinces. Indeed, the anxiety about demands for increased Great Lakes water that led to the creation of the Water Resources Compact and Water Resources Agreement is undoubtedly the Great Lakes Basin’s single most significant example of consequential incentives driving binational collaboration.42 With respect to the compact and agreement, a key driver that likely cemented the role of the Conference as the leadership initiator was that the latter is comprised of the chief executives themselves—as opposed to their senior advisors or

Water diplomacy 63 appointees. Regardless of the confounding history, the Conference’s role as secretariat for the compact and agreement positions it as an important institution in Great Lakes water diplomacy, which is sometimes collaborative and sometimes not, as discussed in subsequent sections.


The Conference has no formal mandate; as such, it is an outlier among the other Great Lakes institutions examined here. Paradoxically, the Conference is identified through a memorandum of understanding as the secretariat for the Regional Body and Compact Council—the institutions that are officially charged with implementing the Water Resources Agreement and the Water Resources Compact respectively.43 This secretariat role provides rich context for examining the organization’s role in water diplomacy.

Both the Water Resources Compact and the Water Resources Agreement prohibit diversions of Great Lakes water out of the basin but provide exceptions for communities and counties that straddle the basin boundary if they meet a certain standard. Both the Regional Body and the Compact Council make determinations as to whether this standard has been met. Justifiably, the Regional Body, which executes a nonbinding good faith agreement, and the Compact Council, which executes a binding agreement among the US Great Lakes States, have different procedures governing their decisionmaking. There are many procedural differences between the two entities, but the key relevant difference for this discussion is that the Regional Body's determinations are nonbinding while the Compact Council’s are binding. The nonbinding nature of the Regional Body compels deployment of consensus,44 rendering it more fertile ground as a CGR.

By contrast, the Compact Council’s bylaws specify that decisions are made by voting.45 Moreover, those bylaws stipulate that “[t]he Executive Director shall develop the protocols for how to administer votes.”46 While attempts to engender consensus may occur in hallways and sidebar discussions. Compact Council decisions are made by vote. This is where the council ceases to meet a defining characteristic of CGR (consensus-based decision-making). The council’s rulemaking procedures for implementing substantive provisions of the Water Resources Compact (e.g., requests for diversions or intrabasin water transfers) are also not collaborative in nature but rather mimic federal or US state rulemaking. Rules are proposed, there are opportunitiesfor public comment, but there is no collaborative process and the over-lying governance regime is regulatory, not collaborative.47

How does each of the institutions examined here line up with the CGR framework? Each operates at the binational Great Lakes Basin scale and while the details of their purposes vary (and overlap in some instances), each of them is ultimately policy-oriented—working on specific issues within a general policy domain.48 However, differences in the use of consensus-based decision-making is perhaps the most defining characteristic of water diplomacy because it relies on building trust, promoting stability, and enhancing cooperation to prevent or mitigate conflicts—the diplomacy part of water diplomacy—as opposed to more authoritative forms of decision-making.

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