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The International Joint Commission: Harnessing Community and Science to Prevent and Resolve Disputes Over Shared Waters

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Managing Canadian and United States cross-border watersheds is no easy feat, but this organization has been cooperatively protecting them for over a century.

Canada and the United States have the longest international border in the world, and 40 percent of that border is water. The cooperative protection of these shared waters is critical to human health. It’s also fundamental to sustaining economic, social, and environmental norms in both countries, and to the wellbeing of future generations.

Underpinned by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, the International Joint Commission (IJC) aims to prevent and resolve disputes over waters shared by Canada and the United States. The IJC is an independent, binational and impartial advisor to the governments of Canada and the United States, that assists both countries in the cooperative protection of these fundamentally important shared assets.


A unique role to play

The IJC has two main responsibilities: approving projects that affect water levels or flows across the border and recommending solutions to complex transboundary issues at the request of governments. The IJC also has key responsibilities under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement including assessing progress made by the governments toward protecting and restoring water quality. The IJC has increasingly taken a holistic watershed approach as part of its work in clear recognition of interrelated issues that can affect watersheds shared between the two countries.

In making its decisions and recommendations, the IJC considers impacts and implications across a wide range of interests, including sanitation and drinking water, commercial shipping, hydroelectric power generation, agriculture, industry, fish and wildlife, recreational boating and coastal communities.

To do this work, the IJC relies on the expertise of over 15 binational boards and committees. These boards act as the IJC’s eyes and ears in each watershed and are critical to local protection and monitoring efforts. There are boards all across the boundary; some oversee implementation of water flow regulations plans, some are focused on how water is apportioned between the two countries, and some are focused on broader watershed management issues including water quality. The IJC also creates temporary boards to undertake specific studies at the request of both governments.

Our priorities

Unprecedented challenges are increasingly affecting watersheds across the continent. Flooding and drought, exacerbated by climate change, pollution and invasive species pose very real risks to our shared waters. 

Consistent with its mandate and responsibilities, the IJC has a critical role in engaging citizens, scientists, Indigenous Peoples and other interests when addressing these challenges across transboundary watersheds. For the past 25 years, communities across the boundary benefited from the IJC’s International Watersheds Initiative, which takes an ecosystem approach as it assists in involving Indigenous voices, harmonizing data, and implementing other tailored solutions to local water challenges. 

map of Transboundary watersheds

Sound science, local engagement and binational collaboration have been – and will continue to be pivotal for the IJC in gathering perspectives to resolving issues and identifying concrete solutions.

As we look to the future, it is only through this continued reliance on science, community partnerships, and binational collaboration that the IJC can continue to effectively assist governments in the protection of shared waters for many years to come.

To participate in an IJC consultation or to see if there is a IJC board in your area visit ijc.org

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