The Great Lakes Case Study

Satellite photo of the Great LakesThe Great Lakes and St Lawrence Basin contains 18 percent of the worlds freshwater and is home to 42 million people. This complex transboundary water system is essential to the environmental and economic well-being of the people and thousands of other species that live in the region. The current state and future sustainability of the basin and region continue to be of concern.

In 2012 the Canadian and US federal governments updated the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and recommitted the two federal governments and governments at all levels to implementation.  The International Joint Commission is charged with overseeing progress under the Agreement and addressing the new and enduring environmental challenges in the region. While some policies and initiatives have met with success, efforts to clean and protect the waters in the Great Lakes from a growing number of uses and challenges requires new tools and approaches.

Scientific transboundary partnerships have been successful in generating new knowledge about the physical, biological and ecological state of the Great Lakes but a similar capacity to generate social science knowledge is required to improve policy implementation and governance in the region.

The Great Lakes Policy Research Network established in 2012 as a network of social science and policy researchers from eight universities in Canada and the United States focused on generating new policy and public opinion research related to environmental governance and policy in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Basin.  GLPRN generated several resources and publications that are available in the resource section of our website. Our GLPRN associates and alumni continue to engaged in policy-relevant research across the Great Lakes region and beyond.

Our current project focuses on developing new knowledge and tools related to understanding the ability of this complex transboundary system to cope with complexity and become more adaptable. It also focuses on deepening our understanding by comparing the Great Lakes to other complex transboundary water governance systems such as the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo on the border of the US and Mexico.

Areas of Concern - Great LakesIn 2018 the first phase of the project focused on generating a comprehensive analysis of contextual and institutional factors in each of our cases and applying the OECD’s Water Governance Indicators to the Great Lakes region.

In 2019-20 the focus of Phase 2 is on the state of public engagement in the region using secondary sources, an inventory of government-led engagement efforts, development of engagement indicators, and collecting some baseline date of from the IJC's public forum and engagement events from June-September 2019. In 2020 the focus on engagement continues with a survey of various water users and stakeholders who have been less engaged or unengaged in water governance.

In 2021 the focus will be on the development and application of knowledge indicators and comparing the findings in the Great Lakes region to water governance in the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo to examine the key factors related to water governance in transboundary lake and river systems as systems of abundance and scarcity.


Contact: Dr. Carolyn Johns, Associate Professor, Department of Politics and Public Administration and Director, PhD in Policy Studies, Ryerson University