NAFTA Effects on Water
Testing for NAFTA Effects in the Great Lakes Basin

Christine Elwell, LL.B, LL.M, Sierra Club of Canada

Click here to download full text of document (Acrobat PDF format, 685K, revised February 2001)

Executive Summary

The Great Lakes region’s greatest economic, recreational, and spiritual asset is its water. Though vast, the Great Lakes have a relatively small drainage basin relative to surface area and an accordingly small renewal rate of only 1 percent. This margin of sustainability is slim: climate change and human activities together have the potential to significantly degrade the quantity of this resource, just as human activity alone has severely damaged its water quality and nearly extirpated its natural fishery.

The region is not prepared for stresses on its water resources generated by NAFTA-induced economic growth. Regional water use data are seven years out of date; projections for growth in water use are therefore based on pre-NAFTA trends. The latest assessment of regional water use growth, provided by the International Joint Commission, does not mention NAFTA as a possibly significant factor, despite the clearly substantial increase in economic activity that has already been generated by the agreement.

Poor data and related analysis are compounded by the possibility of regional climate change, whose projected impacts on Great Lakes levels range up to a drop of 70 centimetres (more than 2 feet) in just thirty years. Outflow to the St. Lawrence River could drop by as much as a quarter in just fifty years.

One bright spot for protection of the resource is a joint effort by the region's states and provinces, which have primary but not sole responsibility for managing the region's water resources. The governments are working to redraw the region's water use practices for the purpose of conserving the resource and protecting the elements of the ecosystem dependent on it. However, the effort faces significant political hurdles and the likelihood of its ultimate success is not known.

The Great Lakes contain nearly 20 percent of the world's accessible fresh water. In a global context of increasing water shortage induced by rises in population and average living standard, decision-makers must seriously consider the pressure of trade in water as significant environmental stressors on the Great Lakes.

NAFTA may also facilitate privatization of water services, which might undercut regional conservation efforts and further stress the resource. The Commission on Environmental Cooperation should assess the signatory governments' declaration on NAFTA's applicability to natural waters and determine the potential for NAFTA-induced stress on the resource related to trade in water and water services.

The Commission should also assist in the development of water quantity and quality indicators of environmental health and stress to avoid the negative effects of trade in goods, services and investment, while optimizing the potential for environmental sustainability and quality in the Great Lakes basin.

Should the region's governments create a collective agreement for managing the Great Lakes resource for the purpose of ecosystem protection, that agreement, together with other measures, should be listed as a binational environmental agreement under NAFTA Article 104.


The waters of the Great Lakes have been called the lifeblood of the region. This paper tests for NAFTA impacts to these important waters. This paper also tests the test for assessing NAFTA Effects. The first part introduces the research team and highlights our findings to improve in general the Framework for Assessing NAFTA Effects. The second part describes NAFTA impacts related to the Great Lakes Basin in three main areas: bulk water exports and use, privatization of water services and water quality, especially related to the growth in intensive livestock operations in southern Ontario.

Part three contains the elements for a new Common Standard to Protect the Great Lakes, that we recommend, among other things, be listed as a paramount environmental agreement under NAFTA Article 104. The incorporation of the Common Standard by legislation in the appropriate jurisdictions, together with enforcement that includes a community-based approach, are key to resolving growing pressures on this exhaustible resource.

In addition, we feature a case study that directly applies the Framework to the tragic Walkerton water-crisis in Ontario, following the downloading of government responsibility for clean water testing to private facilities. The emerging human right to clean water and a healthy environment is described as a focus of strategies for water in this century. We conclude that the Framework, while helpful in identifying NAFTA impacts, requires significant improvements to fulfil the NACEC mandate to protect the North American environment.

2001, Sierra Club of Canada