The International Joint Commission

March 2009

One hundred years ago, the world’s first international environmental agreement was signed between the United States and Canada – the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. This agreement created a body, the International Joint Commission (IJC) to mediate disputes over waters that crossed between the two countries. At the time, water diversion projects in North Dakota and Alberta along the St. Mary’s and Milk Rivers were creating tensions. There was also debate about potential hydroelectric generation along the Niagara River, shared by New York and Ontario. Most of the IJC’s work revolves around the Great Lakes. However, since Lake Champlain shares a border between Quebec and both New York and Vermont, it too is under the jurisdiction of the IJC. In their century long history the IJC has been called on to address Lake Champlain issues at least four times.

The IJC does not have the authority to step into every trans-boundary water issue that might arise. The IJC’s six commissioners – three from the United States and three from Canada - are appointed by their respective heads of state. Before entering a debate, they must first be asked to review a situation by the Department’s of State in both countries.

The IJC’s first reference for work in Lake Champlain came in 1936. They were charged with investigating, “the advisability of the improvement of a waterway from Montreal through Lake Champlain to connect with the Hudson River”. They appointed a committee of engineers to study the feasibility and advisability of a project. The engineers decided that it was technically feasible to construct a commercial waterway from the St. Lawrence to the Hudson, and that it made more sense to widen and deepen the Richelieu River and improve the locks around the rapids at Chambly than to construct an overland canal from the St. Lawrence River either directly to Lake Champlain using the Great Chazy River or to the Richelieu above Chambly.

Meanwhile, they held public hearings in Burlington, Plattsburgh and Montreal. These venues would be expected, but interest in the issue ran much deeper and so the IJC also had hearings in Albany, New York City, Boston, and Washington, D.C. Support came from Chambers of Commerce representing the near, like Plattsburgh, and the far, like Toledo and Detroit. The City of Burlington opined favorably, as did industry groups representing slate manufacturers and fruit growers. Quebec based Boards of Trade from Sorel, St. Johns, and Iberville also endorsed the project. 

However the opposition was also fierce led by those whose commercial interests were threatened. Leading the charge were the powerful railroads and their allies. Railroads controlled most of the commercial traffic and feared the competition a waterway would bring. Cities concerned about a loss of revenue included Montreal, Boston and New York. Many other small towns and cities in New York and New England also opposed the project.

In their final report, the IJC merely tabled the idea. Their deliberations occurred prior to the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and they felt the project only made sense in conjunction with a Seaway. However, the IJC asked to retain jurisdiction over the matter until the Seaway was completed so they could consider its affects on the proposed Champlain waterway.

In 1962 the Seaway was completed, and four years later the IJC reopened its investigation. The political landscape had shifted considerably. Environmental concerns played a much more prominent role in the debate than they had in the 1930s. (The Lake Champlain Committee raised many of the environmental concerns, as the Champlain Seaway debate provided the impetus for the organization’s creation). This time Burlington came out opposed to the project. Ultimately the IJC advised against construction of a waterway deeming it not economically justified.

In 1973 the IJC returned to Lake Champlain. This time the debate was over a proposal to regulate the level of the Richelieu River and Lake Champlain to address concerns about shoreline flooding. An IJC appointed engineering board agreed that water level regulation could be achieved and would reduce damages, but they disagreed on the environmental affects that would occur. The IJC continued their investigation until January of 1981, and ultimately opted against regulating water levels, and instead improving flood forecasting and taking a variety of non-structural measures to lessen flood damage.

Twice in the last five years the IJC has been asked to intervene in debates related to Missisquoi Bay of Lake Champlain. In 2004 they were asked to determine whether the causeway between the bay and the Inland Sea promoted pollution of the bay. They found that it does not, but still recognized “the prevailing local belief that the causeway contributes significantly to the problems of the bay.”

More recently, just last year, the IJC was asked to assist in the planning for improved pollution control from the landscape around Missisquoi Bay. The IJC is not able to fund implementation projects but can participate in planning exercises. Thus, they have focused on funding a project to identify “critical source areas” of pollution loading, the 10% or so of the landscape that is thought to contribute up to 80% of the pollution due to topography, soil type, management practices and other attributes. If the IJC’s most recent project succeeds, limited resources will be targeted more effectively to address pollution problems. 

While the seaway report and the causeway report required the IJC to react to existing or proposed projects, the most recent intervention allows them to proactively engage in addressing pollution concerns for the lake. Their work is scheduled to be completed by December of 2011.

Lake Look is a monthly natural history column produced by the Lake Champlain Committee (LCC). Formed in 1963, LCC is the only bi-state organization solely dedicated to protecting Lake Champlain’s health and accessibility. LCC uses science-based advocacy, education, and collaborative action to protect and restore water quality, safeguard natural habitats, foster stewardship, and ensure recreational access.

Get involved by joining LCC using our website secure form (at, or mail your contribution (Lake Champlain Committee, 208 Flynn Avenue - BLDG 3 - STUDIO 3-F, Burlington, VT 05401), or contact us at (802) 658-1414, or lcc@ for more information.