Governance and Policy Making for the Great Lakes

Principal Investigator - Mark Sproule-Jones, McMaster University, 2001 - 2004

Governance and Policy Making for the Great Lakes


The North American Great Lakes are a vital resource to the thirty-three million people who live in the basin. The lake system provides for numerous ecological and human uses including industrial and domestic consumption, hydro-electric generation, commercial shipping, pleasure boating, irrigation, commercial and recreational fishing as well as waste disposal. Some uses of the Lakes, like commercial fisheries, have been impacted due to inadequate and inappropriate management rules and regulations allowing for large scale waste disposal and unsustainable catches. Lake-wide and basin-wide issues like these are on the policy agendas of governments, including bulk water exports, sustainable lake levels, and water quality management for toxics and management of non-point sources of pollution. These diverse issues have helped create many institutions with very different concerns and interests, and which can act at cross purposes.

This research project looked at issues related to the effectiveness of policy and governance of institutions in the Great Lakes Basin. The research developed key studies of the structure and operations of the governance regimes within the region, and provided recommendations for reform including stakeholder input. This research is directed at regulators and stakeholder groups to provide a better understanding of the interdependencies of institutions and the issues.


This research project focused on seven issues pertaining to the Great Lakes Basin: sustainability and water exports, sustainability and lake levels, regulation and toxic contaminants disposal, management of non-point sources, basin and lake-wide planning, governance arrangements, and sustainable resources. The projects examined how current institutions were managing these issues and assessed their effectiveness in light of other jurisdictions and best practices.

The research examined governance arrangements including both national governments, nine state and provincial governments and hundreds of local governments. The studies analyzed the laws, regulations and management agencies in relation to common property resources. Researchers also addressed the associated financial and environmental costs of current and proposed regulations and rules addressing these issues.

Research findings included evidence that the system in practice has not worked well with respect to pollution regulation and fisheries. The team examined how the current institutions work, comparing the Canadian and American systems of governance and providing a comparative analysis between regimes. This comparison included matched cases of diversions, bulk water export proposals, bottled water exports, slurry exports and conjunctive uses of groundwater on both sides of the US and Canadian borders. One important research finding was in the regulations of toxics, the voluntary regulations on the Canadian side of the border was more effective than either the command and control regulations in Canada and also better than the American voluntary condition and the American command and control system.


  • Development, in collaboration with the United Nations University, of resource tools to be used as instructional material on community participation in water resources governance. The materials targeted mid-range and senior public servants in developing nations.
  • Creation of an overview book titled, “Canadian Water Politics: Conflicts and Institutions” published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2008. This publication represents a multi-disciplinary and multi-sectorial spinoff of the research in order to further broad-based education.

The members of the research team presented their findings at conferences and through academic journals. Each of the topic areas of the research was tied to relevant policy, designed to be shared with stakeholders as well as through academic publications.

Select Presentations

Tim Heinmiller, “The Governance of the Great Lakes Water Levels”, presentation to the Murray-Darling Commission, Canberra, Australia, July 2002.

Tim Heinmiller, “Institutional Formation and Change in Multi-Jurisdictional Settings”, Great Lakes Research Consortium Conference, Syracuse, New York, March 2003.

Select Publications

Sproule-Jones, Mark. The Restoration of the Great Lakes, (Vancouver: UBC Press), 2002.

Sproule-Jones, Mark, “Institutional Experiments in the Restoration of the Great Lakes”, Canadian Journal of Political Science, Vol 25, 2002, pp 835-56.

Heinmiller, Tim, “Finding a Way Forward in the Study of Intergovernmental Policy Making”, Canadian Public Administration, Vol. 45, 2002, pp 427-433.


  • Contribution to the International Association for the Study of Common Property, as no previous work had dealt with large scale multiple-use water resources such as that found in the Great Lakes region. These policy issues surrounding multiple use water governance are subject to intense public debate and little systematic evidence – this research aimed to dispel the uncertainty under which policy makers and the public make decisions.
  • The research study of toxic contaminant regulations explicitly compared voluntary with “command and control” regulations as to their performance on a variety of indicators. These results can produce positive economic and related technological changes of benefit to both industry and society given that up to 10% of the value of industrial output can be expended on compliance with government regulations and in seeking regulatory relief.
  • This research may help decision makers alter policy strategies with better knowledge of the incentives and consequences of their policy directions.

Research Team

  • Mark Sproule-Jones, McMaster University
  • Carolyn Johns, Ryerson University
  • George Francis, University of Waterloo
  • Sally Lerner, University of Waterloo
  • Jack Manno, University of Rochester
  • Errol Meidenger, State University of New York-Buffalo
  • Henry Regier, University of Toronto
  • Margaret Shannon, State University of New York-Buffalo
  • Timothy Heinmiller, McMaster University


  • City of Hamilton