TORONTO—The Canadian seats at the bilateral International Joint Commission (IJC) have been looking pretty empty lately. 
Last month, Lyall Knott completed his term as a commissioner to the binational International Joint Commission (IJC). Another of Canada’s members, Pierre Trépanier, left the group more than a year ago. No new appointments have been made, leaving two of Canada’s three seats vacant.
When it comes to protecting Canada’s interests in freshwater resources, the IJC is one of the most important institutions we have. The commission is mandated to prevent and resolve disputes over water bodies shared by Canada and the United States. Importantly, it is one of the few institutions where the two countries have equal influence over a shared resource. 
The U.S. often overpowers Canada in terms of its scientific capacity, population, and economy, but under the Boundary Waters Treaty, which created the IJC, Canada has an equal voice. Each country appoints three commissioners who make decisions together in the interest of those who live in the shared watersheds. It has been instrumental in safeguarding Canada’s water and related interests. 
For instance, the IJC, because of its recommendations, was able to prevent powerful and well-connected interests from building the Garrison diversion project in North Dakota because of its potential to negatively impact Canada. While the water diversions would have benefited farmers in North Dakota, the project would have increased flooding in Manitoba, introduced invasive species into Lake Winnipeg and increased pollution from fertilizers and pesticides into Canadian rivers and lakes. 
The IJC has also had measurable impacts in other watersheds. In the Red River basin, Manitobans have saved millions of dollars in flood damage thanks to the IJC’s strong position on flood-related measures. And Canada would never have had so much influence over U.S. pollution control in the Great Lakes if it were not for the Great Lakes bilateral agreements, of which the commission was instrumental. This is a clear example of where the IJC has transformed a vast potential source of conflict into a model of cooperation.
Without strong commissioners looking out for Canadian interests in these cases and others, it is hard to know whether Canada would have had the tools to protect its property and environment, businesses, and communities, despite their relatively small size compared to U.S. counterparts.
And yet as numerous critical water issues come to a head, Canada remains outnumbered three-to-one in terms of our say on the Commission. These upcoming issues will have very real consequences for individual property, freshwater health and Canada’s overall economy, much of which is located in watersheds we share with the U.S.
For example, without equal footing, it is far more likely that Canadian interests on the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River water regulation plan will fall through the cracks. After more than 10 years of scientific and technical studies, the decision about how to manage the system’s water levels and flows is just around the corner.
With the science pretty much known, decisions are now largely about the trade-offs between various interests. As such, it’s essential that Canada has a full complement of commissioners at the table to represent its marinas, property owners, tourism, environmental, hydropower, and shipping interests. 
Lake Winnipeg also faces an uncertain future. Serious and progressively detrimental algae blooms, caused largely by excessive nutrient loading, are threatening the health of the lake. While the lake is fully within Manitoba’s borders, the basin extends across four provinces and four U.S. states, all of which contribute to the problem. The IJC may be the only forum available for Canada to force action across the border to curb nutrient loading from the U.S. portion of the watershed.
For an institution that means so much to Canadians, we need to appoint commissioners who are intelligent, capable, and able to interpret science to make reasonable decisions that are in the best interest of all communities on both sides of the border. 
With the right commissioners in place and sustained support from the government, Canada’s economy and environment in our shared watersheds can flourish. 
Gillian McEachern is campaigns director of Environmental Defence Canada.…