Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, 36 Stat 2448, T.S. No. 548

The Treaty Between the United States and Great Britain Relating to Boundary Waters and Questions Arising Between the United States and Canada, Jan. 11, 1909, 36 Stat. 2448, T.S. No. 548, more commonly known as the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 (BWT), is the basis of binational management of “boundary waters,” including the Great Lakes. The BWT defines boundary waters as “the waters from main shore to main shore of the lakes and rivers and connecting waterways, or the portions thereof, along which the international boundary between the United States and the Dominion of Canada passes.

The purpose of BWT is “to prevent disputes regarding the use of boundary waters” and “to make provision for the adjustment and settlement” of questions “between the United States and the Dominion of Canada involving the rights, obligations, or interests of either in relation to the other or to the inhabitants of the other.” BWT art. III, IV; see also Miller v. United States, 583 F.2d 857, 860 (6th Cir. 1978).

The BWT declares the boundary waters to be “forever . . . free and open” to vessels flagged by the United States or Canada. BWT, art. I. The equal rights of navigation enjoyed by vessels flagged by either State are balanced by the right and authority of each State to reasonably regulate commerce on their respective side of the international maritime boundary. Minnesota v. Block, 660 F.2d 1240 (8th Cir. 1981). The U.S. has exercised this right and authority by enacting laws and regulations to govern shipping, navigation safety and environmental protection. See, e.g., 46 U.S.C. §§ 9301-9308 (Great Lakes pilotage requirements); 33 C.F.R. Part 401 (shipping regulations for the St. Lawrence Seaway). 

The BWT also imposes an obligation on both Parties to limit pollution of boundary waters. BWT art. VI. This was a unique provision for its time, and provided the genesis for subsequent Great Lakes Water Quality Agreements.
To aid in the coordination of shared uses of the boundary waters, the BWT created the International Joint Commission (IJC), a body composed of representatives from the United States and Canada. BWT, art. III, VII.


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