Fast Facts

The Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River waterway supports multiple users in the U.S. and Canada that live, visit, or conduct business in the region. Representatives of both countries serve on a commission that implements Plan 2014, which governs water releases from the lake into the river.

We found that the commission doesn't effectively evaluate its efforts to communicate with stakeholders about these water releases. It also hasn't developed a comprehensive plan to assess and improve Plan 2014.

We recommended that U.S. commissioners work with their Canadian counterparts to develop more robust plans for communicating and for assessing Plan 2014.

Examples of Users of the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Waterway

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The International Joint Commission's (IJC) process for developing and selecting the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Plan 2014 (Plan 2014) was generally consistent with relevant essential elements of risk-informed decision-making. During the 18-year process, IJC took steps to define objectives and performance measures to be used in its decision-making, identify various options, assess uncertainties like climate change, and engage with stakeholders, among other steps. These steps are all essential elements of risk-informed decision making.

Plan 2014 Affects Various Users of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, Including (from Left to Right) Commercial Navigation, Coastal Development, and Recreational Boating, Including Marinas

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IJC uses two mechanisms—a communications committee and a strategic communication plan—and a variety of methods—such as its website, social media, and public meetings—to communicate with stakeholders about its implementation of Plan 2014. Nevertheless, 12 of the 14 stakeholders GAO interviewed expressed concerns about IJC's communication. GAO found that IJC's strategic communication plan and related documents partially align with best practices. For example, the communication plan and related documents do not comprehensively identify target audiences or include mechanisms to monitor and evaluate the effectivness of their communication efforts. Updating its strategic communication plan to align with best practices and principles for risk communication could help IJC ensure improved stakeholder communication.

Of the 14 stakeholders interviewed, nine expressed concerns about the rules and criteria in Plan 2014 and 10 expressed concerns about its implementation. For example, seven stakeholders told us that they do not believe that the Plan allows IJC to act proactively in anticipation of future water conditions. IJC has taken initial steps to develop an adaptive management process that may help address stakeholder concerns and approved a long-term adaptive management strategy in March 2020. However, the document does not fully incorporate the key elements and essential characteristics of an adaptive management process that could help IJC transparently and effectively assess Plan 2014 and adjust future actions to achieve the plan's objectives. For example, the Plan does not fully incorporate a communication strategy for engaging stakeholders throughout the process or information on how IJC will determine if adjustments to the Plan's rules and criteria are warranted.

Why GAO Did This Study

Water releases from Lake Ontario into the St. Lawrence River are determined by a set of regulatory rules and criteria called Plan 2014—issued pursuant to IJC's Supplementary Order of Approval and the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. The IJC—a binational commission—developed and issued the Plan and Order with the concurrence of the United States and Canada. The rules affect a variety of users of the waterway, including ecosystems, hydropower, and municipal and industrial water use.

After flooding from the lake and river in 2017, GAO was asked to examine the process IJC used to develop and evaluate Plan 2014 and how IJC has addressed stakeholder concerns. This report examines (1) the extent to which IJC's process to develop and select Plan 2014 was consistent with essential elements of risk-informed decision-making, (2) actions IJC has taken to communicate with stakeholders about its implementation of Plan 2014 and stakeholder concerns regarding IJC's communication, and (3) stakeholder concerns about Plan 2014 and the extent to which IJC has developed a process to assess and adjust Plan 2014. GAO reviewed Plan 2014 and other IJC documents, interviewed IJC and federal officials and a nongeneralizable sample of 14 stakeholders, selected for a variety of user interests and stakeholder types.

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Recommendations

GAO is making three recommendations, including that the U.S. Section of the IJC work with its Canadian counterpart to ensure that the communication plan aligns with best practices and the adaptive management strategy fully incorporates key elements. IJC agreed with our recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
International Joint Commission--United States and Canada The U.S. commissioners of the International Joint Commission should work with the Canadian commissioners to update the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board communications plan and ensure that the plan incorporates best practices for public relations efforts, in particular defining target audiences and developing mechanisms to monitor and inform adjustments to strategies, and generally accepted principles for communicating risk-related information. (Recommendation 1)
Open
The International Joint Commission (IJC) agreed with our recommendation. According to the IJC, in summer 2020, it engaged a communications expert to conduct an initial scoping and recommend specific actions that could be taken to incorporate best practices for public relations efforts into an updated Board communications plan. After discussion within the Board's communications committee and subsequently with all six IJC Commissioners, the IJC is working with an expert consultant to: (1) conduct a public opinion poll and stakeholder interviews in order to define and segment target audiences, (2) analyze and present the findings, and (3) lead a collaborative process with the communications committee to develop a five-year communications strategy, including mechanisms to monitor and inform adjustments to the strategy. IJC anticipates that a final Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board communications strategy will be reviewed and approved by the Board and the IJC by September 30, 2021. We will assess the communications strategy at that time.
International Joint Commission--United States and Canada The U.S. commissioners of the International Joint Commission should work with the Canadian commissioners to develop and enter into written agreements with entities that the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee identifies as having information or resources that the committee needs to effectively monitor and evaluate the impacts of Plan 2014. (Recommendation 2)
Open
The International Joint Commission (IJC) agreed with our recommendation. According to the IJC, its Great Lakes Adaptive Management (GLAM) committee is working to identify information gaps for the expedited review of Plan 2014, and the IJC is exploring additional resources and mechanisms for obtaining information. The IJC is considering the best ways to obtain information or resources that the IJC may need, and although formal agreements are an option, it is also considering other alternatives. For example, the IJC has agreed to a written protocol for regular meetings with the U.S. and Canadian St. Lawrence Seaway entities and methods to share information regarding the economic impacts of extreme water levels and flows on their interest. Further, the Board and GLAM are in contact with stakeholders, users, and entities in both countries. The IJC plans to continue to determine the best way to receive timely and accurate information using a written framework or other mechanisms for collaboration and information-sharing to assist in monitoring and evaluating the impacts of extreme Lake Ontario water levels. We will continue to monitor the IJC's actions in response to this recommendation.
International Joint Commission--United States and Canada The U.S. commissioners of the International Joint Commission should work with the Canadian commissioners to ensure that IJC fully incorporates the key elements and essential characteristics of the adaptive management process into a comprehensive adaptive management strategic plan for Plan 2014. (Recommendation 3)
Open
The International Joint Commission agreed with our recommendation. The U.S. and Canadian IJC Commissioners approved a revised adaptive management strategic plan in October 2020. The revised plan more fully incorporates key elements and essential characteristics of the adaptive management process. For example, the revised plan includes a clearer explanation of GLAM's role in how changes are made to regulation plans, additional information on how the committee will engage the public and when it will collaborate with partners, and makes stronger linkages between key elements of the plan, such as how performance metrics will be used to measure progress. However, the plan does not make clear linkages between actions outlined in the plan and the goals and objectives of Plan 2014. GLAM plans to update the document in October 2021 to incorporate advice from the Public Advisory Group. We will assess the updated document after GLAM incorporates the advice.

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