The long-held view of Canada’s fresh water as both clean and abundant is being challenged by a new report detailing the threats facing this country’s lakes, streams and rivers.
The World Wildlife Fund-Canada’s Watershed Report, a national assessment is a first-ever attempt to document the state of Canadian watersheds, including its 25 watersheds and 167 sub-watersheds, assessing and ranking both their current health and the pressures on them.
The study ranked 53 of those watersheds including those within prime agricultural land of Manitoba and Saskatchewan as under “high” or “very high” threat from pollution, alteration of flows, water overuse, habitat loss and fragmentation, invasive species and climate change.
Overall, the disturbances relate to human activity such as agricultural run-off, habitat loss, climate change, oil and gas development and hydropower dams, the report said.
The Souris, Red, Qu’Appelle and Assiniboine watersheds have a ranking of “very high” threat from pollution, habitat loss and fragmentation, and overuse of water. Other threats such as invasive species and alteration of flows are deemed low or moderate to these waterways.
The study did its threat assessment using national databases monitoring human activity on aquatic habitats.
On water quality, it says in 42 of 67 sub-watersheds water quality is ranked as poor or fair, undermined by agricultural contaminants such as phosphorus and nitrogen, and elsewhere by metals like aluminum or iron, either naturally present or from mining and other industry.
Most of Canada’s sub-watersheds are not being harmed by overuse of water, but water usage is high or very high where Canadians farm, the report said.
“The areas of highest concern are those with important agricultural production, including the Prairie provinces and the southern Ontario portion of the St. Lawrence basin,” it says.
None of the report’s findings surprise Dr. Allan Preston, board chair with the Assiniboine River Basin Initiative (ARBI).
“It raises a flag that we’ve all been aware of, that there are these issues and concerns,” he said.
No one threat to the Prairies watershed system stands out to him, however.
“They’re all intertwined,” Preston said. “Although they’re separate items in the report, in my mind, they’re closely linked items.”
If for example, we could find a way to better manage water quantity then water quality would improve, he said.
“Look back at spring. We had the makings of a significant flood event when we had a couple of weeks with large flows on the Souris River in particular.
“You can just imagine the tons and tons of nitrogen and phosphorus and organic matter that washed down the river into Lake Winnipeg because of that large amount of water quantity. If we could figure out a better way to manage that water and hold it back we would address the quality issue.”
And while water shortages seem remote it’s not inconceivable that a time could come when we’re challenged to meet the demands of urban consumption and agricultural irrigation along the Assiniboine, he continued.
“It’s hard to focus on that right now, given the situation we’ve been facing, but there’s been situations where you could walk across the Assiniboine River at Treesbank ferry in rubber boots some years. We may face that again.”
Preston said one major gap of the report and its assessments of watersheds is that it doesn’t take into account the interrelationship of watersheds across the 49th parallel.
“Its focus is completely on Canada,” he said. “Yet we know quite well that waterways coming into Canada have bearing as well.”
Several key national themes emerged from the study, a major one being that even as so many watersheds fall below the threshold of “good” condition, the available and accessible data and monitoring activity is sorely lacking.
Sufficient data is being collected in only 14 of our 167 sub-watersheds, the report said.
“Until this point, we have been operating on assumptions, not facts, about the state of our most valuable resource,” the report says.
“Even in some of Canada’s most densely populated and highly developed watersheds, such as the Great Lakes watershed, we don’t know the health of the rivers that underpin our well-being and our economies,” the report said.
“As a result we are unequipped as a nation to make evidence-based, informed decisions about the one natural resource that Canadians value above all others,” it also says.
Preston said data deficiency undoubtedly is what contributed to this region’s own very low rating but that issue is being addressed.
Access to information for informed decision- making was one of the reasons ARBI was established to begin with, he said.
The four watersheds within the ARBI jurisdiction will eventually be served by the Aquanty project, a large-scale computer model under development that looks at the regions’ hydrological characteristics and will show how flood and drought scenarios will impact.
As that project unfolds it’s been clear there’s information availably but not interconnected nor easily available, Preston said.
ARBI’s Framework for Water Stewardship also includes a key goal of improving decision-making through increasing availability of water-related data. The document was developed by the supporting organizations and partners of ARBI and also lays out expected desired outcomes for integrated water management.