Patchy information leaves Canada unable to determine quality of watersheds

12 Jun 2017 10:15 AM | Smart About Salt (Administrator)

'Not having the information to measure the actual health of a majority of watersheds is extremely concerning'

By Margo McDiarmid, CBC News

Canada may be home to 20 per cent of the world's freshwater, but there is no national system to collect or share information about the health and quality of Canada's watersheds, according to a new national assessment of Canada's rivers. 

The report by WWF-Canada warns that Canada's watersheds are facing serious threats from pollution, climate change and loss of habitat.

"I think that's a result that Canadians, when they learn it, will be deeply concerned about," said David Miller, president of World Wildlife Fund-Canada in an interview with CBC News.

"We have a pretty good handle on what the threats are and potential impacts of those threats, so not having the information to measure the actual health of a majority of watersheds is extremely concerning."

Canada has five major ocean watersheds: the Arctic, the Atlantic (which includes the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River), Hudson Bay, the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico. Major rivers in these regions drain into those ocean watersheds. Major rivers are fed by smaller rivers called sub-watersheds. 

The study looked at 167 sub-watersheds. It found that almost two-thirds are lacking in the crucial information needed to get a basic picture of water quality and river health.

Lack of complete data

The report singles out areas that are particularly short of detailed information: the North and South Saskatchewan watersheds, the Peace-Athabasca watershed and, surprisingly, the Great Lakes and the Ottawa River.

The lack of information is "surprising, considering these watersheds are home to a significant portion of the country's population, industry, agriculture and well over 100 at-risk species," said the report.

Miller says part of the problem is a lot of water testing and monitoring is hit and miss.

"It's a very patchy system," he said. "For example, if the urban area of Calgary is measuring the health of the Bow River, but upstream is not being measured, you don't have a proper and full picture."

WWF-Canada was able to get information about the health of 67 sub-watersheds from some publicly available sources including universities and Statistics Canada.

That data showed about 60 per cent have poor or fair water quality. One third had their flow interrupted by dams, roads or railways.

Threatened by pollution, loss of habitat

The report also looked at threats facing the 167 sub-watersheds. It found that one third of rivers have high or very high levels of stress. They are being damaged by pollution, by the loss of habitat often caused by homes and buildings constructed too close to the water and by climate change. 

A spokesperson for federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna says water is a shared responsibility. Marie-Pascale Des Rosiers said in an email that the federal government works with provinces, territories and municipalities and Aboriginal people to protect water.

She added that the government of Canada has invested millions of dollars into freshwater protection in the last two budgets.

That includes $197.1 million in 2016 to increase ocean and freshwater research, $3.1 million to improve shore and ecosystem health in the Great Lakes and $70.5 million in the 2017 budget to protect water in the Great Lakes and Lake Winnipeg basins. The federal government also has an 11-year plan to improve wastewater systems across the country.

"Our government has a comprehensive approach to help ensure clean, secure and sustainable water resources for present and future generations," said Des Rosiers.

Need a way to track water quality

But WWF-Canada's Miller argues one national system is needed to properly track the health of fresh water and the impacts from human activity.

"Like most Canadians, I have an image of our  country as a haven of fresh water," said Miller. "When I started canoeing I could dip my cup in a lake in Algonquin Park and I could drink it without treating it and that's not true anymore." 

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