OTTAWA — The first-ever nationwide assessment of Canada’s freshwater resources found significant evidence of disruption to watersheds across the country as a result of human activities. The results, released June 12, suggest the need for an ongoing, standardized national freshwater monitoring and reporting system in order to make evidence-based decisions about this valuable resource, say the authors.

The four-year Watershed Reports research, conducted by WWF-Canada, found significant disturbances from hydropower dams, agricultural runoff, pulp and paper processing, fragmentation, urbanization, pipeline incidents, oil and gas development and other activities. At the same time, massive data deficiencies for health indicators prevent an informed understanding of the impact of these human activities on watersheds.

In an increasingly thirsty world, freshwater scarcity is a mounting concern. Twenty per cent of the world’s freshwater is in Canada, but the report notes that data about its health aren’t collected or shared on a national basis. Data deficiency is identified as an issue in 15 of Canada’s 25 watersheds.

David Miller, president and CEO of WWF-Canada, commented: “Canadians should be alarmed that only 67 of 167 sub-watersheds have data on water quality, and 42 of those fail to get good marks. WWF-Canada’s analysis shows we need to be seriously concerned about the health of our freshwater, and makes clear we can’t afford to continue a patchwork approach to monitoring. We must restore the health of watersheds where we know there are problems and ensure a Canada-wide freshwater monitoring system is implemented.”
The available data resulted in the following conclusions:

  • Climate change already affects every sub-watershed in Canada.
  • Habitat loss due to agriculture, urbanization and forestry is significant in a majority of sub-watersheds.
  • Pollution from agricultural runoff, wastewater treatment, mining, pipeline spills, oil and gas development and other activities is high or very high in more than one-third of sub-watersheds.
  • For a majority of sub-watersheds, water quality data isn’t collected or made available. Of the 67 sub-watersheds for which data is available, 42 have poor or merely fair water quality.
  • Fragmentation is a disruptive factor in Canadian watersheds. Data on this indicator is available in 142 of 167 sub-watersheds. Of those, 61 (out of 142) are either highly or very highly fragmented.

The report’s conclusions stem from parallel health and threat assessments conducted to understand which human activities are disturbing sub-watersheds and the impact those stressors are having on freshwater health. The framework was vetted by leading experts and academics, who helped refine the methodology in accordance with current analysis techniques.

The health assessment measured water flow, water quality, benthic invertebrates and fish. These indicators represent key elements of the freshwater ecosystems commonly monitored in most Canadian jurisdictions.

The threat assessment measured pollution, habitat loss, fragmentation, water use, invasive species, alterations to water flow and climate change. These indicators were selected in accordance with current literature on threats to freshwater systems.

Elizabeth Hendriks, WWF-Canada vice-president of freshwater conservation, said: “With these health and threats assessments, we were able to learn that across the country, we are putting significant stress on our watersheds — whether through pollution, lowered water flows, overuse, habitat loss or fragmentation, invasive species or climate change. But because the corresponding data on health metrics isn’t being collected for a majority of watersheds, no one can conclusively say to what extent these disturbances are harming the health of this crucial resource. That’s a shocking oversight that we can’t afford to ignore.”

Canadians can read the Watershed Reports findings, and explore their own watershed in more depth at