Ground Water Canada

Canadian freshwater ecosystems in peril, new research suggests

June 12, 2017  By Ground Water Canada

Ottawa – The first national assessment of Canada’s freshwater resources has found significant evidence of disruption to watersheds as a result of human activities and a deficiency of data in more than half of those watersheds.

The results, released June 12, lay bare the need for an ongoing, standardized national freshwater monitoring and reporting system in order to make evidence-based decisions about this valuable resource, said WWF-Canada, who conducted the four-year Watershed Reports research found significant disturbances from hydropower dams, agricultural runoff, pulp and paper processing, fragmentation, urbanization, pipeline incidents, oil and gas development, and other activities.

The report concluded that massive data deficiencies for health indicators prevent an informed understanding of the impact of these human activities on watersheds.


Despite the fact 20 per cent of the world’s freshwater is in Canada, data about its health aren’t collected or shared on a national basis. Data deficiency is an issue in 15 of Canada’s 25 watersheds, which are made up of 167 sub-watersheds.

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 suggests deficiencies in data. Almost two-thirds (110 of 167) of sub-watersheds are lacking the data necessary to paint a baseline picture of watershed health, it says. For the most part, the deficiencies involve fish and benthic invertebrates (the flies, aquatic worms, snails, leeches and other small organisms that are an important link in the aquatic food chain). Only 11 sub-watersheds out of 167 have data for all 11 health and threat metrics.

“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,” said David Miller, president and CEO of the organization. “We must restore the health of watersheds where we know there are problems and ensure a Canada-wide freshwater monitoring system is implemented.  The ability to make informed decisions about how we use and protect freshwater ecosystems is essential to our long-term health and to wildlife.”

The 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.”

To read the Watershed Reports findings and explore individual watersheds in more depth, visit

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