Canada’s watersheds face serious threats: new report

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Columbia Basin resident and Living Lakes Canada Executive Director Kat Hartwig travelled to Ottawa earlier this week to participate in the daylong conference hosted by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Canada to release its long-awaited Canadian Fresh Water Heath Assessment.

The report reiterated that while Canada may be home to 20% of the world’s freshwater, 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 we need to consider when we work on water monitoring in the Columbia Basin,” Hartwig said after her attendance to WWF’s freshwater health assessment released on June 12.  “We were able to provide some of the water quality data collected by water monitoring groups in the Columbia Basin to help complete the freshwater health assessment providing a high-level overview of the Columbia Basin water health.”

Hartwig added, “it was heartening to hear the Prime Minister say “We need to step up all of us – public sector, different levels of government, private partners – and ensure that the data so many people are collecting in so many different ways gets aligned, gets collated and gets shared.”  that he understood we were in a situation of often not having enough water data for sound water policy decision making in needs to happen in Canada and that this was a challenge that Canadian’s would need to work on collectively to help resolve.

“There is a great opportunity for us to collaborate in order to fill our own water data gaps in the Columbia Basin and act upon the important information that was relayed to the Basin residents, businesses and industry with the release of the Columbia Basin Trust’s report Water Monitoring and Climate Change in the Upper Columbia Basin, released in February this year,” concluded Hartwig.

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 in the report, 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.

The four-year Watershed Reports research, conducted by WWF-Canada into this vital resource upon which people and wildlife depend, 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. Despite the fact 20% 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.

Depth of data deficiency 

Almost two-thirds (110 of 167) of sub-watersheds are lacking the data necessary to paint a baseline picture of watershed health.

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.

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.

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