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Changing Currents: Water Sustainability and the Future of Canada's Natural Resource Sectors
The Report
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Chapter 1


Canada is a country rich in natural resources with its most valuable being water. Freshwater provides many benefits that humans rely upon, some of which are visible, such as drinking water or hydroelectric production, while others are less obvious, such as erosion control and water retention. These services that are imperative to all life on Earth depend upon the health and functionality of ecosystems. Alterations to the timing and volumes of flow, quality, and temperature of freshwater, create incremental effects to both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. In order to safeguard water resources for present uses and the future, water use must be managed with maintenance of the integrity of ecosystems as a core principle.

Canada is fortunate to have a significant proportion of the world?s freshwater; however its renewable supply is not as abundant as many would believe. Over half our fresh surface water flows to the north, while most of our population and many of our economic activities are located along our southern border (see Figure 1 for Canada?s drainage basins). The majority of the water is not located where it is needed most by Canadians.


Water is essential for the operation and growth of Canada?s energy, agriculture, mining, and forest sectors, which account for over 80% of Canada?s gross water use.


Water availability is an issue in the interior of British Columbia, the southern regions of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, and to a lesser degree in some areas of Ontario and Southern Qubec.


In order to ensure the economic sustainability of the natural resource sectors, water use must be managed with the maintenance of ecosystem integrity as a core principle.


Canada's Drainage Basins

Figure 2 illustrates the proportion of surface freshwater that is used by Canadians within each of Canada?s major drainage basins. The river basins in the Prairies, Southern Ontario, and Southwestern Qubec are under the greatest stress. That is, the water taken out of the watersheds in these regions is greatest relative to the volume of water flowing into them, with the greatest pressures felt in the prairie regions.


Water Use and Available Streamflow in Canada

Water Use: Definitions Used in this Report

Water use is often characterized as non-consumptive and consumptive. Nonconsumptive use is also referred to as ?water intake? or ?gross water use? and represents the total amount taken from surface water bodies or aquifers. Consumptive water use represents the amount of water intake that is not returned to the source, and which is generally lost to evaporation or contained within wastewater or products.

Water is essential for the operation and growth of Canada?s natural resource sectors ? energy, mining, forest, and agriculture ? as they all rely on access to clean, sustainable supplies of water to extract or work with raw materials and process goods. In 2005, these sectors together accounted for the greatest gross water usea across Canada, amounting to 84%. These sectors were also responsible for 84% of the water consumption in Canada ? which is defined as the amount of water that is taken from a source and not returned. Agricultural irrigation activities alone accounted for almost 66% of national water consumption, with the remaining sectors accounting for approximately 18% of national consumption.

While the withdrawal alone is an important indicator of water pressures, knowledge about the cumulative impacts on water resources, including timing of the withdrawals, return flows, and quality of water returning to the system, is necessary in order to understand the regional effect of water use on the ecosystems. Increasing pressures on water resources due to industrial uses, climate change, population growth, and a general lack of capacity to manage the impacts of industrial developments on a regional basis will all have an impact on Canada?s watersheds. These stresses are likely to pose a significant challenge to the sustainability of Canada?s water resources if action is not taken now to address the shortfalls of our governance and management systems.

Purpose of Report

In November 2008, the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) initiated a research program on Water Sustainability and the Future of Canada?s Natural Resource Sectors (agriculture, forest, mining, and energy) to identify what is known about the main uses of water by the natural resource sectors. The program has two high level objectives:

1. To raise the profile of the importance of water management in this country and some of the key water issues relative to Canada?s natural resources sectors; and

2. To provide recommendations to governments, industry and water management authorities on policies, approaches and mechanisms through which water can be better managed to foster both ecosystem health and the natural resource sectors? economic sustainability.

The program is divided into two phases. Phase I (2009?2010) sets out to identify key issues related to the sectors? water uses, as well as the barriers, drivers, risks, and opportunities associated with the sustainability of Canada?s freshwater as they relate to the natural resource sectors. Phase II (2010?2011) will focus on exploring options and proposing solutions to some of the key issues identified in this Phase I report.

This report sets out to present the most important uses of water by the natural resource sectors, highlight the current and emerging uses that are important for the sustainability of the water resources, and identify critical issues common to one or more of the sectors.

Changing Currents provides a description and overview of the relationship between Canada?s natural resource sectors and water, focusing on the current and emerging key water issues facing the sectors. It specifically synthesizes information on the following:

  • the sectors? growth and what this means to increased water demand;
  • the most important sector activities that use and/or impact water resources;
  • the key current or emerging water issues in each sector; and
  • potential drivers and opportunities for improvement to water use and efficiency.

The NRTEE set out to explore water uses by the natural resource sectors from a quantity perspective. Through our research, it became apparent that the sectors can also have significant impacts on water quality, and that the linkage between water quantity and quality is important to consider. Therefore, some of the most important water quality issues related to the natural resource sectors are noted in this report, specifically where they interfere with water availability for other usages, including ecosystem needs.

The report is the result of extensive research and consultations with water and governance experts, the natural resource sectors themselves, as well as with the NRTEE?s Water Expert Advisory Committee.b An initial national expert workshop was held in February, 2009, to help the NRTEE scope out the water program. Based on advice from this meeting, the NRTEE partnered with the natural resource sectors? industry associations,c to hold six roundtable meetings in the fall of 2009 to discuss the key water uses and issues pertaining to their sectors. This series of meetings verified the in-house findings of the NRTEE and enhanced the understanding of the key issues from the perspective of the industry stakeholders. The meetings also provided for open, transparent dialogue among small groups of stakeholders on which key water issues required attention. These meetings confirmed for the NRTEE that there is an interest and need for exploring sustainable water use by the natural resource sectors.

The discussion of water use and availability in this report is largely focused on surface waters, rather than groundwater supplies, simply due to the scope of research of the report. However, the NRTEE recognizes the critical importance of the connection between surface flows and groundwater, as many streams receive at least half their total flow from groundwater.7 The complex linkage between groundwater systems and surface streams in Canada, while recognized, is not well understood and requires further study.8

The report also looks at ecosystem needs and services, and highlights the jurisdictional complexity of the governance and management of water resources in Canada and what this means. Finally, the report concludes by identifying the most pressing issues that need to be addressed in the short term, together with policy conclusions on our next steps for research.

There is a need for better information regarding current and potential future water use in this country, so that it can be better managed and so that citizens can understand how and why water is used. This will lead to a more informed debate regarding future water use and allocation in the country, especially in those areas that are now or may soon face water shortages. It is the NRTEE?s belief that addressing some of the critical issues now will enable Canada to avoid the challenges other countries are already facing.

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(a) Withdrawals that are taken from surface and/or groundwater resources.

(b) See Appendix for list of Expert Advisory Committee members.

(c) Mining Association of Canada; Canadian Nuclear Association; Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers; Canadian Federation of Agriculture; and Forest Products Association of Canada.