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National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy
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Changing Currents: Water Sustainability and the Future of Canada's Natural Resource Sectors
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Chapter 4

Forest Sector

The NRTEE?s examination of water use by the forest sector focuses on both forest management activities such as harvesting and tree planting, and forest products manufacturing industries. The manufacturing sector largely involves wood and paper manufacturing including pulp and paper mills, softwood lumber, and other wood products. Water use for the production of engineered wood products, softwood lumber, and structural panels is typically extremely low (roughly one per cent of that used in pulp and paper104) and is expected to stay low in the future, so this subsector is not discussed further in this report.

Both forest management and manufacturing activities affect water resources, but in very different ways. Sustainable forest management has a critical influence on the hydrology and water quality of watersheds. Pulp and paper manufacturing uses water in a similar manner to the mining sector, with substantial gross water use but low consumptive rates. Overall water intake is not viewed as a high priority issue by the sector, given that most of the water withdrawn is returned to surface waters.105 For most operations, their location on large waterways in regions that are not currently experiencing water shortages diminishes their concern about water availability. However, facilities on smaller waterways, or waterways with seasonal flow changes, are very concerned about effectively controlling water use. Water management, in terms of conservation and wastewater treatment, are important areas of focus for these industrial operations.

Economic Importance of the Forest Sector to Canada

In 2008, total industry contribution to the GDP was almost two per cent, with wood and paper manufacturing accounting for 11% of the country?s manufacturing GDP.106 The forest products industry is active in 12 of 13 provinces and territories in Canada, with the majority of forest-reliant communities located in British Columbia, Ontario, Qubec, and New Brunswick (Figures 16 & 17).

Internationally, Canada is the world?s largest exporter of forest products, with exports totalling $30.2 billion in 2008. It is the largest exporter and second-largest producer of softwood lumber and wood pulp, and the world?s largest producer and exporter of newsprint. The United States is the largest importer of Canadian forest products, with Asian countries also being major importers.

The industry has been facing economic decline for some time. The pulp and paper industry in particular has faced considerable long-term structural challenges since the mid-1990s. Natural Resources Canada reports that since 2003, over 300 plants (pulp mills, paper machines, sawmills, etc.) have closed, and approximately 33,000 mill jobs have been lost. Job losses accelerated through 2006 and 2007.107 The recent economic challenges are expected to keep the industry?s growth down. These include a continued depressed housing market in the U.S., a continuing decline in demand for newsprint due to online media competition, high energy prices, increasing fibre costs due to saw mill closures, and a continuing strong Canadian dollar affecting exporters.

Serious supply and demand constraints are anticipated to restrict the growth of the industry over the medium and long terms. With the recent global economic recession the forest sector does not expect short-term growth; however, the eventual rebound of the forest products sector may be anticipated for the medium to long term.

Key Water Uses

The key water uses considered in this overview are forest management and pulp and paper manufacturing.


Pulp and paper manufacturing industries have significantly improved their water use practices and account for approximately five per cent of gross water use in Canada, of which only two per cent is consumptive.

Canada?s forests play a crucial role in influencing the quality and quantity of water resources; in light of climate change impacts, more research is needed to better understand forest-water resource interactions.

Key water issues for the forest sector include:

- Pulp and paper mill effects on water quality and aquatic ecosystems

- Limited knowledge of forest-water resource interactions

- Public licence to operate


Forest Product Mills in Canada

Forest Management

Forest land management plays an important role in regulating water quantity and has a critical impact on the timing of surface flows, water quality, groundwater recharge, and floodplain maintenance. At a basic level, forests affect water resources by intercepting precipitation and capturing transpiration of soil moisture. It is estimated that half the precipitation that falls on Canadian forests is intercepted, allowing the rest to enter surface and groundwater.109 Forests improve soil infiltration and prevent erosion and therefore provide ecological services in relation to water management.

All forested lands provide these ecosystem services, however the boreal forest is a noteworthy example. Canada?s boreal forest contains the world?s largest area of peatland which is critically important for flood control and water filtration. Recent studies demonstrate that Canada?s boreal forests store an estimated 208 billion tons of carbon ? more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem on Earth.110 Therefore land management decisions in boreal forests are of national and global significance.

The main forest management activities that can affect water resources include construction of access roads, harvesting, re-planting, and pesticide application. While forest management activities use limited quantities of water, they can and do have a significant effect on the water quality within watersheds. Watersheds across Canada have been extensively developed by forest harvest developments (Figure 17). However, regulations and guidelines exist for these activities and so the negative effects can be minimized if managed responsibly. The structure of the forest, including replanting, has an important influence on the watersheds, and therefore remains an important consideration for sustainable development of forests and ecosystems.

Pulp and Paper Manufacturing

Large volumes of water are used in the pulp and paper manufacturing industry, accounting for five per cent of gross water use in Canada, however the majority of this water use is nonconsumptive, and nearly 90% is returned to surface waters after treatment. In addition, water recycling rates within the mills are high. Overall gross water use, water-use intensity (water use per unit of production) and water withdrawals by forest products manufacturing have declined substantially since the 1980s.111

In simple terms, pulp production involves chemical and/or mechanical processes to separate and recover cellulose fibres from lignin and other wood constituents; both processes involve large volumes of freshwater. Water serves four main functions in pulp and paper mills ? chemicals make-up, transport of material flows throughout the production process, materials separation, and cooling.113 Water used in processing and cooling represents the most significant demand on quantity. Water that is added through the use of water-containing chemicals compensates for the small amount of water that may be consumed by the production process.* Water conservation is critical in mill operations, with processing and cooling waters segregated as much as possible. In addition to recycling, both efforts reduce the amount of water that has to be treated, and subsequently the energy requirements involved. Wastewater from a mill is a critical component of a facility?s water management. It is treated before release in order to comply with the federal Pulp and Paper Effluent Regulations.


Development Status of Forested Watersheds

Key Water Issues

Pulp and Paper Mill Effects on Water Quality and Aquatic Ecosystems

The key environmental concerns relate to effluent from pulp and paper mills and the need to mitigate any potential negative effects to aquatic organisms and to minimize nutrient enrichment. The effluent entering a water body can contribute biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), total suspended solids (TSS), and chlorinated organics, with possible effects on fish and benthos, and the effects can be negative if released in amounts that cannot be assimilated by the aquatic environment. As a result of the combination of strict regulations and monitoring requirements,? and the industry?s response in reducing these releases, the effluent from pulp and paper operations has greatly improved over the last 15 years.?

Limited Knowledge of Forest-Water Resource Interactions

It is broadly acknowledged that not enough is known about forest-water resource interactions and that most forest management decisions are based on outdated research. Canadian research on forest hydrology was robust in the 1960s and early 1970s, but has been scaled back significantly since that time. The potential for climate change impacts underpins the need for renewal of this work in Canada. The increasing prevalence of forest fires, insect disturbances, and changes to forest species will have dramatic effects on freshwater resources. There are two challenges to overcome:

  • Forest management typically is orchestrated at the stand level, rather than the watershed level and this needs to change.
  • Research in this area in Canada is underfunded and there is a deficit of expertise.

The National Council for Air and Stream Improvement recently assessed the effects of forest management on hydrology and water quality, in both Canada and the U.S. It concluded that effects of forest management on hydrology and water quality are highly variable across Canada in both magnitude and duration. Due to this variability the report recommends that watershed studies should be conducted in the ecozones in which the results will be applied for forest management.114 Continued data collection is needed to better understand the effects of forestry on water resources, and this presents an opportunity for better management resulting from ongoing research efforts.

Public Licence to Operate

The forest sector has a long history of demonstrating significant environmental improvements as a result of public interest. The public concern about water most often focuses on water quality and health issues rather than on concerns about water withdrawal and quantity. Most recently, the sector has been tasked with addressing issues related to water quality and endocrine disruption. In cases where local communities have demonstrated concerns over the volume of water use, the sector has taken efforts to share information on water use and Environmental Effect Monitoring results. Improvements and advancements by the sector have been incorporated into third-party certification, sustainability reporting, and eco-labelling schemes. Some facilities are also now making a voluntary effort to participate in the Alliance for Water Stewardship and to incorporate the World Business Council for Sustainable Development?s Global Water Tool to communicate their water use. In order to stay competitive, the Canadian forest sector is looking closely at its water ?footprint? and possible requirements to improve its water use, as a direct result of customer demands.

Drivers, Challenges and Opportunities

Economic and environmental improvements are the driving forces for water reduction at pulp and paper mills. Reduced water requirements result in lower costs of water treatment and energy use. Strict environmental regulations and standards can also be drivers for improvements to water efficiency.

The key challenge for the sector right now is economics; given the market situation the sector is in, capital investment in research and development for new technologies and innovation is limited. Despite this, multiple opportunities exist for research and development of innovative water-use technologies115 for pulp and paper mills. These largely involve process water recycling and reuse, or finding innovative effluent processes such as low-effluent mills. However, the sector argues that, given its economic situation, it needs incentives and assistance from government to help the industry pursue these opportunities.

One particular aspect of the effluent quality requirements under the federal Fisheries Act is viewed as a barrier by the industry to improvements to its water use efficiency. Current regulations require that effluent from a mill meets certain test requirements involving acute toxicity testing. In order to meet these requirements, the mills must ensure that their effluent meets the regulated levels before discharging it to surface waters. The industry believes that the nature of the toxicity regulatory requirements prevent them from achieving greater water use reductions and advocate for a different approach to determining effluent concentrations.

In Summary

Due to the recent decline in the industry, and limited growth anticipated in the next few years, particularly for pulp and paper mills, water use by the sector is not expected to increase. However, the sector is likely to rebound over the long term and there is a concern from the sector surrounding the future availability of water resources at that point. Existing or recently closed mills currently have water allocations; the question is whether they will continue to have the right to use their water allocations into the future? Both pressure from the local public and international customers will continue to insist that the sector continue to address water management responsibilities including its water use.

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* For a full description of water use in pulp and paper mills see Water Use Performance and Practices at Low Water Use Mills. Technical Bulletin No. 968. National Council for Air and Stream Improvement (NCASI). November 2009. ? This aspect of the sector is regulated by the federal government under the Pulp and Paper Effluent Regulations of the Fisheries Act, as well as other regulations under various provincial regulations. In addition mills must participate in a federal environmental effects monitoring (EEM) program. ? Recognition of these improvements has led the federal government to recently reduce the broad EEM requirements and have more site specific monitoring programs to address specific issues.