A New Canada Water Agency

Since 2020, the federal government has been soliciting input from Canadians about a new Canada Water Agency (CWA). The goal is to connect all departments and programs across governments (federal, provincial, municipal, Indigenous) that deal with freshwater, and to also connect with academics and organizations focused on Canadian freshwater.

The government has released a white paper that you can read here, which lays out the groundwork for the agency, and the departments and organizations who would be involved. They are requesting online comments from Canadians until 1 March, and are hosting virtual information sessions/townhall meetings across the country during February. The BC session, for example, is on 16 February from 7am to 12.45pm (information and registration at the link in the previous sentence).

This is not a new direction for the federal government. Back in 1971 they established the Inland Waters Directorate, which was to provide “national leadership for freshwater management.” In 1978 they created the National Water Research Institute (NWRI), which in 1986 created the National Hydrology Research Centre (NHRC) in Saskatoon, “to oversee the monitoring of stream and river levels at sites across Canada.” Then in 1987 the government released their Federal Water Policy, designed to

“give focus to the water-related activities of all federal departments and…continue to provide a framework for action in the coming years as it evolves in the light of new issues and concerns.”

Spring floodplain, Oldman River, Alberta.

The CWA white paper notes that things have changed since 1987, and the Federal Water Policy is now only one of many ways in which government looks after freshwater in Canada. They write that

“the priority accorded to climate change adaptation, global biodiversity loss, and rapid technological change are some of the factors that have opened up new challenges and opportunities for freshwater management. [Our] commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is also opening up dialogue on inclusion of Indigenous governance systems in freshwater management.”

Developing a CWA will require a lot of manoeuvring between political jurisdictions (federal, provincial, municipal, Indigenous), and balancing water use with water conservation. I was particularly interested in the section of the report that discussed connecting with academic researchers to incorporate them into the CWA.

Stream and green pine cones, Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden.

Connecting with academics is especially important because there are some large freshwater research networks in Canada that are making major contributions to our understanding of glacier runoff, streamflow data, disturbance hydrology, ecohydrology, water treatment, working with Indigenous groups, and other topics.

These networks include the Global Water Futures group based at the University of Saskatchewan, which not only has taken an ambitious approach to monitoring and understanding cold regions water in Canada, but has built a hub of top water researchers in Saskatoon (linked with NHRC) and connected with cold regions researchers internationally.

There’s the ForWater Network co-led by PIs from the University of Alberta and the University of Waterloo, who are working to understand forest hydrology and managing water from source (the forest) to tap (municipalities).

There’s also the Reseau Centre for Mobilizing Innovation, which focuses on fixing small water systems so people have safe drinking water. And there’s the Hakai Institute, which hosts a research stream on Coastal ice and snow, and Coastal watersheds. I’m sure there are more, but these are just the ones I know about.

The government could also partner with charity groups like WWF-Canada, which has published watershed health bulletins based on available data on water quantity and quality across Canada. One of their key findings was a lack of data to accurately classify watershed health status, something that the CWA should consider when deciding what to tackle first.

Fishing in Campbell River.

The federal government would do well to continue to partner with these research groups and organizations, while not forgetting that there are also researchers outside of these groups who have data and expertise to contribute.

Data from academia and non-profits/charities like WWF could be integrated with data collected by the Water Survey of Canada and research done by other federal agencies to make them available to the public. The federal government could also use data and outcomes from these projects in water policy and management.

The key discussion questions about freshwater science that the federal government included in their white paper on the CWA are:

  • What are the priority knowledge and research gaps to be filled to achieve effective freshwater management over the next 10 years?
  • How well is freshwater science coordinated today? If further coordination is needed, how might that be accomplished?
Prairie slough, Alberta.

I think flood mitigation/mapping and climate change impacts on water – particularly changes in the timing and magnitude of precipitation events and the occurrence of drought – are key research areas for water management in the next 10 years. Water quality and quantity in water-limited environments are also critical, and require that we install additional monitoring stations to make up for the limited representation at elevation and in non-managed (i.e., no dams) river systems.

I think freshwater science is well-coordinated within the research groups and organizations I mentioned, but I’m not sure how well they communicate with each other and with the government, as there is likely a lot to share between groups: not just data, but research outcomes, methodologies, community connections, and more.

Do your part for Canadian water by providing your thoughts on the CWA and how it can best serve Canadians. Remember, the public comment period ends on 1 March 2021 and you can leave your comments here.

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