Canadian freshwater ecosystems in peril, new research finds


Widespread disturbances dispel the notion of a nation of pristine waters

OTTAWA, June 12, 2017 /CNW/ - 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 today, 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 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.


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.


About the report
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.


Elizabeth Hendriks, WWF-Canada vice-president of freshwater conservation, says:
"With these health and threats assessments, we were able to learn that across the country, we are putting significant stress on our watersheds — whether through pollution, lowered water flows, overuse, habitat loss or fragmentation, invasive species or climate change. But because the corresponding data on health metrics isn't being collected for a majority of watersheds, no one can conclusively say to what extent these disturbances are harming the health of this crucial resource. That's a shocking oversight that we can't afford to ignore."  

David Miller, president and CEO of WWF-Canada, says:
"Canadians should be alarmed that only 67 of 167 sub-watersheds have data on water quality, and 42 of those fail to get good marks. 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. 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 Healthy Waters Summit
What: WWF-Canada reveals the findings of the Watershed Reports at the Healthy Waters Summit, which brings together leading freshwater voices from across Canada to discuss the most pressing freshwater issues and work toward solutions.
When: Monday, June 12, 2017, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit here for the full summit agenda.
Where: The Lord Elgin hotel, 100 Elgin St., Ottawa

Canadians can read the Watershed Reports findings, and explore their own watershed in more depth at

About World Wildlife Fund Canada
WWF-Canada creates solutions to the environmental challenges that matter most for Canadians. We work in places that are unique and ecologically important, so that nature, wildlife and people thrive together. Because we are all wildlife. For more information, visit


For further information: Sarah MacWhirter, senior manager strategic communications,, +1 416-347-1894