VANCOUVER, BC—Canada has an abundance of fresh water and its quality has greatly improved since the 1970s, concludes a new report from the Fraser Institute, an independent, non-partisan Canadian public policy think-tank.
“Canada holds as much as one-fifth of the world’s freshwater stock and although we’re among the highest per-capita users of water, there’s little chance we will run out,” said Joel Wood, Fraser Institute senior research economist and author of Canadian Environmental Indicators - Water.
Canadian Environmental Indicators - Water provides a general overview of Canada’s freshwater resources, how they have changed over time, how Canadians use water, and how these measures compare internationally. It is the second study in a Fraser Institute series intended to bring objective information to the environmental policy debate.
The report notes that most major freshwater sources are situated far north of Canada’s major population centres while water supplies in southern Canada, where the bulk of the population lives, have declined in recent decades.
“Nonetheless, we consume only a small fraction of our water stock, and Canada’s renewable freshwater volume ranks fourth globally,” Wood said.
For water quality, Canada ranks ninth in the world based on a sample of parameters including dissolved oxygen, pH, conductivity, total nitrogen, and total phosphorus. Nutrient levels have remained stable between 1990 and 2006 in most Canadian rivers and lakes with sufficient data for trend analysis.
Wood points out that water quality varies from province to province and is subject to differing regulations.
“Canadians are right to be concerned about the abundance and quality of our water for drinking, recreation, and wildlife. But generally speaking, water quality has improved nationwide since the 1970s,” he said.
The report highlights a decrease in total phosphorus in Ontario’s Great Lakes and Lake Simcoe as well as a general decline in mercury, PCBs, and many other toxic substances in Ontario and Quebec waters.
“Another example of improving water quality is the return to nineteenth-century levels of total phosphorus in Lake Osoyoos in BC. Bacteria levels are decreasing in major Alberta rivers, and due to improvements in the bleaching process for BC pulp and paper mills, BC rivers have seen a significant decrease in chloride levels since the 1980s.”
Evidence from Ontario suggests that pesticides and pharmaceuticals in drinking water, and chloride in rivers from road salt are not issues of concern for water quality. Furthermore, large declines in pesticides in drinking water occurred prior to 2006 and well before Ontario implemented a ban on the use of pesticides for cosmetic uses.
There are also localized success stories of greatly improved water quality: Salmon have recently returned to the Nepisiguit River in New Brunswick; fish and insects have returned to the Tsolum River in British Columbia 40 years after toxic releases from an abandoned mine virtually destroyed the river’s ecosystem; and Wheatley Harbour on Lake Erie has recently been removed from the list of Great Lakes Areas of Concern.
“Despite these improvements, some areas of Canada have water quality issues that require vigilance. Nitrogen levels in the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence, Metro Vancouver, and Prince Edward Island rivers are high and increasing. Water in Nova Scotia’s Kejimkujik National Park remains polluted, and concentrations of mercury in fish and loons continue to increase,” Wood said.
“Improved monitoring of water quality is needed, especially around Metro Vancouver and the Athabasca River downstream of the oilsands.”
In addition, the report notes that some parts of Canada face seasonal water shortages which can potentially impede economic activity. Water in Canada is largely owned and managed by provincial governments; in the areas with the largest seasonal water scarcity (i.e., the Southern Prairies and the Okanagan Valley), water licenses (which entitle the holder to a set amount of water) have traditionally been allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis rather than through a market. The report argues that water markets for large consumers can ensure that water resources are put to their most valuable uses and provide incentives to build infrastructure to transport freshwater to scarcity-prone areas. Alberta has moved in this direction in the South Saskatchewan River Basin by allowing water licenses to be bought and sold.
"In a market, the price of water will increase in the event of a drought and consumers will reduce water use to save money," Wood said.
"More effective pricing of residential water consumption can also ensure that Canadians are using water efficiently."