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Federal Water Policy Data

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While most direct water related activities fall under the jurisdiction of provinces and territories, federal lands, boundary and transboundary waters, ocean and inland fisheries, and commercial navigation are exceptions that fall within federal jurisdiction. See Federal Water Policy Data [PDF] for more information.
Federal water policy photo essay

Federal water policy facts
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Basic Introduction
1: Central Water Legislation (Jun 24/11)

The Canada Water Act (1985) aims to ensure that water issues of national significance are conserved, developed and managed. It enables the federal government to collect data, conduct research, and undertake cooperative arrangements with the provinces with respect to the comprehensive planning of water resources.

Federal Water Policy (1987) provides the overall objectives of the Federal Government in managing Canadian waters including to encourage the use of freshwater in an efficient and equitable manner consistent with the social, economic, and environmental needs of present and future generations.    The Fisheries Act (1985) protects fish populations and fish habitat from pollution, prohibiting the deposition of harmful substances into fish-bearing waters or watercourses that may eventually enter fish-bearing waters. The Fisheries Act also prohibits "harmful alteration, disruption or destruction" of fish habitat. The Navigable Waters Protection Act (1985) main purpose is to protect navigable waters and protect the public's right to navigate waters. Recent changes to the Act have redefined "navigable" to exclude "minor waters" and "minor works" and reduce the number of waterways that would be protected under NWPA. The Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) (1999) is the main federal law to protect the environment. With respect to water resources, CEPA empowers the federal government to create and enforce regulations regarding toxic substances, fuels, and nutrients from cleaning products. CEPA enables the federal government to undertake environmental research, develop guidelines and codes of practice, and conclude agreements with provinces and territories.

Other important legislation include: Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act (1985), Canada Shipping Act (2001), Canada Water Act (1985),Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (1992), Canadian Wildlife Act(1994), Canadian Environmental Protection Act (1999), Department of the Environment Act (1985), Dominion Water Power Act (1985), International Boundary Waters Treaty Act (1985), International Rivers Improvement Act (1985), Northwest Territories Water Act (1992), Oceans Act (1996) and Yukon Waters Act (2003). 

2: Key Ministries & Departments (Jan 03/12)
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Canadian International Development Agency, Environment Canada, CMHC (Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation), Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Foreign Affairs Canada, Health Canada, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, Industry Canada, Infrastructure Canada, International Trade Canada, National Defence, National Research Council, National Water Research Institute, Natural Resources Canada, Parks Canada, Public Works and Government Services Canada, Statistics Canada, Transport Canada, Treasury Board Secretariat (NRCan, 2005)

3: Water Rights (Jun 24/11)
There are five approaches to water rights in Canada: riparian, prior allocation, civil code, public authority management, and Aboriginal rights (Hill et al., 2008).
4: Data Collection/Monitoring (Jun 24/11)

Federal departments primarily responsible for data collection and monitoring of water resources in Canada include Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans, and Natural Resources Canada

In December 2010, the Commissioner for the Environment and Sustainable Development released a critical report on federal surface water monitoring programs.  His overall assessment was that "Environment Canada is not adequately monitoring the quality and quantity of Canada's surface water resources".  More specific criticisms were levelled at inadequate monitoring on federal lands, failure to meet international guidelines, and a failure to set priorities based on climate change, endocrine disrupting chemicals and other serious threats. Environment Canada publicly agreed with both the Commissioner. In addition, a report by the Canadian Council of Academies suggests that monitoring and data management for groundwater systems is particularly under developed, despite the almost 10 million Canadians that depend on this resource (CCA, 2009). There are some important Federal programs in place to address these gaps.  First, NRCan runs a Groundwater Program that is mapping regional aquifers. Second, there is a website on environmental indicators with a specific section on water quality by Environment Canada. Third, the Federal government developed a program called ResEau to try to coordinate some of this information and make it available (Morris et al., 2007). As well, there is a branch of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada that works with agricultural and prairie communities towards more effective water management practices (Morris et al., 2007). 

5: Transboundary Issues (Jun 24/11)

To manage transboundary water issues with the United States, the binational Boundary Waters Treaty (1909) conveys important powers over most significant boundary and transboundary waters.  The International Joint Commission (IJC) is the binational body created by the 1909 Treaty to resolve disputes between Canada and the United States over shared boundary waters. For instance, the Treaty and an IJC order in 1921 established a 50-50 division of the St. Mary and Milk River flows (IJC, 1921).  Over the years, there has generally been a decline in support provided to the IJC by the American and Canadian Federal governments. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was first signed in 1972, and last amended by way of a Protocol in 1987. This agreement affirms the rights and obligations of Canada and the United States under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, in particular their obligation not to pollute boundary waters or negotiate changes to the natural levels or flows of any boundary waters.  The Canadian and American governments announced that they are committed to amending the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in June 2009 to account for problems that were not addressed in the last round of amendments such as invasive species, climate change and new sources of pollution (FAITC, 2009). On January 27, 2010, negotiations on amendments officially commenced. Two formal negotiating sessions have been held so far and a public engagement process has been occurring simultaneously.

The Canadian-Ontario Agreement Respecting the Great Lakes Ecosystem (COA) is an agreement between the federal and provincial agreement that helps meet requirements established under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Canada and Ontario have signed the COA seven times since 1971 - the 2007 COA being the most recent. The agreement, signed in June 2007, was set to expire on March 31, 2010 but was extended to March 31, 2011. The Great Lakes-St Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement (2005) was signed between Great Lakes states and Ontario and Quebec and is meant to improve the health and economic vitality of the Great Lakes.  There is a ban on new diversions of water from the Basin (exceptions include drinking water).  This agreement outlines consistent standards to review proposed uses of Great Lakes water, technical data collection, and regional goals and objectives for water conservation and efficiency (to be reviewed every 5 years).  The Agreement for Water Supply and Flood Control (1989) in the Souris River basin establishes stream flow apportionment arrangements between Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and North Dakota.  Inter-provincially, one of the Federal government's responsibilities for water is in assisting provinces to resolve interprovincial water-related disputes. The Master Apportionment Agreement (1969) assists in working towards interprovincial cooperation regarding waters that flow east across the Prairies.  The Mackenzie River Basin Transboundary Master Agreement (1997) deals with waters shared among Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Yukon, and Northwest Territories. The Yukon - Northwest Territories Transboundary Water Management Agreement was completed in 2002. This is the first Bilateral Agreement completed under the Mackenzie River Basin Transboundary Waters Master Agreement. The schedule indicates that the next bilateral agreement for the Peace, Athabasca and Slave Watershed will be completed in 2012 (Mackenzie River Basin Board 2011). The Prairie Provinces Water Board Agreement (1948) is an agreement between Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and the Federal Government to resolve upstream and downstream needs.  The agreement provides an apportionment formula for eastward flowing interprovincial streams. 

Water Quality
1: Drinking Water Laws (Jun 24/11)
There is no Federal drinking water legislation but there are Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality (Health Canada, 2008). The 113 guidelines are neither enforceable nor binding and are developed through a Federal-Provincial and Territorial Committee on Drinking Water (Hill et al., 2008). In December 2010, Health Canada released an updated set of approximately 90 Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality prepared by the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Committee on Drinking Water.  The new guidelines, which supersede the 1996 edition, reaffirm current guidelines for more than 40 of the parameters that were reviewed and archive a few older guidelines for parameters that are no longer found in our drinking water

A disproportionate number of First Nations communities have water treatment plants that are not fully operational because they do not have the resources for construction and upgrading of deficient facilities, operation and maintenance of existing equipment, or training of operators and other staff.  
2: Source Water Protection (Jun 24/11)

Source water protection is primarily a provincial responsibility. Regarding the area specifically regulated by the Federal Government, there is no federal legislation for protecting drinking water on First Nations lands (Hill et al., 2008).

Health Canada develops health and safety guidelines that may indirectly protect source waters. They produce guidelines to protect human health while using water for recreational purposes such as swimming, sailing or fishing. In September 2009, Health Canada released a draft document called Guidelines for Canadian Recreational Water Quality, Third Edition. The draft is awaiting approval after a period of public consultation ended January 2010.   

3: Groundwater Permitting (Jun 24/11)
This is primarily the responsibility of provincial governments.
4: Storm/Waste Water Management (Jun 24/11)

A Canada-wide Strategy for the Management of Municipal Wastewater Effluent was endorsed by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment on February 17, 2009. The purpose of the strategy is to guide all levels of governments in reducing the risks associated with effluents released from wastewater systems. As part of the federal government's contribution to implement the Strategy, wastewater effluent will be regulated under the Fisheries Act (1985).  The regulations would be applicable to all wastewater effluent releases to surface water from municipal and other wastewater systems and would include requirements to achieve secondary treatment or the equivalent.

5: Ecosystem Quality Needs (Jun 24/11)
This is primarily the responsibility of provincial governments.
Water Quantity
1: Water Conservation Strategy (Jun 24/11)

There is a Federal Water Policy (1987) that included elements of conservation. The Policy was tabled in Parliament in but for the most part was never implemented due to resource constraints.

In June 2011, Environment Canada signed an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the WaterSense program. The agreement makes Environment Canada a promotional partner, allowing them to promote and share information about the program.  WaterSense is a labeling program that promotes water-efficient products. 

2: Interbasin Transfers (Jun 24/11)

The federal government amended the International Boundary Waters Treaty Act in 2002 to prevent bulk water removal, but this only prohibits bulk removals from boundary water basins-there is currently no federal law banning removals from other basins.

3: Climate Change Linkage (Jun 24/11)

Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) and Environment Canada have a number of programs dedicated to understanding and adapting to the impacts of climate change. Many of these initiatives specifically focus on the relationship between water and climate. 

Most climate modeling is conducted at the Canadian Climate Centre in Environment Canada. NRCan has a Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation Division, which works to facilitate climate change adaptation decision making across the country. Their Regional Adaptation Collaborative (RACs) program attempts to consolidate information and coordinate action on climate change to reduce vulnerability to a changing climate by advancing adaptation planning and decision-making (NRCan, 2007).  Among other things, impacts to water resource management are analyzed by region (NRCan, 2007). Environment Canada has also done some work on the impacts of climate change on Canada's water supply. For example, the National Water Research Institute (NWRI) is conducting research in the Mackenzie basin to analyze the role of climate in catastrophic lake drainage, and analyzing peak spring water level to determine climate-related variability in the spring breakup flood. In the Great Lakes basin, they are modelling groundwater and climate interaction, and assessing the combined impacts of climate variability, climate change, and water use on groundwater dependent water supplies, in-stream conditions, and aquatic habitat. NWRI is also leading the assessment of climate change on Arctic freshwater ecosystems and hydrology, and contributing to the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment for the Arctic Council (Environment Canada, 2008). Energy and Water Generally, the connections between energy and water have yet to be fully realized at the federal level. There are a couple isolated examples: The Policy Research Initiative sponsored a study looking at the water-energy nexus in municipal, industrial, and agricultural sectors (Policy Research Initiative, 2008). NRCan's Office of Energy Efficiency encourages water conservation as a way of increasing energy efficiency (NRCan, 2009).

References (Jun 24/11)
Document Disclaimer: Every effort has been made to ensure complete accuracy of the content of this briefing note but this document is only a summary and should not be considered legal or planning advice.  Please refer to the relevant legislation and regulations for further information.


Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. A-12 Consolidated Statutes of Canada

Canada Shipping Act, 2001, S.C. 2001, c. 26 Consolidated Statutes of Canada Canada Water Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. C-11 Consolidated Statutes of Canada Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) (2009).  Canada-wide strategy for the management of municipal wastewater effluent.   Retrieved March 23rd, 2010, from Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, S.C. 1992, c. 37 Consolidated Statues of Canada Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, S.C. 1999, c. 33 Consolidated Statutes of Canada Commissioner for the Environment and Sustainable Development (December 2010).  2010 Fall Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. Retrieved June 1, 2011 from Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) (2009). The sustainable management of groundwater in Canada. Retrieved March 23rd, 2010, from                 Department of the Environment Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. E-10 Consolidated Statutes of Canada Dominion Water Power Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. W-4 Consolidated Statutes of Canada Environment Canada (2010). Canadian environmental sustainability indicators.  Retrieved March 23, 2010, from Environment Canada (2008). Climate change effects. Retrieved March 23rd, 2010, from            lang=En&n=0841672A&xsl=articlesservices,viewfull&po=AACCA9C4 Environment Canada (1987).  Federal water policy.  Retrieved March 23rd, 2010, from Environmental Canada (1969).  Master Apportionment Agreement.  Retrieved March 23rd, 2010 from Fisheries Development Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. F-21 Consolidated Statutes of Canada Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (FAITC) (2009).  Canada and United States committed to amend Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Retrieved March 23rd, 2010, from Government of Canada and Government of USA. (1989). Agreement for Water Supply and Flood Control in the Souris River Basin. Retrieved March 23, 2010, from   Government of Canada (2008). Speech from the throne 2008. Retrieved March 23rd, 2010 from Government of Canada (2009).  Budget 2009 - Canada's economic action plan.  Retrieved March 23rd, 2010, from Government of Canada (2010).  Speech from the throne 2009.  Retrieved March 23rd, 2010 from Government of the Northwest Territories (n.d.).  The Mackenzie River Basin Master Agreement. Retrieved March 23, 2010, from Great Lake States and Province of Ontario and Quebec. (2005). Great Lakes-St.            Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement. Retrieved March 29, 2010 from,   Government of Canada.(1972). Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Retrieved March 23, 2010 from   Health Canada (2009).  Consultation calendar - Guidelines for Canadian recreational water quality - Third edition.  Retrieved March 26, 2010, from Health Canada (2008). Guidelines for Canadian drinking water quality.  Retrieved March 26, 2010, from Hill, C., Furlong, K., Bakker, K., & Cohen, A. (2008). Harmonization versus Subsidiarity in Water Governance: A Survey Water Governance and Legislation and Policies in the Provinces and Territories. Canadian Water Resources Journal. Hill, C., Furlong, K., Bakker, K., & Cohen, A. (2006). A Survey of Water Governance Legislation and Policies in the Provinces and Territories. In K. Bakker (Ed.), Eau Canada: The Future of Canada's Water. Vancouver, BC, UBC Press. Appendix 1, 367-395. International Boundary Waters Treaty Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. I-17 Consolidated Statutes of Canada International River Improvements Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. I-20 Consolidated Statutes of Canada Mackenzie River Basin Board. 2011. Bilateral Agreements. Retrieved June 1, 2011, from Morris, T.J, D.R. Boyd, O.M. Brandes, J.P Bruce, M. Hudon, B. Lucas, T. Maas, L. Nowlan, R. Pentland, and Phare, M. (2007). Changing the flow: A blueprint for federal action on freshwater.  Gordon Water Group of Concerned Scientists and Citizens.  Retrieved March 23, 2010, from  Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) (2010). Climate change impacts and adaptation. Retrieved March 25, 2010, from Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) (2009). Better water use means bigger savings. Retrieved March 23, 2010, from                                                   Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) (2009). Groundwater mapping program. Retrieved March 23, 2010, from Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), (2007).  Regional adaptation collaborative. Retrieved March 23, 2010, from Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) (2005). Freshwater:  The role and contribution of Natural Resources Canada.  Retrieved March 23, 2010 from Navigable Waters Protection Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. N-22 Consolidated Statutes of Canada Northwest Territories Waters Act, S.C. 1992, c. 39 Consolidated Statutes of Canada Policy Research Initiative (2008). The science-policy interface: Water and climate change, and the water-energy nexus. Retrieved March 23, 2010, from    Pollution Probe (2007). Towards a vision and strategy for water management in Canada, Final report of the water policy in Canada: National workshop series. Retrieved March 23, 2010 from                Program on Water Issues (2010). Letter to Minister Lawrence Cannon regarding Bill C-26, an Act to Amend the international Boundary Waters Treaty Act and the International River Improvements Act. Retrieved June 1, 2011 from Waters Act, S.Y. 2003, c. 19 Statutes of Yukon - Yukon.