Our process helps Canada achieve sustainable development solutions that integrate environmental and economic considerations to ensure the lasting prosperity and well-being of our nation.


We rigorously research and conduct high quality analysis on issues of sustainable development. Our thinking is original and thought provoking.


We convene opinion leaders and experts from across Canada around our table to share their knowledge and diverse perspectives. We stimulate debate and integrate polarities. We create a context for possibilities to emerge.


We generate ideas and provide realistic solutions to advise governments, Parliament and Canadians. We proceed with resolve and optimism to bring Canada’s economy and environment closer together.

Charting a Course – Chapter 1: Sustainable Water Use

The availability of clean, secure, and abundant water resources will be necessary to ensure the resilience of our ecosystems and economic prosperity in the 21st century. This report addresses the issues related to the industrial use of water by Canada’s natural resource sectors — how much is used, and in what form. It then looks at what is necessary to ensure that future water use by these key economic sectors is sustainably managed.

Sustainable development of our natural resources requires sustainable water use. In turn, sustainable water use is based on the fundamental idea that nature has a limited carrying capacity, and that society has a responsibility to alter its behaviour in a way that maintains ecosystem services and accounts for not just current needs but those of future generations.2

To foster sustainable water use by the natural resource sectors, water governance and management will need to adapt and become more flexible. Past assumptions of water governance and management may no longer be applicable in the face of anticipated pressures on water resources. In a world of increasing competition for access to water, new pressures are emerging that could put the long-term sustainability of our own water resources at risk. Governance and management of water will need to evolve in order to respond to these pending risks.

In this report, the NRTEE provides information and advice to ensure the sustainable use of water by the natural resource sectors in Canada — guidance that is supportive of economic growth while at the same time ensuring the health and resilience of our ecosystems. This new report continues our research and policy advice set out in our first report on water, Changing Currents.3 Our report will assist policy makers, water managers, and the sectors themselves improve water efficiency and conservation, with the goals of reducing water demands in the future, ensuring adequate flows for the environment, and thus avoiding future conflicts over water. The NRTEE recognizes ongoing efforts across the country to modernize and improve existing water policies and legislation. We hope that the insights in our report will help those making policy decisions on water management and governance for the natural resource sectors.


The NRTEE’s goal is to provide information and advice that will assist in the achievement of two policy goals:

  • Improving water conservation so we use less water to conduct the same activities, saving water. Water conservation means any beneficial reduction in water use, loss, or waste. It includes water-management practices that improve the use of water resources to benefit people or the environment.4
  • Improving water-use efficiency to make more productive use of the water we have. Efficient water use includes any measure that reduces the amount of water used per unit of any given activity, without compromising water quality.5

Focusing on these goals, the purpose of this report is fourfold:

  1. to examine quantitative water use by the natural resource sectors, now and into the future;
  2. to consider the potential role of economic instruments (specifically volumetric water pricing) and voluntary initiatives to improve water use efficiency and conservation objectives;
  3. to explore areas where data and information management should be improved on the quantitative aspects of water management; and
  4. to consider the expanded use of collaborative approaches to water governance when appropriate.


The NRTEE’s report focuses on water use by the natural resource sectors in Canada, as these sectors collectively account for approximately 86% of total water intake in Canada. For the purposes of our report, the following natural resource sectors and subsectors are included in our research:

Energy: Oil & Gas, Thermal Power Generation
Oil and Gas includes oil sands mining, oil sands in-situ, light and heavy oil, conventional natural gas, and tight and shale gas extraction

Agriculture: crop and animal production

Mining: coal, metal ore, and non-metallic mineral mining

Manufacturing related to natural resources: pulp and paper manufacturing, primary metal manufacturing, chemical manufacturing, petroleum and coal products, food manufacturing, non-metallic production

The sectors were categorized according to the data available from Statistics Canada’s Industrial and Agricultural Surveys. Due to the fact that the majority of the forest sector’s water use is found in pulp and paper mills, we included this sector under the Manufacturing category (as does Statistics Canada).


In Changing Currents, the NRTEE summarized the uses and effects of water on aquatic ecosystems by Canada’s natural resource sectors and explained that across Canada these sectors’ reliance on water supplies will continue as long as the sectors operate and expand. Based upon the expectation that these sectors will continue to experience economic growth (output), their water intake is also expected to increase. The potential impact of this future development on water supplies is unknown, but what is certain is that implications will differ on regional and watershed bases depending on the intensity of industrial and agricultural expansion, the water supplies available, and the variability of flows. Added to this pressure are an increasing population and municipal requirements for secure, clean water supplies.

Coupled with increasing demands is the potential issue of decreasing water supplies. Decreasing water supplies in some regions and watersheds of Canada exist now, with other regions facing likely constraints in the future. Climate change brings new uncertainties also, with varying regional and local impacts. Finally, the uncertainty of future demands by the natural resource sectors is cause for concern — by governments responsible for managing water in the regions and by industry and agricultural producers looking to expand development.


With a likely increase in water demands by the natural resource sectors and regional uncertainty over secure water supplies, the potential for conflicts over water exists. The NRTEE’s research and consultations across Canada and with sectors and experts leads us to conclude that Canada is not as well positioned to proactively address potential short-term water shortages, as well as manage through longer-term droughts, as it could be.6

Canada requires more effective water governance and management to sustainably develop its natural resource sectors while maintaining the health of its aquatic ecosystems. In particular, we need to improve our knowledge in four areas:


  • Our understanding of the increasing demands for water by the natural resource sectors. With an expectation of increasing economic prosperity, we need to know more about what economic development might mean for water use by the sectors.
  • Governments’ ability to manage increasing water demands given supply constraints and flow variability. Adaptive management practices, possibly using new and innovative policy instruments, will be necessary to sustainably manage water resources.
  • Our data management of actual water use. A lack of reliable, comprehensive data and information on actual water use by the sectors; comparability of the data; and transparent sharing of this information hampers effective and efficient water use and management.
  • Our governance practices with a view to be more inclusive, engaging and collaborative. We need to understand lessons from innovative collaborative approaches to water management, to assess how it should be supported and possibly adopted in more regions and watershed across the country.

This report provides new insights into the discussion of how best to manage and govern Canada’s water resources as they relate to the natural resource sectors. Our report informs a much larger, comprehensive ongoing dialogue and debate across this country. However, the information provided here should also be taken within the broader context of integrated water resource management, providing ideas that contribute to the extensive challenge of water management and governance across all uses and regions of Canada.


The issue, as defined here, has many components and therefore needs to be addressed with multiple solutions. The NRTEE is proposing several potential avenues of solutions: an improved understanding of water-demand forecasts, a set of new policy tools, information and data improvements, and more effective collaborative governance approaches.

This report follows a year of research by some of Canada’s top experts in water issues. Much of this research was strengthened by involving and engaging many experts, industry representatives, government officials, and water managers across Canada. In total, the NRTEE held thirteen meetings over the course of 2010–2011 to assist with scoping the project, testing the research results, identifying potential solutions, and providing us with feedback on preliminary conclusions.

To begin, the NRTEE created an Expert Advisory Committee*, from which we drew both strategic guidance and technical expertise. The Committee assisted by scoping the research and reviewing some of the research findings. A few of our advisors specifically assisted us with particular pieces of research. Dr. Steven Renzetti was heavily involved in assisting with the methodology and findings of the water forecast and pricing research, and Dr. Rob de Loë conducted some of the research on collaborative water governance.

To assist us with our investigation of issues related to water data and information, the NRTEE went to those who deal with this issue on a daily basis — the provincial, territorial, and federal water managers. This group of experts from across the country came together in two workshops to collectively define the most important issues and look for potential solutions.

To better understand collaborative water governance and how it works on a watershed basis, the NRTEE convened meetings in four regions of the country — British Columbia, Alberta, Québec, and Nova Scotia — to derive learnings from the experiences of these watersheds.

Finally, at the end of our research the NRTEE held three meetings in Alberta, Ontario, and Nova Scotia to discuss some of our preliminary findings with more experts and stakeholders. This offered us an opportunity to expand our reach to hear more diverse opinions. These meetings asked participants to tell us what they thought of our research, and to specifically help us understand some of the regional realities related to our findings, as well as inform the final conclusions and recommendations.

__________________ Footnotes

2 Brandes 2005

3 National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy 2010a

4 Alberta Water Council 2007

5 Tate 1991

6 National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy 2010a

* See Appendix 1 for Expert Advisory Committee membership.