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 6: Water-Quality Data, Information and Knowledge

Good policy development and solid management decisions require sound evidence and information. Information is derived from data, and in the context of water quantities in Canada, this data is not as comprehensive or as readily available as it should be. To effectively implement water policies and management strategies we need to improve our understanding of both water supplies and water demands. With increasing competition for water resources, governments need better data, not just to make sound allocation decisions today, but also to ensure there is enough water for the future. Accurate, complete, and current water-quantity data is a critical building block in establishing water-management systems in which water is effectively allocated and efficiently used.

Specifically, improved water data and information systems can

  • better inform decision making about water allocation, especially in areas where water availability is limited or constrained, thereby reducing both environmental and economic risks;
  • enable governments to use economic instruments as policy options to achieve water conservation and efficiency goals more effectively; and
  • allow for more informed dialogue with the public regarding water-use decisions, thereby gaining the public licence to operate.

Improving data and information is not just about collecting better data. It is equally important to communicate this information clearly and use the data effectively when making decisions. Conservation and efficiency are core policy and management objectives within many provincial and territorial water strategies. In order to achieve these objectives, current water-quantity data systems must be improved. Canada has dated and inconsistent systems for collecting and measuring data, reporting these measurements, and communicating water quantities. These data systems can be developed as stand-alones within their own vertical silos; however, we propose here that a more effective approach is to assess these concepts from a horizontal perspective, as their interconnectivity contributes immensely to the success of future water-quantity data networks. In the federal government alone, 20 departments and agencies are involved in some aspect of freshwater management. Improved approaches to coordinated and collaborative data collection and monitoring are necessary to successfully establish common approaches to measurement and reporting practices. In turn, this could result in integrated data and analysis that facilitates transparent communication of water data and information. Managing water-quantity data effectively will result in efficient and integrated decision making on policy issues involving water management, across different government departments at all levels (municipal, provincial and federal).36

The NRTEE’s research on water-quantity data and information focuses on improving our understanding of the two core components of the natural resource sectors’ water use — supply and demand. For the purposes of this report, data for the supply side of water quantity (supply data) refers to the data measuring water levels and water flows in existing surface water resources across Canada. Data for the demand-side of water quantity (demand data) refers to the data measuring water withdrawals by the natural resource sectors to meet their operational needs.

Water supply and demand data are independent in nature; as such they can be collected, coordinated, and managed on their own. However, having a combination of the supply and demand data provides decision makers with a more comprehensive, informed, and integrated understanding of water balances. It enables them to evaluate the status, as well as forecast long-term trends associated with quantity of freshwater resources at multiple scales — locally at the watershed level, regionally at the provincial, territorial levels, and interprovincial levels, and nationally.

To get a better understanding of the current data systems for water quantity across the country, the NRTEE explored existing systems with a view to providing recommendations to improve them. This chapter provides input on further steps needed to strengthen and integrate the water quantity data systems so that they will meet the data needs of different end-user groups. These include federal departments and agencies, provincial and territorial governments, researchers and academia, the natural resource sectors, environmental non-governmental organizations, and watershed authorities. The research related to water-quantity data was informed by a series of meetings the NRTEE held with water experts and water managers from across the country, and also by new research commissioned by the NRTEE.37

This report is limited to its consideration of surface water resources and as such groundwater resources are not included in the water-supply component; however, we recognize the critical importance of groundwater in many regions of the country. Data and information on groundwater supplies is also largely absent and necessary for sustainable management of our water resources.38


Throughout this report we emphasize the important reliance of the natural resource sectors on access to sustainable supplies of clean water. Regional water scarcity issues are emerging due to a combination of factors such as economic development, population growth, and climate change. Looking ahead as far as 2030, we need to develop improved predictive capabilities that will allow us to understand better where regional water pressures may arise. While our water forecasts show modest national increases of water intake, we note that this result likely masks potentially significant increases at regional and watershed levels. Therefore decision makers need access to adequate water-quantity data to better forecast any increased pressures on water resources. In areas where water risks emerge, governments may turn to the use of economic instruments, such as water pricing, to achieve more efficient use of water and reduce water intake. In these circumstances, more accurate and reliable water data will be necessary before such options can be implemented.

The distribution of jurisdictional powers under the Canadian constitution gives the federal, provincial, and territorial governments shared responsibility for freshwater management.* The federal government has jurisdictional responsibilities for fisheries, navigation, transboundary waters shared with the United States, and federal lands. As such, the federal government, in collaboration with the provinces and territories, has historically contributed to establishing data systems that measure stream flow and water-level information in all major surface water bodies across the country. This has allowed the governments to establish a consistent and robust national system that tracks the water supplies through the Water Survey of Canada.

* The NRTEE recognizes that municipal governments have an important role in freshwater management however, due to the scope limitations within this study the focus is on provincial and federal governments.

Provinces and territories ultimately have the authority over all aspects of water supply and use related to pollution control, energy development, irrigation, and industrial and economic development within their jurisdictions.39 They control all water allocations, licences, permits, and any reporting requirements for water uses by the natural resource sectors. Each province and territory has the jurisdictional power to develop its own water-quantity data systems within its own borders. As we will show in this chapter, the current demand-data systems are inconsistent across provincial and territorial jurisdictions, and are at varying stages of development.


As previously noted, federal, provincial, and territorial governments currently share the responsibility for managing surface water resources. The federal government collaboratively works with the provinces to establish a system for measuring and accounting for surface water supplies. The federal government, through the National Hydrometric Program (NHP), monitors the quantity of surface water resources at more than 2,500 sites across the country. The program has been operating continuously since 1908 under the auspices of the Water Survey of Canada. The program collects, interprets, and disseminates surface water-quantity data and information. It is the primary source of water-supply data for water managers and Canadian institutions to make water-management decisions.40 The NHP, through formalized monitoring arrangements, has been successful in establishing clear monitoring responsibilities to address international boundary and territorial/interprovincial requirements. Environment Canada as the lead federal department has successfully established cost-sharing agreements between the federal and provincial governments, as well as with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) to carry out monitoring activities in the territories.

According to a recent report from the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development (CESD),41 the NHP received $20.9 million in federal funding. From 2006/07 to 2009/10 the NHP has seen an increase in the program budget by more than 50%, which has been allocated to increasing investments in monitoring technologies. Through the various cost-sharing programs with provincial governments, federal departments, and the private sector, the NHP was able to realize an additional $13.9 million, for a total investment of almost $45 million in 2009/10. The NHP has been reasonably successful in accounting for water supplies within the provinces and territories, but the same cannot be said for federal lands such as First Nations reserves, national parks, national wildlife areas, and Canadian forces bases, which lack monitoring capacity.

The NHP to establish new surface-water monitoring capacity to identify, assess, and monitor future risks to water supplies. The NHP program lacks a long-term vision to establish new monitoring stations, long-term monitoring strategies, and priorities to adapt to water-quantity threats such as climate change. Developing a strategic approach is an essential step for the NHP to establish new monitoring capacity in regions that face increased water-quantity risks. However, the financial constraints facing all levels of government limit their capacity to establish monitoring initiatives.

The extent to which water-quantity data and information is fit and reliable for use is driven by the quality assurance and quality control components attached to the data. Unreliable watersupply data can result in inappropriate decisions attached to natural resource development and water allocations. Validation procedures attached to data are important in assessing the accuracy of data prior to dissemination. The NHP has successfully established national-level quality assurance protocols to validate its data prior to dissemination using a centralized national database — HYDAT. The NHP has also developed consistency and auditing specifications to ensure provincial and private-sector data collection is done to national standards.42Due to the maturity of supply-side data systems in Canada, there is a significant level of confidence related to our knowledge of surface-water resources.

It is important that data produced under the NHP addresses the needs of the end users of the data. The NHP has convened a national Administrators Table with federal, provincial, and territorial partners to provide a forum for discussion to address issues related to surface-water accounting. The NHP also has an established process to assess client needs and identify program gaps. In practice however, the NHP has not used its own established processes and forums to evaluate future program needs; it lacks a plan to address future program gaps.43 As such, even though the Program is well positioned to provide water-supply data today, it is not well positioned to address future water-management risks due to a lack of strategic planning.


Surface water and natural resource development are unevenly distributed across Canada. In regions experiencing a high level of water demand associated with natural resource development, there could be limitations to the future availability of water resources, especially where competition for water resources arise.44 Data about water demands becomes an important component of conducting comprehensive assessments of future water scenarios in some regions.

In such conditions it is important for water managers to have reliable data on existing water demand before approving any new water allocations and adding additional pressures on the water resources. The sound administrative foundation underpinning water-supply data does not exist in a parallel form for water-demand data. For one, the federal government does not have any long-term programs akin to the NHP to support water-quantity data collection by and with the natural resource sector. Secondly, the provinces and territories are responsible for managing their own water resources and natural resource development; water-demand data has a stronger jurisdictional and economic relevance for them. Finally, water-demand data is heavily reliant on the private sector for development as custom business-data needs reflect the different waterresource needs of each of the natural resource sectors.

At present, knowledge of water demands is based largely on water-allocation permits — that is, provinces and territories know how much water is allocated through the permitting system but most of them do not know what quantities are actually taken (or returned) to water bodies. Added to this, there is an important void of information about the timing and seasonality of withdrawals. This information is, and will be increasingly, critical for managing water allocations in years of water constraint.

The future development of the natural resource sectors in all provinces and territories depends on stable energy sources. In Canada, thermal energy production is the primary means of meeting the energy needs for the three largest natural-resource-dependent provinces. In excess of 75 % of energy production in Ontario, Alberta, and Saskatchewan comes from thermal electricity sources.45 Future economic growth related to natural resource development in these provinces will require the additional development of energy sources. There is anticipation that the energy mix in Ontario will change in coming years: however, it still remains to be seen how it will be accomplished. Two needs must be fulfilled: to replace existing generation capacity created by retiring old generation facilities, and to create new generation capacity to meet increased energy demands. Due to technological constraints in the short term, thermal energy electricity generation is the only viable approach to meeting increased energy demands over the next 10 years. As such, and despite technological advancements, future thermal energy development will likely impose an increased pressure on water resources in these provinces.46 In watersheds of these provinces, where water scarcity issues are emerging, it will be important for decision makers to have reliable water-demand data to support economic development related to natural resources.


Currently Statistics Canada gathers information from the natural resource sectors in Canada through the Industrial Water Use Survey and Agricultural Water Use Survey. The Industrial Water Use Survey is a biennial survey that provides data on gross water use (intake, recycle, and discharge) by the manufacturing, mining, and thermal electricity generation sectors.47 The Agricultural Water Use Survey collects water-demand data in two main categories: crop production related information and livestock related information.48

Water managers and Canadian institutions rely on these surveys and data sets to assess the natural resource sectors’ water demands. As one of the few sources of water-demand data produced by the federal government, the data produced under these programs have a high level of credibility. Data are differentiated by the method of data collection and analysis. In undertaking this research, five tiers or types of data have been identified — Primary, Proxy, Modelled, Analyzed, and Hybrid. Due to the nature of analysis associated with each type of data, the accuracy and reliability of each data set varies. Primary data is more reliable and accurate than other sources, proxy data is next, and modelled data is the least reliable and accurate of the three water-use data. Analyzed and hybrid data sources can only be as accurate and reliable as their inputs (i.e., the primary, proxy, or modelled data inputs).49

Both the Industrial and Agricultural Water Use surveys are conducted in a manner to ensure that errors associated with these methods are incorporated into the final data. However, as both surveys depend on the accuracy attached to the data inputs or coefficients used for calculation, the level of accuracy has limitations. In future it remains important for Statistic Canada to assess approaches that encourage water users to provide accurate and reliable input data in response to the surveys.


The legislative authority for developing and managing natural resources rests with the provincial and territorial governments. As such, all water allocations, licensing, and permitting attached to water uses in the natural resource sectors are provincial and territorial responsibilities. The development of water-demand data is therefore fully dependent on the provinces and territories. They have the sole responsibility to establish data collection, measuring, and reporting requirements for the natural resource sectors, including setting standards for the frequency and format of the reports. Presently only eight of the 13 provinces and territories have mandatory reporting requirements.

Provinces and territories define the criteria that trigger the need for users in the natural resource sectors to acquire a water licence (for example, in Ontario water users diverting more than 50,000 L a day require a water licence), the conditions, and the monitoring and reporting requirements attached to a licence. Water users that do not surpass the volumetric threshold, but remain just below it, are not captured by the current water licensing systems. As such, an Ontario water user withdrawing 49,000 L per day is not captured by the current licensing requirement despite the fact it is still a significant user. There could be multiple unaccounted water users withdrawing significant water resources but not being captured under the licensing requirements — leading to a significant cumulative impact. In the future, provincial and territorial governments need to assess the cumulative impact of water users that are not being regulated but could still be adding pressure to existing water scarcity issues if left unchecked.

To ensure accurate measurement of water being used, all water licence holders must report their water use. As noted, current provincial and territorial reporting requirements do not allow for a comparison between actual water use and the amount allocated on the licence. Establishing actual water use is a prerequisite to establishing efficient allocation regimes. Only then can allocations be diverted from licences not using their full allotment to licences that need increased allocation.

As the driver for water-use-related measurement practices, the provinces and territories can leverage their reporting requirements to work toward conserving and effectively managing water resources. A consistent measure of actual water use is important to ensuring sustainable water management in the future. Constant monitoring helps with leak detection and influences reduced consumption. Moreover it gives a comprehensive picture of water usage across time scales: diurnal, weekly, monthly, and seasonal.


The natural resource sectors vary in their end use of the water; this in turn creates a basis for the different sectors having different parameters attached to water monitoring, measurement, and reporting. Due to the unique nature of sector-specific uses, it may be important for provincial and territorial governments to develop sector-specific approaches for data and information systems. The natural resource sectors are currently responding by establishing water efficiency and conservation programs to meet their business needs in the form of voluntary, industry-driven water-management initiatives.

Many industry- and sector-driven voluntary water-management initiatives are being used by natural resource companies in jurisdictions across Canada. All these private sector initiatives have a water-demand data component. As discussed in Chapter 4, voluntary initiatives are driven by the need to promote public disclosure in response to broad stakeholder pressure and the increasing need for corporations to have a social licence to operate. It helps natural resource sectors improve their image with the public and at the same time establish common management practices to measure corporate performance on water use.

Most voluntary initiatives are relatively new or under development, hence the associated demand data is limited. Data gathered through voluntary initiatives has the potential to improve water-use efficiency and conservation in the natural resource sectors. However, the public does not trust data produced exclusively by industry, and as such, provinces and territories are reluctant to use voluntary information. However, if the natural resource sectors were to include independent third-party audit and verification of the data gathered through voluntary programs, it would be viewed as being more reliable and would benefit from added public confidence. It could also provide provincial jurisdictions with critical information they need to assess future water-quantity trends when designing and implementing viable economic and regulatory policy.


Water management is inherently local. This is why it is important to be able to assess water needs at the watershed scale, as compared to a national scale. The real potential of water supply-and-demand data is currently constrained due to the nature in which the data is collected, with efforts largely focused on one or the other and not in an integrated manner. Independently the data on supplies and demands are useful to regulators and water users to assess information at a macro scale. To be able to address and understand some of the localized and regional water-management challenges at the watershed level, decision makers and the public need access to integrated water-management tools such as water-quantity indicators, water yield models, and water budgets. These tools consolidate the water supply-and-demand data to provide comprehensive water assessments that can forecast long-term trends.

In Canada, multiple stakeholders develop the indicators for measuring the state of water quantity. There are approximately 80 indicators for water-quantity measuring and reporting on different variables. The indicators tend to evaluate data in silos and provide information in terms of either demand or supply. More indicators that collectively evaluate impacts based on both demand and supply need to be developed.50 The present state of water-quantity data requires time and financial investment to develop both the supply-side and demand-side data systems independently; as such the development of integrated water-management tools is a long-term aspirational goal to address future needs. At the federal level, two integrated water-management tools have been developed: the Water Availability Indicators (WAI) and the Water Yield Model.

Environment Canada developed the WAI initiative to provide an important addition to the assessment capacity of water resources in Canada. It is geared to address the needs of the public, policy analysts, and decision makers, providing information on the ratio of water demand to water availability at the sub-drainage area scale (representing 164 watersheds across Canada).

Statistics Canada has developed a new integrated water-management tool — the Water Yield Model — which provides a national estimate of renewable water and allows for a national measure of the supply and demand of water when coupled with results from the water-use surveys. Since the original methodology document was produced, Statistics Canada has validated an additional 350+ basins. In future, Statistics Canada intends to provide access to updated water yield data on its online database.

At the provincial and territorial level there is limited development of integrated water-management tools. An example of a tool that exists at this level is the Prairie Provinces Water Board (PPWB), a collaborative water resource management entity between Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and the federal government. The PPWB was established to ensure equal access to water for all users across the three provincial jurisdictions.51 To carry out its duties PPWB developed an integrated water-management tool — the “Composite Index of Vulnerability of Prairies Resources” — that evaluates both water-supply and water-demand data in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba for management decisions.

Water budgets — which here refers to modelling future water needs and impacts based on available data — show promise as another integrated water-management tool that could have significant impact at the watershed scale. Water budgets enable decision makers to assess water scenarios at local watershed scales rather than having to rely on a larger scale. The scale of the assessment is important because the more the spatial scale of assessment increases, the more small-scale impacts or stresses tend to be masked or hidden. In other words, it is likely that significant local impacts would not be detected using a relatively large, lumped assessment of overall water supply and demand at the larger regional or national scales.


As water is a public resource, there is an inherent expectation that data on water use by the natural resource sectors should be made available to technical experts, decision makers, and the public. These three constituencies require information for different purposes and with different levels of complexity and detail. Governments at all levels need to collaborate to ensure water data is made available to serve the different information needs of the public, technical experts, and decision makers. At the core of improving access to data is the need for governments at all levels to conduct a strategic analysis of end uses for water data. Governments need to assess what aspects of the data are appropriate for public dissemination. If the data is to be made available to the public, then having a screen for sensitive water-quantity data may be important for competitive reasons. At the same time raw water-quantity data has to be accessible to technical and scientific experts.

The sensitivity associated with publicly sharing water data from the natural resource sectors comes from the water use associated with the internal processes used in product processing and manufacture. Currently there is limited information about firm-level water use, largely due to this sensitivity. Some sectors report their water use publicly through either industry association sector-level reporting or individually through their sustainability reports; but for the most part, firms and producers do not report publicly on their water use. It is necessary to recognize that industries may need to protect information that may be inferred from inflow and outflow measurements. At the same time, it is important for regulators to know the water usage for predicting impacts on the ecosystems (i.e., outflows and amount consumed in any facility).

While transparency to the public is important, data should not stand alone as it is easily subject to misinterpretation without context. It is essential to include context when presenting water data and information to the public (i.e., water use relative to average natural flow in a given basin, percentage of total water use in basin by sector). It would likely be acceptable to provide aggregate data by natural resource sectors or on a watershed basis. Data could be rolled up by sector and region; showing usage by company or by small area when there are only a few users should be avoided where possible.


This chapter evaluates water-quantity data systems in Canada looking at the demand and supply aspects of water balances. In Canada the supply side of water-quantity data has dedicated financial resources and cost-sharing agreements in place to develop and deploy a reliable pan-Canadian water-quantity data system. The supply-side monitoring capacity and reporting protocols are well established. The different stakeholders have a clear understanding of their respective roles. Gaps remain in the water-supply data system, but the system has a strong foundation to build upon as it improves and addresses those gaps. The demand-side water-quantity data systems are very much on the opposite end of the spectrum of development and deployment, as water-demand data systems vary across provincial and territorial jurisdictions. Significant gaps need to be addressed by governments at all levels in collaboration with natural resource sectors to establish measuring, monitoring, and reporting protocols for demand-side data that are consistent across the country.

In Canada, governments at all levels lack the capacity to integrate supply-side and demand-side water-quantity data to evaluate, predict, and forecast future water availability at a localized watershed scale. Governments need to develop the intellectual capacity to generate integrated water-management tools that provide information at a watershed scale on a priority basis. Finally water-quantity data is used by a multitude of end-users who have different needs for the information. Moving forward, governments need to assess, through transparent processes, the different end-user profiles for water-quantity data. Based on these strategic assessments it is important to design intelligent water-quantity data systems that not only respond to present water-quantity data needs but also foresee future water-quantity data trends.



36 McKinsey Global Institute 2011

37 Marbek Resource Consultants 2009

38 Council of Canadian Academies 2009

39 Government of Canada 2009

40 Environment Canada 2011

41 Government of Canada 2010

42 Environment Canada 2011

43 Government of Canada 2010

44 Shrubsole 2006

45 Canadian Electricity Association (CEA) 2008

46 Policy Research Initiative (PRI) 2008

47 Statistics Canada 2010b

48 de Loë 2005

49 Marbek Resource Consultants 2009

50 Dunn 2009

51 Prairie Provinces Water Board