Strengthening Integrated Water Resource Management in Canada

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Anne Morin
Bernard Cantin

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Canada relies on freshwater to safeguard the health and well-being of its citizens, sustain healthy aquatic and terrestrial environments, provide a number of ecological services, and support a competitive economy. Canada is fortunate to have an abundance of freshwater resources with 20% of the worlds freshwater – 7% of which is renewable1. Nevertheless, there are parts of the country that are threatened by poor water quality, water shortages and accessibility issues due to some form of shortcoming in the overall water system. A changing climate can exacerbate several freshwater challenges, particularly with respect to ensuring a reliable and adequate supply for the various uses in a watershed.

The watershed is the most appropriate scale at which to assess and respond to key water challenges. A clean and plentiful freshwater resource is a vital contributor to the wellbeing of Canadians and the many of the health, ecological, economic and cultural benefits that freshwater can provide are experienced directly within our communities. The water that we use in our homes comes from the groundwater underneath us, and the rivers and lakes nearby and many communities, farms and industries rely on water to prosper. Furthermore, our aquatic ecosystems provide us with places to recreate and species that are both culturally and economically important. When these benefits are compromised, it is often the people living in nearby communities that are most impacted. The actions required to address any shortcomings around water quality and quantity, be they locally, provincially or nationally instigated, are often implemented at the watershed level.

Flexible, place-based approaches, such as Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM), are widely recognized as the preferred way to deal with water challenges and provide a necessary compliment to high-level regulatory directives. In theory, IWRM brings together the authorities responsible for making water management decisions with all the interests that depend on that water. The resulting arrangement will be unique in each case as participation will depend on the level of water use, the types of water use, the types of challenges the area is facing, and the geographic scale at which these uses and challenges interact.

Arrangements like IWRM could potentially complement a more general shift towards adaptive management. The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) is publishing the results of their research on adaptive management that identifies seven things that facilitate the successful development of adaptive policies including the decentralization of decision-making, self-organization and social networking, and multistakeholder deliberation. These elements have the potential to feature prominently in IWRM and could, in addition to other elements, support the adaptive management of water2.

It is estimated that thousands of stewardship activities are going on in some aspect of water or resource management, often voluntary organizations. Currently, there are at least 115 decentralized governance arrangements at teh provincial or territorial level in Canada that play important roles in making water management governance structures more integrated and place-based.3, 4 Such governance arrangements are being formalized in many provinces in Canada and around the world. There are also significant examples of federal leadership in helping to set up equivalent structures, including the Fraser Basin Council, the St. Lawrence Action Plan and a number of examples of boundary arrangements with the U.S., which illustrate the benefits of integrative and watershedbased approaches over traditional approaches (e.g. sectoral) to sustainable water management.

As IWRM grows in practice, certain challenges have emerged that limit the ability of stakeholders to meet water management objectives. Some of these challenges are discussed here as are ways in which the federal government can play a unique national role through the provision and coordination of data and science, regulatory innovation and coherence, research in engagement and facilitation. There is also an opportunity for improved coordination amongst federal departments and for the development of a strategic approach within the context of IWRM that would maximize the effectiveness of federal involvement.

Challenges Faced when Putting IWRM into Practice

Diverse Problems, Players and Landscapes

The flexibility that IWRM allows is seen as one of the main benefits of an integrated, place-based approach. In many cases, this flexibility can also be challenging as each watershed requires a tailored and unique arrangement, the success of which can be heavily dependent on the dynamic created amongst the key stakeholders and the scope of the water quality and/or quantity issues that need to be resolved. In other words, there is no clear solution or approach; it needs to be crafted by those involved. This often means aligning and integrating a plethora of administratively disconnected organizations to form alliances of government departments across all levels, user groups, industry, citizens, academics and other stakeholders. Often, it is the collaboration of departments and agencies within the federal government or a provincial government that is difficult to achieve.

A related challenge is defining a scale for managing issues within the watershed and its sub-watersheds. For example, ensuring sufficient flow levels for shipping, usually requires a basin-wide approach whereas addressing pollution hot-spots involves targeting smaller geographic areas.


Watersheds rarely align neatly with jurisdictional boundaries, making watershed-based IWRM strategies particularly difficult to develop and implement. In cases where the watershed reaches across provincial and international boundaries there is the potential for complexity due to the different regulatory frameworks and data/monitoring regimes that each province provides as well as the dynamic that each province has created with its stakeholders.

Beyond geography, the provinces and territories have the authority to make decisions about who gets what amount of water for what purpose. As the main authorities managing water resources in Canada, the provinces and territories bear the brunt of public accountability for this task. But when their decisions have an impact in areas of federal responsibility, such as the protection of fish habitat, the Government of Canada has an obligation to get involved. About 20 departments have some responsibilities for water and eight having strong water-related mandates5. Core federal water responsibilities are in drinking water provision in areas of federal jurisdiction (First Nations, national parks, national defense); aquatic ecosystem protection including for fish habitat and species at risk; marine navigation; ensuring water availability for agricultural purposes; and formal agreements for allocating water resources between provinces, and between Canada and the U.S. An example of the later is the International Joint Commission.

Watershed Management is Information Intense

The lack of information is perhaps one of the most limiting factors to making sound decisions. Throughout Canada, water practitioners, researchers and other stakeholders have indicated that there are serious gaps in knowledge that impede effective water management6. In many cases, informed water quality and quantity decisions can not be made due to a lack of data and monitoring. Very little is known about the quality and quantity of groundwater on which nearly a third of all Canadians rely and not nearly enough is known to determine the appropriate use of water to manage the resource (both surface and groundwater) and ensure its sustainability and quality.

There are also a number of outstanding research gaps that add to uncertainty in decision making. More science is needed to identify watershed-specific in-stream flow needs for aquatic ecosystem protection. Having the information that will ensure in-stream flow needs will not only help towards meeting environmental objectives but will serve as an important baseline for informing allocation decisions. More research is also needed to deal with emerging contaminants and non-point sources of pollution, to enable more effective pollution prevention approaches to be developed and coordinated between jurisdictions. Linking hydrologic models to climate models will also be beneficial, particularly at the regional scale, to predict the potential impacts of a changing climate on water supply and flows.

A forum or mechanism for sharing best practices is also lacking. Information regarding IWRM approaches that have led to successful (and unsuccessful) outcomes can be a valuable resource to other watershed organizations – especially considering that the practice of IWRM is still relatively new. Lessons learned from the more mature IWRM arrangements could provide up-and-coming watershed stewards with the much needed guidance and momentum to construct their own approach.

Moving Forward - What Could be done at the Federal Level to Strengthen IWRM in Canada?

Many feel that the federal government is in a unique position to assist IWRM efforts and help stakeholders overcome the challenges discussed above, while strengthening its own capacity to meet its obligations. One of the strongest contributions that the federal government can make as a partner to IWRM is to enable watershed organizations through the provision of the data and science that is key to making timely and informed decisions and to facilitate access to best practices. Data and science that follows a common national standard will become increasingly important as water related policy increases in salience over the coming decades. A formal or informal facilitation role could also be helpful to bridge different interests and different jurisdictions within a particular watershed.

Providing and Coordinating the Much Needed Data and Science

As pressures on the water resource increase, demand for senior governments to supply the science supporting IWRM and the information and/or resources to conduct water management research is growing. The federal government could lever its science and research capacity to help in the provision of information and knowledge that supports the continued development of watershed-based water management systems, particularly in smaller jurisdictions without sufficient capacity to produce it themselves. A more focused role for federally funded water research would be highly consistent with the current federal policy for science and technology and the federal S&T framework.

In order to meet its own legislative responsibilities and support IWRM, the federal government could play a leadership role in providing or collaborating on research and related scientific activity (i.e., data collection, monitoring, mapping, etc.). Examples of research areas that are in demand throughout Canada and to which the federal government could make an important contribution are:

  • The identification, determination and protection of in-stream flows needed to sustain aquatic ecosystems
  • Effective pollution prevention and mitigation, particularly for emerging contaminants;

Why do we need to manage "In- Stream Flow Needs"?
In-Stream Flow Needs (IFNs) is a term used to refer to the amount of water over time that is necessary to protect aquatic ecosystems. IFNs are an important consideration in water management, particularly water use planning to adapt to climate change, because they produce a baseline of information used to support allocation of water that reduces the risk of compromising the ecological integrity of a given freshwater system. However, scientific research is needed in this area to better define what IFNs are, and to establish a methodology for qualifying the amount of water that is required to protect aquatic ecosystems, suitable for application on a case by case basis.

It is clear that as pressures on the availability of water resources build, the federal government will be obliged to make difficult and potentially contentious decisions to fulfill its responsibilities and ensure that in-stream flow needs are met in situations of decreasing availability and increasing demand. A clear federal approach for identifying and determining in-stream flow needs using sound science would support greater consistency in the federal approach across regions. Before situations of scarcity become commonplace, having a method for identifying in-stream flow needs to which all governments and users could subscribe would contribute to facilitating appropriate trade-offs, ease the decision making process, and minimize the possible negative repercussions of federal interventions.

A federal water science agenda could also include mechanisms to transfer water research knowledge to decision-makers in municipalities and Aboriginal communities, provinces and territories, and federal departments. Models for how the federal government could play this role include the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), for example, which provides essential data and analysis on Canada's health system and the health of Canadians. Government bodies, hospitals, regional health authorities and professional associations contribute to and use CIHI's information to assess the effectiveness of different parts of the health system and to plan for the future.

The first step towards creating such an information system for water could be to develop partnerships with provinces, municipalities, utilities and other stakeholders that have monitoring functions to create an information network for sharing data, setting standards and serving as a clearinghouse of water-related data. This would also support the sharing of knowledge and best practices across jurisdictions, including helping smaller communities make informed and cost effective choices concerning water and wastewater treatment options; and, support the development and effectiveness of watershed-based organizations by ensuring they have access to the best information available.

Regulatory Innovation and Coherence

An important effort is required to coordinate approaches between jurisdictions on pollution prevention. The parallel development of different sets of rules and approaches across jurisdictions to address similar problems has resulted in a complex regulatory system that can be costly to enforce and to comply with, especially when more than one regulator is involved. Overall, the current approach impedes innovation in pollution reduction and the use of more flexible approaches to managing water availability and quality7. Rigid regulatory approaches are not well suited to dealing with the diversity of watershed problems – different pollutants may have different effects in different locations—and they are an expensive way to deal with emerging contaminants and nonpoint sources of pollution. For municipalities, a coordinated approach to reduce pollution at the source is more effective because it reduces the risks of emerging contaminants reaching the waters they have to treat. An approach that balances regulation with decentralized control to address pollution and availability issues at the watershed level, supported by a policy toolkit of various complementary instruments (such as market-based, regulation, voluntary, education, training, etc.), is much more likely to achieve effective and cost-efficient results. In addition, existing funding mechanisms (such as grants), or regulatory instruments (such as permits), could include requirements that proponents take a collaborative approach to planning.

Strengthening Partnerships through Research and Facilitation

Water stewardship organizations in Canada are beginning to play important roles in provincially mandated water management governance structures. A federal approach that encourages this trend and the implementation of practical, innovative solutions that combine regulation, training and market-based instruments, adapted to fit local circumstances and supported by local citizen-led water stewardship organizations, lever the collective power of these organizations and give many more Canadians the opportunity to participate in making IWRM work for their communities.

In addition to the natural science knowledge, federally-supported research should include the social science needed to support decision-making. For example, research around engagement processes that help to achieve consensus among diverse interests, and the identification of possible policy tools that encourage behaviour change and/or compliance with conservation measures, would be very useful to IWRM organizations including research to:

  • Help guide efforts to build institutions/coalitions and/or organizations to implement IWRM, and to identify the tools IWRM requires to be applied successfully at the watershed level;
  • Strengthen existing networks and institutions as a means to increase the capacity of local actors and communities to implement effective water management practices.
  • Create a forum or mechanism in partnership with the provinces and watershed organizations that will allow for the sharing of best practices.
  • Develop processes to help watershed management organizations determine tradeoffs between competing demands, when needed; and,
  • Identify innovative instruments, for example Water Quality Trading,8 that can be used to address water pollution at the watershed level, and what results can be expected;

The federal government can play an active role in strengthening partnerships through formal or informal facilitation and enabling collaboration by bringing stakeholders that are typically difficult to engage to the table.

Getting on the Same Page &ndash Considerations for a Federal Water Management Strategy

While IWRM is reflected in the Federal Water Policy of 1987, the federal government has no formal mechanism for coordinating and prioritizing its involvement in IWRM arrangements. Currently, individual departments and agencies act independently reflecting their respective roles and mandates. This approach may result in inconsistent federal involvement across Canada's watersheds and possibly mixed messages from different federal players to the local watershed stewardship groups. Furthermore, the current approach does not provide assurances that different federal responsibilities will be represented through the involvement of one department.

Most Canadian provinces have taken action and are moving in the direction of IWRM, establishing watershed-based governance structures and management systems and increasingly, giving community-based water stewardship organizations and local stakeholders a formal role in planning and a greater say in decision-making. As the number of place-based governance structures increases, the federal government's capacity to sustain its involvement and deliver on its responsibilities in water management could come under increasing strain.

For the federal government to play a constructive role in watershed-based IWRM, one set of common objectives and broad, overarching outcomes – a federal water management strategy – could guide the collaboration of departments and coordinate their policy and program activities. Objectives for such a strategy might include:

  • To enable the federal government to prioritize its involvement to ensure it meets its own obligations.
  • To accommodate widely diverse watershed issues, tailoring solutions to specific circumstances;
  • To guide the collaboration and coordination of federal departments with watershed-based non-governmental organizations;
  • To ensure the federal government's involvement is compatible with IWRM principles; and,
  • To complement the different governance mechanisms for watersheds across Canada and shared with the U.S.

Specific activities and/or deliverables under a strategy could include:

  • Revisiting the current federal water policy adopted in 1987 to clarify federal roles in freshwater management and align with more recent policies of most provinces and territories;
  • Developing a transparent approach to generating knowledge supporting the identification of in-stream flow needs, including the sharing of lessons learned amongst all those involved in water management decision-making across the country;
  • Adopting a collaborative approach to the development of policy packages;
  • Developing clear criteria to prioritize federal involvement and to guide and coordinate the actions of federal departments;
  • Implementing a performance management and accountability system that supports coordination and collaboration between departments.

A recent forum hosted by the Policy Research Initiative and the Public Policy Forum on collaborative governance in Canada, highlighted that the current culture of the public service is not conducive to collaborative arrangements with external partners. While operating in an institution with elaborate accountability requirements, collaboration is often considered risky. In moving forward, collaboration needs to be recognized as an approach that can have positive outcomes and engagement with potential partners should be encouraged and supported amongst public servants9. This could conceivably be extended to apply to interdepartmental collaborations.


The management of water is a responsibility that necessitates an integrated response from local and regional stakeholders and the appropriate government authorities. Although such a response is strongly advocated by those in the water community, integrated water resources management (IWRM) it is not easily achieved. Although every stakeholder has a role to play in building successful arrangements, the federal government is in a unique position to contribute to IWRM not only as a partner, but as an enabler and facilitator. Providing and coordinating data, information management and basic research and promoting regulatory innovators and coherence are among the services that would greatly aid IWRM. In general, the federal government would need to renew its institutional arrangements to improve its ability to collaborate within and amongst departments to ensure that it can play all of its roles more effectively and efficiently.

Encouraging collaboration and integration within the public service will not only support federal involvement in IWRM but will also support efforts on other horizontal files that require, or would benefit from, a place-based and/or integrated approach.


1 Environment Canada Freshwater website: <>

2 IISD (2009). "A Guide to Creating Adaptive Policies – Seven things policy-makers should know to craft better policies in today's dynamic and uncertain world" Eds. D. Swanson and S. Bhadwal. (forthcoming publication)

3 The Centre for Environmental Stewardship and conservation. "The State of Stewardship in Canada". March 2009.

4 Robins, Lisa. "Nationwide decentralized governance arrangements and capacities for integrated watershed management: Issues and insights from Canada." Environments Journal. Volume 35(2) 2007.

5 These are: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Health Canada, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Natural Resources Canada, Transport Canada, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

6 The lack of data and its implications for decision-making was consistently identified as a challenge to water management in the research and analytical work conducted by the PRI from 2004 to 2006, including a joint US and Canadian think tank workshop in October 2007.

7 Policy Research Initiative. Can Water Quality Trading Help to Address Agricultural Sources of Pollution in Canada? Project Report, May 2006.

8 Policy Research Initiative. Can Water Quality Trading Help to Address Agricultural Sources of Pollution in Canada? Project Report, May 2006.

9 Collaborative Governance and Changing Federal Roles. Matthew Gravelle and Katherine Baird and Ian Green, May 2008; A PPF and PRI Joint Roundtable Outcomes Report.