New WWF-Canada report reveals the health of 60 per cent of Canada’s sub-watersheds is unknown


Historic absence of freshwater data is especially concerning given the impact of COVID-19 on field research and monitoring

TORONTO, October 20, 2020 – WWF-Canada’s 2020 Watershed Reports raises serious questions about how freshwater ecosystems are faring in response to threats from human activities. The results, released today, underline a need for consistent water monitoring across the country to identify those watersheds that need urgent conservation action.

Canada’s rivers and lakes are divided into 167 sub-watersheds, 100 (or 60 per cent) of which are data deficient for key health indicators such as water quality, flow, fish and benthic invertebrates (bugs). While this lack of data on freshwater health is dire, there is also good news in this report: Of the remaining 67 sub-watersheds that have enough data to be evaluated, 43 (or 64 per cent) were found to be in Good or Very Good health.

A lack of comprehensive, open-access water data means we can’t fully understand how threats from human activities are impacting freshwater health. This will also make it increasingly difficult to respond and adapt to damages and threats from climate change. These data gaps are especially concerning given they are likely to worsen as many government monitoring programs have had to cancel their 2020 field research due to the pandemic.

This is the second time a nationwide assessment of freshwater has been done in Canada, following WWF-Canada’s original assessment in 2017. The findings will be shared today at 1 p.m. ET during a public webinar hosted by WWF-Canada. Details on registering are below.

Sub-watersheds of concern in the 2020 report:

  • The Upper St. Lawrence sub-watershed was previously Data Deficient but is now considered in Very Poor health due to a Very Poor benthic invertebrate score. Benthic invertebrate communities are crucial to determining water health in a given area.
  • The Northern Québec watershed remains Data Deficient with 10 of its 12 sub-watersheds not receiving a score. This is of concern since the area is home to some of the largest dams in the world and flows in those sub-watersheds have suffered impacts from man-made barriers.
  • The Assiniboine-Red watershed is now Data Deficient in all four of its sub-watersheds for the benthic invertebrate indicator. This area is dense in agricultural activity — a concern for benthic invertebrate communities due to pesticide runoff and erosion from overworked soil.

While more data was available for the 2020 Watershed Reports, major data deficiencies are still present and of concern. The tendency for sub-watersheds to swing from data sufficient to deficient reveals how quickly data and assessments can become outdated and highlights the crucial need for more strategic and consistent monitoring across the country.

Elizabeth Hendriks, vice-president of restoration and regeneration, WWF-Canada says:

“In the face of increasing pressures from climate change and biodiversity loss, we must be more ambitious in protecting and conserving freshwater in the next decade. We all have a role in shaping freshwater conservation for the 21st century by building water-resilient communities, bringing water data to decision-makers and creating a culture of water stewardship across the country.”

Megan Leslie, president and CEO, WWF-Canada says:

“WWF-Canada has been a leader in freshwater conservation for over a decade. We’re working toward ensuring healthy freshwaters across Canada for the people and wildlife that depend on it. Canada’s freshwater is a national treasure. With this report, we can make sure we’re prioritizing restoration actions in regions that face the highest threats and continue protection of regions that are in good health, making sure we keep them that way into the future.”

Join the webinar to learn more about the 2020 Watershed Reports

WWF-Canada is hosting a virtual webinar to reveal the findings of the 2020 Watershed Reports. A presentation and panel discussion will be led by WWF-Canada’s freshwater experts. Please join us today, October 20, from 1:00-2:00 p.m. ET. Webinar details can be found here. Read the full findings of the 2020 Watershed Reports, and explore your own watershed in more depth at

About the report

In 2017, WWF-Canada released the Watershed Reports, the first-ever national assessment on the health of and threats to freshwater in Canada. In order to keep data relevant and up to date, reassessment should be carried out every three to five years. To this end, WWF-Canada reconnected with past data providers as well as new ones to produce an updated Watershed Report. This reassessment was only done for health indicators (flow, water quality, benthic invertebrates and fish) as the threats assessment data sources are more established and are unlikely to have significantly changed in three years.


The increased use of community-based water monitoring (CBWM) had a significant impact on the 2020 results by contributing to additional scores. STREAM has led the way in supporting CBWM in Canada by providing training, equipment and resources to groups interested in monitoring for benthic invertebrates. STREAM (Sequencing the Rivers for Environmental Monitoring and Assessment) is a collaboration between WWF-Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada, the University of Guelph and Living Lakes Canada. The goal of the partnership is to address identified data deficiencies and support community groups who want to monitor their own waters to improve freshwater health. Learn more about the program here.