How healthy are our waters?
For the last few years, I’ve been haunted. Not by a ghost, mind you, but by a question: how healthy are Canada’s waters?
Because I’m a water policy wonk and an avid paddler, it’s perhaps not that surprising that this question is keeping me up at night, especially because it’s an amazingly complicated question.
Why so complicated? Because we don’t actually have a consistent way to measure and report on the health of rivers and lakes across the country. That also means that we don’t have a way to understand the full impact of all the many conservation projects, legal reforms and water strategies in play across Canada. We used to rely heavily on government agencies like Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada to provide Canadians with a clear, national picture of the health of our waters, but recent legislation has led to a troubling decline in attention to water science and policy. It appears, at least for now, that we need a different way.
That’s where WWF and the water community are stepping in, to fill this growing gap in our water knowledge.
Enter the Freshwater Health Assessment
WWF-Canada’s Freshwater Health Assessment (FHA) is a project inspired by the desire of the water community to understand the collective impact or our efforts and by the need for a clear, science-based picture of the health of Canada’s national water wealth.
The FHA is the product of two years of work by the freshwater team at WWF-Canada with the advice and support of freshwater experts from across Canada. The assessment is built around four key metrics – Water Quality; Water Flow; Fish and Benthic Macro-Invertebrates (like flies and snails) that can be applied across all Canada’s major water bodies.
To start, we’ve analyzed seven Canadian river systems: the Skeena, Fraser, Athabasca, South Saskatchewan, Thames, Ottawa and St. John – and prepared a simple and understandable version of the results.
But our vision for the FHA is much bigger – our goal is to take the assessment national, working with organizations across the country to pool our water knowledge and paint a picture of the health of our national water wealth. Our goal is to assess the health of all major water bodies in Canada by 2017 – in time for Canada’s 150th birthday.
Designed to be applied nationally, the FHA is intended to work alongside with and complement deeper local assessment happening across the country – from the habitat report cards created under the Skeena Salmon Program to SEAWA – South East Alberta Watershed Alliance’s State of Watershed Report and interactive tool to the Watershed Report Cards being developed by Ontario’s Conservation Authorities.
Beyond assessing the health of our water wealth
The FHA is only part of bigger need for attention to and action toward a sustainable water future for Canada. Over the next four years, the FHA project will build a solid, science-based foundation to help drive a broader movement pushing for a renewed focus on evidence-based water policy across Canada, at every level of management. This strong foundation is an essential first step to ensuring the health of Canada’s water wealth.