What the health? Missing data in Canada’s freshwater

UPDATE: Water Rangers became the new steward of Watershed Reports in 2023. To learn about the 2024 edition of the reports, visit watershedreports.waterrangers.ca.

Canada’s abundance of freshwater is a national treasure. It sustains our wildlife, nourishes our communities and waters our crops. It restores and reinvigorates us — whether we’re enjoying a quiet paddle across the surface or splashing about on a hot day. As a country that contains one fifth of the world’s freshwater supply, we have a responsibility to safeguard it and protect our watersheds for the wildlife and people that rely on it.

Canoeists on the Spatsizi River, British Columbia, Canada. Tim Irvin/WWF-Canada

But Canada’s lakes and rivers are facing major threats from pollution, overuse, alteration of flow, invasive species, habitat loss and fragmentation, and, increasingly, climate change and biodiversity loss. The latest international Living Planet Report shows that freshwater species have declined by 84 per cent, on average, between 1970 and 2016.

WWF-Canada has been a leader in freshwater conservation for over a decade, working alongside scientists, government and communities to better understand freshwater health. In 2017, we launched the Watershed Reports — the first-ever national assessment of health and threats for all 167 sub-watersheds — and discovered that there was simply no health data available for most of them.

If we want to keep Canada’s freshwater systems healthy, we need evidence-based conservation and decision-making — and that requires up-to-date and comprehensive watershed data. Thanks to increased community-based monitoring groups and access to open data, more data was available for the 2020 report. But 100 sub-watersheds still remain data deficient for key indicators.

In other words, we just don’t know how they’re doing. However, for the 67 sub-watersheds that do have enough data to be evaluated, 43 were found to be in Good or Very Good health. That news is as refreshing as a swim in a glacier-fed stream!

And more good news arrived in the recent throne speech with a federal government commitment to create a Canada Water Agency, which we have been advocating for, to work with government and non-governmental stakeholders on improving freshwater management.

To protect our waters, we must be bolder with our decisions and actions. We need to create a culture of water stewardship, improve data collection and create more partnerships with local organizations and Indigenous groups because, as the famous Lakota saying goes, “water is life.”