May 7, 2007

Management improvements needed to ensure sustainable water resources in Canada

Canada's water governance and management institutions are currently ill-equipped to deal with the challenges that will threaten the sustainability of the nation's freshwater resources, a Conference Board of Canada study concludes. Changes will be needed in order to ensure the ability of these water resources to continue meeting the basic demands placed on them, i.e. water for drinking, for economic development and for maintaining healthy aquatic ecosystems.

North America's abundant freshwater resources have long supported human development. The rivers and lakes have been navigated for trade and exploration. They have supported agriculture, provided drinking water and have been harnessed to provide power to fuel economic development. Today, however, the availability of fresh water in boundless quantities can no longer be taken for granted.

The Conference Board study, carried out by the Leaders Forum on Water Resource Management and Governance, examined five watersheds across Canada to determine whether the governance and management institutions for these watersheds are adequately equipped to meet the multitude of challenges they face both today and in the near future. The resulting report, Navigating the Shoals: Assessing Water Governance and Management in Canada, outlines these challenges and, citing examples from the watersheds studied, makes six recommendations for improvement in this area.

The five watersheds selected for study included: the Abbotsford Sumas aquifer in British Columbia; the Okanagan basin, also in BC; the South Saskatchewan River basin, running through Alberta and Saskatchewan; the Grand River watershed in Ontario; and the Ottawa River basin, straddling Ontario and Quebec.

In all of these, the researchers found that water managers are already facing significant challenges in maintaining water quantity and quality. In many regions of Canada, water quality and quantity are under stress. In one notable recent public policy decision, for example, the Alberta government announced that it would no longer accept applications for new water allocations in the Bow, Oldman and South Saskatchewan River sub-basins.

These challenges will only increase in the coming decades as managers deal with the hydrologic effects of climate change and the resource needs of a sustainable ecosystem, together with growing population, demographic and economic pressures.

At this point, says the report, our water institutions are not ready for the challenges ahead. To a great extent, water managers do not always have the required policy clarity, mandates for action or information resources to determine the optimal method of delivering water services into the future.

The concept of governance encompasses the process and structure of decision-making, the report explains. Its effectiveness (or lack of same) at the organizational level is based on the interaction of power, relationships and accountability. Governance is the platform on which effective resource management is built.

Water management involves planning, implementing and measuring to achieve the policy objectives established at the governance level. It is at the management level that direct action is taken to achieve and maintain water quantity and quality, says the report.

In addition to economic development, population and climate change, the Forum's research revealed challenges relating to regional versus local interests; competing users; groundwater and surface water (and the need for integrated management of these two water sources); and data gaps. It also found that water resource governance and management involve a complex web of interjurisdictional, economic and environmental policies and priorities.

Consequently, the study's recommendations call for change at many different stages of decision-making. First and foremost, says the report, is the need to clarify governance structures. This is particularly important in Canada, where regional, federal and international bodies may have differing authorities within a given watershed. The respective governors of water resources should develop a robust framework to establish clear lines of accountability and authority within the watershed.

This leads into the second recommendation for a "nested" approach to watershed governance. Nesting tributary governance frameworks within larger, basin-wide governance frameworks allows decisions to be made and the most appropriate level by the managers closest to the issue, explains the report. This approach also allows users a the tributary level to communicate (through advisory bodies) local concerns and information to regional water managers.

The remaining recommendations call for:

*improving interagency co-operation, which in turn will promote better water management decisions;

*integrating groundwater and surface water management, so that water managers will have more complete knowledge, authority and capacity to manage water extraction and use from all sources; this is essential to managing overall water resources in a manner consistent with sustainable development;

*exploring greater use of market-based instruments (such as pricing) to promote the most efficient use of water resources; and

*improving budgeting and the assignment of priorities to collect the information water managers need if they are to make better decisions.

On a positive note, the Forum's research also found that policymakers across the country recognize the challenge and are initiating change. The six recommendations coming out of the study will help tomorrow's water managers steward Canada's freshwater resources in a manner that can sustain the ecosystem and support economic growth, says the report.

Navigating the Shoals is the first report released by the Leaders Forum, a three-year initiative of the Conference Board of Canada. The Forum's mandate is to help resolve policy challenges and conflicts related to water resource management and to help improve water resource governance in North America. More information, including the full report, is available on the Conference Board Web site,

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