/ ©: Alyssa Bistonath / WWF-Canada

Canada's Rivers at Risk

Environmental Flows and Canada's Freshwater Future

Canada ranks among the world's top nations in terms of renewable water supply. Such global treasures make Canada enviable in an increasingly thirsty and warming world.

But this perspective is misleading. Water is constantly moving, and it is this constant motion – the flow of water – that provides insight into the availability of fresh water and the health of freshwater ecosystems.

Many of the world’s river flows are at risk from the impacts of producing more food, generating electricity, fuelling industry and quenching the thirst of expanding cities. Climate change further compounds these problems by introducing new threats and uncertainties.

Canada's Rivers at Risk: Environmental Flows and Canada's Freshwater Future assesses how these pressures are affecting environmental flows in 10 of the nation's rivers. Overall, their status is troubling.


Canada's Rivers at Risk and their Watersheds

Click on the different regions in the map to learn more about the watersheds.



What are environmental flows?

Environmental flows describe the quantity, timing and quality of water flows required to sustain freshwater and estuarine ecosystems and the human livelihoods and well-being that depends on these ecosystems.
- The Brisbane Declaration

A river's cycle of high and low flows is much like our blood pressure: a vital indicator of overall ecosystem health. If we wish to maintain the many social, cultural, and economic benefits that rivers provide then we must maintain the flows that support them.

Focusing on environmental flows forces us to look at water use from the ecosystem outward – to answer the question how much water we can use by first asking how much water the river has to give.

Key Threats to River Flow

 / ©: Anton Vorauer / WWF-Canon
© Anton Vorauer / WWF-Canon

Climate Change

Climate change presents a challenging new dimension to water management in Canada. Melting glaciers, shifting precipitation patterns, and increasingly intense and frequent droughts and floods are among the effects of climate change on river flows. Studies show that maximum river flows are generally decreasing across most of Canada. If these patterns continue as predicted, Canada's freshwater future will become increasingly uncertain. Demand for water is expected to increase as temperatures rise, making protection of environmental flows even more challenging.
 / ©: WWF-Canada
Tracing the flow through a watershed
© WWF-Canada
 / ©: Michel Gunther / WWF-Canon
Cracked ground because of drought of a dried up lake
© Michel Gunther / WWF-Canon

Withdrawals & Diversions

Water is withdrawn from rivers to produce food, fuel industry, and supply municipalities with drinking water. Irrigated agriculture is of particular concern as the majority of water withdrawn is consumed in the process, making it unavailable to support the river ecosystem or for further use downstream. When water is withdrawn is crucial – taking water during periods of low flow and drought typically has a greater impact on river health than taking water during other periods. Diversions – when water is artificially moved between watersheds by pipelines or canals – can be particularly devastating. Canada diverts more water from one watershed to another than any other country on earth.
 / ©: Michel Gunther / WWF-Canon
Cabbage field
© Michel Gunther / WWF-Canon

Flow Regulation and Fragmentation

Dams and other instream infrastructure such as locks, weirs and dykes can alter flow regimes by changing the quantity, timing, and quality of water that flows through rivers and streams. These developments are constructed to produce hydropower, control flooding and store water for irrigation or urban consumption. However, they also alter a river’s natural flow and sever connections between different parts of a river system and its watershed, resulting in negative effects on freshwater ecosystems and species. In 2000, there were 849 large dams and thousands of smaller dams in Canadian rivers and streams, and growing demand for low-carbon energy is driving construction of new hydropower facilities across the country.
 / ©: Patricia Buckley / WWF-Canada
Bassano Dam, Alberta, Canada
© Patricia Buckley / WWF-Canada

How to Protect Canada's Rivers

Despite significant challenges facing Canada's rivers, Canada, unlike many other countries, still has the opportunity to avoid a national freshwater crisis; but only if we take these three critical actions to keep the country's rivers flowing – for nature and for people:
  1. Take aggressive action on climate change
    Be part of the global solution to stopping climate change by helping to create and implement a fair, effective, and science-based global agreement, while reducing Canadian emissions and protecting rivers here at home as the climate changes.
  2. Keep water use within nature's limits
    Maintain water withdrawals within each watershed's sustainable limits and prohibit interbasin transfers that move water from one watershed to another.
  3. Change the flow
    Design and operate dams and other instream infrastructure to better balance nature's needs (the flow regimes required to sustain healthy rivers) with human needs for hydropower, navigation, flood control, and water storage.