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Why it matters
Ecosystems in areas such as Lake Erie, Lake Winnipeg and the St. Lawrence River remain under stress from excess nutrients and other effects of human activity.
Canada's rivers and lakes account for 7% of the world's renewable freshwater. Water is of major national environmental, social and economic value, as it protects ecosystem health, supplies drinking water and is critical for economic development, transportation, recreation and tourism. The manner in which water supplies are cared for and used affects both the quality and supply of this resource.
Multiple jurisdictions share responsibility for water quality and availability in Canada. Most responsibilities, including water management and protection, rest with the provinces and territories. The federal government works with the provinces and territories and other stakeholders to monitor the quality and supply of Canada's water in the areas of freshwater quality, marine water quality, drinking water quality, chemicals management and water resource management.
According to the Yale and Columbia University 2010 Environmental Performance Index, Canada has the best water quality ranking in the Americas. However, numerous factors, such as increased urbanization, agricultural production and releases of pollutants from industrial facilities, can decrease the quality of our water. Water is never pure -- it picks up bits and pieces of everything it contacts, including minerals, silt, vegetation, fertilizers and agricultural run-off. This can lead to poor water quality and the consumption of poor-quality drinking water affects human health.
In addition, the quality of Canada's water can be compromised when chemicals and toxic substances are released in the environment. The harmful effects of the toxic substances are known to affect human health, biological diversity and the overall environment. Industrial facilities and wastewater treatment plants are the primary sources of toxic substances released to water in Canada.
Canadians rely upon high water quality. For example, the Great Lakes basin supports 33 million people, including 9 million Canadians and 8 of Canada's 20 largest cities. This region makes up 40% of Canada's economic activity and each year contributes $180 billion to Canada-U.S. trade. The waters are used by 1.5 million recreational boaters and fishers.
Canada has relatively abundant access to freshwater, but the supply is not evenly distributed geographically or throughout the seasons. Water may not be abundant in the same areas where people live or work. For example, approximately 85% of Canadians live within 300 kilometres of the Canada-U.S. border, while 60% of Canada's freshwater drains to the north. In addition, groundwater provides up to 80% of the rural Canadian population's drinking water and is an essential component of ecosystem health.
Pressures on water availability include both natural causes such as weather cycles and human causes such as changes in land use, the building of dams and diversions, and industrial and individual use. According to a 2011 comparison by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Canada ranked fourth in the amount of water removed from the environment. This includes water that was removed permanently and temporarily.
Influencing factors on freshwater quality and availability
Tracking pressures on Canada's water quality and quantity over time provides a better understanding of how to improve freshwater quality and availability. Some of the pressures on water quality and availability that can be influenced directly by Canadians include land use, use of chemical pesticides and residential water use.
From 2007 to 2009, freshwater quality differed significantly according to land-use category as illustrated in Figure 3.1. Good and excellent freshwater quality was found more often in remote areas. Areas with more than one human development pressure (e.g., agriculture, mining) had more water quality monitoring stations with a poor or marginal freshwater quality ranking. For the most up-to-date information on this indicator, please visit CESI.
Figure 3.1: Freshwater quality by land-use category for the 2007 to 2009 period, Canada
The bar graph presents the number of stations where freshwater quality for the protection of aquatic life is rated excellent, good, fair, marginal and poor in the four land use categories between 2007 and 2009. The four land use categories are agriculture, mining, mixed pressures and remote. Good and excellent freshwater quality was found more often in remote areas. Areas with mixed pressures had more stations with a poor or marginal freshwater quality ranking.
Household use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers
Since 1994, household use of chemical pesticide and fertilizer in Canada has declined.
In 2009, 15% of Canadian households with a lawn or garden used chemical pesticides, compared to 31% in 1994. The largest decrease occurred in Quebec, where household chemical pesticide use fell from 30% to 4%. The Prairie provinces, led by Manitoba, remained the region where household use of chemical pesticides was the most widespread. A 2006 cosmetic pesticide ban in Quebec and a similar 2009 ban in Ontario have likely contributed to the drop in pesticide use in these provinces between 1994 and 2009.
In 2009, 22% of Canadian households with a lawn or garden used chemical fertilizers, compared to 47% in 1994. The largest decreases occurred in Quebec and Ontario, while Quebec households were the lowest users of chemical fertilizers in 2009. Households in the Prairie provinces, led by Saskatchewan, used the most chemical fertilizer. For the most up-to-date information on this indicator, please visit CESI.
Figure 3.2: Percentage of households in Canada using chemical pesticides and fertilizers
on lawns and gardens, 1994, 2005, 2007 and 2009, and by province for 1994 and 2009
The graphic shows the percentage of Canadian households using chemical pesticides and fertilizers on lawns and gardens in 1994, 2005, 2007 and 2009. The graphic also shows the percentage of households in each Canadian province using chemical pesticides and fertilizers on lawns and gardens for both 1994 and 2009.
Residential water use
Urban growth, expanding industry and climate change put pressure on the ability of Canadian cities to supply water to households. Rising water demand, combined with the high costs of building and repairing water infrastructure, continues to make household water conservation a priority for many communities.
From 1991 to 2009, the average daily water use dropped from 342 L to 274 L per person, as illustrated in Figure 3.3. However, despite improvements in household water conservation, Canada remains one of the largest per capita users of fresh water in the world.
The second graph in Figure 3.3 illustrates that in 2009, 72% of Canadian households were equipped with water meters, an increase from 52% of households in 1991. In 2009, metered households on volume-based water pricing schemes used 39% less water per person than unmetered households on flatrate water pricing schemes. For the most up-to-date information on this indicator, please visit CESI.
Figure 3.3: Households on metered water systems and per capita residential water use, Canada, 1991 to 2009
The top line graph shows per capita residential water use in litres per day between 1991 and 2009 and the bottom line graph shows the percentage of households with water meters between 1991 and 2009. In 2009, 72% of Canadian households were equipped with water meters, an increase from 52% of households in 1991. Over the same period, average daily water use dropped from 342 litres per person per day in 1991 to 274 litres per person per day in 2009.
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