Water – How we use it


Canadians are among the biggest water users in the world. Nearly all of our economic and social activities depend on water. How do we use it?

There are two basic ways in which we use water:

  1. Instream uses, such as hydroelectric power generation, transportation, fisheries, wildlife, recreation, and waste disposal, take place with the water remaining in its natural setting, "in the stream".
  2. Withdrawal uses, such as thermal power generation, mineral extraction, irrigation, manufacturing, and municipal use, remove water from its natural setting for a period of time and for a particular use, and eventually return all or part of it to the source. The difference between the amount of water withdrawn and the amount of water returned to the source is water "consumed" (for example, by evaporating and not returning to the local source).

In 2005, thermal power generation accounted for about 60% of total withdrawals; manufacturing came next, with over 18% of the total. Municipal, agricultural, and mineral extracting activities withdrew 9.5%, 8%, and 4% of the total, respectively. 

The five main water users in Canada, 2005

Details can be found below

The image shows the gross water use of the five main water users in Canada in 2005 were thermal power generation (60 percent), manufacturing (18.5 percent), municipal (9.5 percent), agriculture (8 percent), and mining (4 percent). The municipal figure (9.5 percent) includes 1.5 percent rural domestic use.


How much of Canada's farmland is irrigated?

Much of the land producing fruits and vegetables, as well as a significant amount of the land used to grow tobacco, is irrigated. In western Canada, irrigated forage crops help stabilize the livestock industry.

According to the 2001 Census of Agriculture, there were 17 204 farms in Canada reporting that they used irrigation on a total of 784 469 hectares of farmland. The provincial breakdown is as follows:

  • Alberta, 499 240 hectares
  • British Columbia, 111 181 hectares
  • Saskatchewan, 68 490 hectares
  • Ontario, 49 271 hectares
  • Manitoba, 28 145 hectares
  • Quebec, 22 578 hectares
  • Atlantic provinces, 5 562 hectares

How much water is used for irrigation?

Approximately 70% of the water used in irrigation is consumed (water withdrawn but not returned to the water course). British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan use 3500 million cubic metres. Due to incomplete data, only information on the irrigated areas of Western Canada is available; water use for irrigation in Atlantic Canada is estimated to be very small.


How many dams are there in Canada?

Canada now ranks as one of the world's top 10 dam builders. Although the Canadian Dam Association's register of dams (2003) reports 933 large dams, there are many thousands of small dams. A large dam is defined as being higher than 15 metres or, under certain conditions, higher than 10 meters. 

Number of large dams in Canada

Details can be found below

The graph shows the number of large dams in Canada by province as follows: Prince Edward Island: 0; Yukon: 4; Northwest Territories: 11; New Brunswick: 16; Nova Scotia: 37; Manitoba: 41; Saskatchewan: 44; Alberta: 77; Newfoundland and Labrador: 90; British Columbia: 131; Ontario: 149; Quebec: 333.

In Canada, large dams are used primarily for hydroelectric power generation (596 dams), but are also used for the following purposes:

  • multi-purposes (86 dams)
  • tailings (82 dams)
  • water supply (57 dams)
  • irrigation (51 dams)
  • flood control (19 dams)
  • recreation (7 dams)
  • other purposes (35 dams)

What proportion of Canada's electrical generation has hydropower as its source?

The United Nations ranks Canada as the world's largest hydroelectric producer with more than 13% of the global output.

In 1999, 62% of the total power generated in Canada came from hydro sources. Every province in Canada, with the exception of Prince Edward Island, has some hydropower capacity; but Quebec, Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, Manitoba, and British Columbia account for most of the hydropower produced in Canada, with their combined output representing more than 90% of total hydroelectricity production.

The largest hydroelectric development in Canada is the James Bay project in Quebec; its eight dams and 198 dikes contain five reservoirs that cover 11 900 square kilometres. The combined output of its generating station is 15 237 megawatts. Canada's other principal hydroelectric generating stations are the Churchill Falls plant in Labrador with an installed capacity of 5225 megawatts, and Gordon M. Shrum powerhouse on the Peace River, British Columbia, with an installed capacity of 2416 megawatts.


How important is water in the production of electrical energy from coal or nuclear fuel?

After the fuel itself, water is the most important raw material used in large-scale thermal power production. Production of 1 kilowatt-hour of electricity requires 140 litres of water for fossil fuel plants and 205 litres for nuclear power plants for cooling purposes. Most plants have a closed-loop system, with only a small proportion of the water actually "consumed" (lost through evaporation); most of the water is used over and over again. Seawater is sometimes used for cooling purposes in the Atlantic provinces.


Which form of energy production – solar, hydro, nuclear, gas, or oil – is least harmful to the environment?

No form of energy production is 100% environmentally friendly. However, some methods of energy production are less damaging to the environment by being renewable, by causing less damage to the ecosystem, and by producing less-damaging waste. Solar and wind generation are both relatively clean and are renewable, but are not yet practical for large-scale production. Hydroelectricity is also renewable and relatively clean, but if a large dam is built, wildlife habitat, farmland, forests, and town sites can be lost; social alienation can occur; and heavy metals such as mercury can be released into the water. Hydroelectricity forms the most important source of renewable energy for Canadians. Of the combustible fuels, hydrogen is the cleanest burning, followed by natural gas and light fuel oil. The combustion of all fossil fuels, however, produces carbon dioxide -- a greenhouse gas. Even though nuclear energy (fission) is a form of energy production that is not based on combustion, the disposal of the resulting radioactive waste and the possiblity of major accidents remain serious problems.


How does the water that we use in our home get there?

Across Canada, 11% of the water used in Canadian municipalities comes from groundwater (2001); the rest is from lakes and rivers. In cities, water is distributed through a series of pipes connected to a municipal water supply system. In rural areas, it is usually obtained from wells. Water supply systems typically have intake, treatment, storage, and distribution components. There are many different treatment types, depending on the characteristics of the source water. Likewise, the storage and distribution systems vary greatly between municipalities, depending on the unique characteristics of each city or town.

Rural residents usually have individual groundwater supplies. Wells must be carefully prepared and maintained to prevent pollution.

Water is delivered by trucks to several regions of Canada. In the Far North, water may have to be trucked to homes that do not have conventional water supplies because the ground is frozen. Water is also delivered by truck in some rural areas of the east and in the Prairies where shallow wells go dry.

Where there are piped systems in the North, the pipes are often buried very deep, up to 3 or 4 metres, to get below the worst of the frost, and are insulated to prevent the water from freezing.

In permafrost areas, the heat lost from even insulated underground pipes would melt the permafrost and cause the ground to cave in. Therefore, above-ground utilidors (insulated boxes) are used to carry water, sewer, and sometimes hot water (for heating) pipes to individual residences. These are heated, insulated, metal or wood-clad enclosures that are generally installed on piles or blocking.


Why do we have to pay to use water?

First, there are numerous administrative costs incurred in order to manage our water resources effectively and efficiently. Second, water supplies usually have to be pumped, stored, moved, and treated to make water available and safe for use -- and then have to be taken away after discharge. Third, existing water systems, also called water "infrastructure", have to be maintained and upgraded or replaced as required. All of these services cost money.


What is the cost of water? How much do we use?

Water prices across Canada are generally low compared to other countries. The average household pays $33.18 per month, and uses about 26 500 litres per month, for water delivered to the residence. Monthly bills range between $19 and $52, the lowest being in Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, and British Columbia, and the highest in the Prairie provinces and northern Canada (2001).

Although the operating costs for trucked service are very high, the lower capital costs make it more economic than piped service for most northern communities. Consumption is much lower for areas with trucked service, about 200 litres per capita per day in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.


What costs do water revenues cover?

Several studies show that water revenues are not sufficient to cover operational, repair, upgrading, or expansion costs. They cover only a small part of the costs of supplying water. For example, irrigation water charges recover only about 10% of the development cost of the resource.

The cost of maintaining (repairing and upgrading) municipal water supply and sewage systems is estimated at $23 billion over the next 10 years. The fact that this money is not currently available is further evidence that water revenues do not cover costs.


Who sets water prices in Canada, and how are they determined?

Provincial and municipal officials set water prices in Canada. Most provinces levy licence fees to major water users for access to the resource. The provincial licence fees for water are not set in accordance with any pricing principles, but rather are related to the cost of administering the licensing program.

Municipalities also levy charges to water users. In many areas, users are charged a flat monthly, quarterly, or annual rate in exchange for access to unlimited amounts of treated water. In other places, the charges are based on the volume of water used, as measured by a water meter. Irrigation water fees are paid according to land area irrigated, not water volume used.


Are householders going to have to pay more for using water in the future?

It is expected that the price of water will increase in the future to bridge the gap between the cost of providing water to the user and the revenue received from those using it. As with most resources, the amount of water used decreases as prices rise. Canadians use larger amounts of water per capita than users in other countries who face higher prices. Canadians pay, on the average, about one quarter of European and about three quarters of American domestic and industrial water prices. This supports the conclusion that water in Canada is generally underpriced.


How does the cost of tap water compare with the cost of other drinks?

Tap water is very inexpensive compared with some other liquids. For example, 1 litre of water costs about 0.001 dollar, while the same amount of bottled water would cost $1.50; cola, $0.85; milk, $1.10; and table wine, $9.00.


Do all houses in Canada have running water and sewerage services?

Over 92% of the urban households are serviced by municipal water and sewer systems (2001). The remainder, as well as most of the rural population, is serviced by private individual systems (usually groundwater), septic tanks and/or tile fields, or trucked services.

In the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, for example, 16% of the communities have centralized water distribution systems either above or below ground, while 74% have trucked water supply and waste disposal systems. The remaining 10% use private systems, water buckets, privies, or trucked services. Specifically, in the Northwest Territories, seven communities have piped systems: Fort Smith, Hay River, Yellowknife, and Edzo have inground pipes while Norman Wells, Inuvik, and Rae have above-ground pipes, or utilidors (insulated boxes). In Nunavut, only Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet, and Nanisivic have piped above-ground systems.


What is water conservation?

Water conservation activities are essentially designed to do two things: (1) reduce the absolute amounts of water we use (less water per person or given product or service) and/or (2) reduce the rate (using water only when we need it) at which we use water in our daily lives -- either at home, at work, in business, or in industry. The reduction in water use will not only reduce the volume of polluted water, but will also allow municipal sewage treatment plants to function better because they work best with more concentrated inflow. In all cases, the goal of water conservation is to use our water resources more efficiently. Water conservation allows us to do the same task or job, but with much less water.


Why is water conservation important in Canada?

Water conservation is important for three reasons. First, some regions of Canada are water-short due to semi-arid conditions. Dry summers place these areas of the country under additional stress. Second, other parts of the country, particularly the rural areas, often rely on groundwater as their sole source of supply. Excessive water use or withdrawals can lower water tables in these rural areas. And, third, in many urban areas in Canada, municipal water utilities are experiencing limits on supply because of infrastructure problems -- either due to summer peak demands exceeding system capacities or due to older sewer and water systems that are in need of upgrading or repair.

In all three contexts listed above, water conservation helps by putting less pressure on the existing water supply (and wastewater treatment systems). Recognizing the importance of water resources to all life and reducing the rate at which we use water and/or the absolute amounts we use is the essence of what conservation is all about. It can help us "stretch" our existing reserves without having to invest in more expensive sources of new supply. This "frees up" supply, either to serve the needs of future growth (in population or industry) or to serve an existing population for a longer period of time.


How can water conservation be implemented?

There are many water-saving opportunities available to consumers, industry, and governments. Generally, three groups of actions are important -- physical measures, economic measures, and social measures. Physical measures refer to alterations that can be made to water using equipment or processes. Domestic examples include the use of low-flow shower heads and water-conserving toilets, laundry facilities that recycle previously used water, and the implementation of universal water metering in communities. Industrial examples include the installation of water-recycling equipment, such as cooling towers, and process changes that lower water use. Economic measures refer to means of altering the ways in which users pay for the right to use water. Examples include revisions to municipal water rates to assure full cost recovery, water charges based on quantities used, and implementation of volume-based charges for self-supplied industries. Social measures refer to broad social policies and actions designed to lower water usage. Examples include revisions to plumbing codes, legal restrictions on water use during drought periods, and campaigns to inform the public about the importance of water.

The last section of this Primer, "Water: Dos and Don'ts," provides many examples of actions which individual water users can take to implement conservation and efficiency.


What are the benefits of conservation?

In addition to "stretching" available water supplies to meet increasing demands, water conservation has distinct economic advantages. For example, use of water-saving shower heads can not only save the homeowner the cost of the water itself but also save over $100 annually in water-heating costs. Furthermore, conservation retrofitting of an existing building could generate benefits ranging between 15 and 20 times the costs incurred. Finally, water conservation lessens the demands made on a vital natural resource, thereby contributing to the sustainability of the Canadian environment.


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