Canada a world leader in freshwater quality

Part 3 of our 5 part series

Some critics frequently excoriate Canada’s environmental record and imply that it is becoming more polluted and less environmentally healthy. But a new report from the Frontier Centre for Public Policy doesn’t support that conclusion: Canada’s natural environment, in fact, is becoming cleaner and greener. The report was written by Senior Policy Analyst Ben Eisen and intern Romy Yourex. Today: a look at freshwater quality.

May 21, 2013

WINNIPEG, MB, May 21, 2013/ Troy Media/ – Freshwater loses its utility and value when polluted. Many types of water pollution can render freshwater resources useless for most economic purposes and dangerous for human consumption.

This pollution can have negative health effects on human beings and animal life. For example, the release of large quantities of plant nutrients including phosphorus and nitrogen can create toxic algal blooms in fresh water.

Large concentrations of mercury and industrial chemicals can have negative effects on human health and threaten the survival of marine life. Measuring water quality is not completely straightforward, however.

Aquatic ecosystems are complex, and there are many factors to consider in the assessment of water quality. For this reason, a number of international organizations and governing bodies have developed composite measures designed to provide an overall assessment of water quality.

Using this data, we can compare Canada’s performance with peer countries. Among the most widely respected and cited measures used in cross-country analysis of water quality is the Environmental Performance Index of Water Quality (EPI).

Academics at Yale and Columbia developed the EPI, which assigns each country that it monitors a rating based on measurements from water sites. As the chart below illustrates, the quality of fresh water in Canada as measured by the EPI is among the best in the world. This chart compares Canada to nine other similarly affluent countries.


Within this peer group, Canada has the second-highest EPI rating, trailing only Sweden. Canada’s performance in this area is better than a number of countries that enjoy strong reputations for environmental protection including Germany, France and Japan.

These numbers suggest that Canada’s performance in maintaining the environmental health of its lakes and rivers is among the best in the world.

To provide a straightforward way to make an overall assessment of water quality in Canada and the extent to which water quality is changing, the federal government uses a composite measure known as the Water Quality Index (WQI). The WQI allows experts to convert a wide variety of complex water-quality data into a single rating for specific freshwater sites. The WQI measures how often pollutant levels exceed government guidelines and by how much, and it is a useful overall measure of water quality.

The WQI rates freshwater sites as excellent, good, fair, marginal or poor. High ratings (excellent and good) mean pollutant measurements rarely exceed water quality guidelines, and when they do, it is usually by a small margin.

For this indicator, Environment Canada examines freshwater quality in rivers in populated regions. One hundred and seventy-three stations were measured in 16 drainage regions where human activity is especially intensive. As the chart below shows, the majority of stations across Canada were assigned a score of either fair or good, the second- and third-highest ratings on the five-level scale for 2007 to 2009.


Freshwater quality in populated parts of Canada was rated either excellent or good at 71 monitoring stations, which constituted 41 per cent of all stations. By comparison, water quality was assessed as either marginal or poor at only 35 stations, which represented 20 per cent of the total. This means that twice as many stations across Canada received a positive score as received a negative score.

According to the WQI, there was little change in national freshwater quality since the last set of measurements in 2003 to 2005 (which were reported upon in the 2009 FCPP environmental indicators study). Only seven stations showed a significant improvement in water quality from the last measurement period, and only four stations showed a significant decline in water quality. For the remainder, there was no significant change. This is to be expected, given that freshwater quality indicators tend to change slowly over time.

Canada has enormously abundant freshwater resources. Protecting this extraordinarily valuable environmental endowment should be a top priority for Canadian policymakers.

Happily, the data suggest that Canada is a world leader in terms of freshwater quality. According to the most recent EPI statistics, Canada has the cleanest fresh water in the G8. There is no evidence that Canada’s high level of water quality is declining, as Canada’s strong performance in this area is mostly unchanged since the last major measurement period overseen by Environment Canada.

While the status of Canada’s fresh water is very good by international standards, there is still reason to hope water quality will continue to improve. Major steps have been taken to reduce the harmful impact of municipal wastewater, a major source of water pollution. In 1983, fully 20 per cent of the population’s wastewater received no treatment whatsoever. By 2009, this was reduced to just 3 per cent. Secondary and tertiary treatment can further reduce the likelihood of environmental harm from wastewater. In 1983, 40 per cent of the Canadian population benefitted from at least secondary wastewater treatment. By 2009, this number had grown to 68 per cent.

Canada has made significant progress in providing thorough treatment to a larger percentage of wastewater. As more of Canada’s municipal wastewater systems receive superior treatment, the potential for water contamination by wastewater continues to decline.

Canadians should view the preservation of this country’s abundant fresh water as one of the most important ways of ensuring the continued environmental sustainability of our natural environment. Canada’s strong record in this area indicates that its fresh water is protected from pollution in a way that is likely to ensure the continued quality and utility of its freshwater resources for future generations.

Next: Soil quality

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