WWF report warns of data gaps in 60% of Canada’s sub-watersheds


A new report from World Wildlife Fund Canada warns that missing monitoring data from 100 of the country’s 176 sub-watersheds may be obscuring threats.

That missing data is putting freshwater health at risk, the report warns, as it means not knowing when and where to take action when it comes to understanding the most critical needs around health indicators such as water quality, flow, fish and benthic invertebrates that live on the bottom of a water body as reliable gauges of water health.

“Despite the threats and wildlife declines, freshwater habitats are largely unprotected and understudied,” the report states.

The new report, which calls for growth in community-based water monitoring, is a follow-up to WWF’s 2017 watershed assessment, when 110 sub-watersheds were found to be data deficient. The Toronto-headquartered conservation organization says assessments should be carried out every three to five years to provide a holistic understanding of what is currently happening with freshwater ecosystems throughout Canada.

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Environmental monitoring from STREAM, which stands for Sequencing the Rivers for Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, was critical to providing more data for the 2020 report. STREAM is a collaboration between WWF-Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada, the University of Guelph and Living Lakes Canada.

The new report highlights issues with two sub-watersheds in particular due to a continuing inability to gain certain data points: The Northern Québec watershed and the Assiniboine-Red watershed throughout the Prairies. The Northern Québec watershed remains data deficient with 10 of its 12 sub-watersheds not receiving a score.

“This is of concern since the area is home to some of the largest dams in the world and flows in those sub-watersheds have suffered impacts from man-made barriers,” the report states.

Additionally, the Assiniboine-Red watershed is now data deficient in all four of its sub-watersheds for the benthic invertebrate indicator. 

“This area is dense in agricultural activity — a concern for benthic invertebrate communities due to pesticide runoff and erosion from overworked soil,” the report states.

For sub-watersheds that scored poor or fair in the reports, the lower rankings were often associated with poor flow and water quality indicator performance.

The Upper St. Lawrence sub-watershed was previously data deficient, but is now considered in very poor health due to a very poor benthic invertebrate score, through which certain species in a given area can help indicate if the water is healthy or not. Sixty-four per cent (107 of 167) of Canada’s sub-watersheds are data deficient for this metric.

But there were positive trends, too, since the 2017 assessment. For example, the Attawapiskat sub-watershed in northern Ontario was previously data deficient and now has an overall score of fair, partly driven by a fair water quality score. The Upper St. Lawrence sub-watershed, previously data deficient, at least has more monitoring data available; however, it is now considered in very poor health due to a very poor benthic invertebrate score.

“With this report, we can make sure we’re prioritizing restoration actions in regions that face the highest threats and continue protection of regions that are in good health, making sure we keep them that way into the future,” said Megan Leslie, president and CEO of WWF-Canada.

The report looks at the impact of manmade structures, such as dams, ongoing water extraction for agriculture, and resource development, on indicators like flow. Under the heading of hydrology, WWF gave 53% of sub-watersheds a score of poor or fair.

“The new data has revealed that river flow is a much bigger problem than we thought,” the report states, noting that climate change may be playing a significant role, particularly in cases such as the Arctic Coast Islands.

In terms of water quality, 61% of sub-watersheds received a score of either poor or fair.

Issues affecting water quality were often exceedances of aluminum, chloride, iron and phosphorus, as well as levels of dissolved oxygen below the concentration required for healthy aquatic life. High levels of phosphorus and low concentrations of dissolved oxygen are often associated with agriculture. High chloride in urban areas is often a product of road salt application, the report noted.

In the more resource extraction focused areas of the Columbia or Battle River sub-watersheds, metals such as aluminum, cadmium, zinc, iron and mercury, along with nutrients, were the main parameter drivers.

Yukon and the Newfoundland and Labrador watersheds had benthic indicator scores go from poor, good or very good to data deficient in the reassessment, proving “how quickly data and assessments can become outdated and highlights the need for more strategic and consistent monitoring,” the report states.


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