by Alana Coulombe, Education programs administrator
By understanding the importance of Canada’s freshwater supply, we can work together to protect this natural resource for generations to come. Canada holds one-fifth of the world’s total freshwater resources yet only about 7% of this global supply is renewable freshwater (Environment and Climate Change Canada [ECCC], 2013). Additionally, an estimated 60% of Canada’s freshwater supply drains to the north, while about 85% of the population lives in the southern regions (ECCC, 2013).
Non-renewable freshwater resources are rarely or never replenished by nature (Neighbour, 2020). These fossil waters may be locked up in glaciers or slowly seep through layers of rock to collect in underground reservoirs, making them difficult to extract (Neighbour, 2020). Renewable freshwater resources are replenished every year due to the hydrological cycle: water falls in various forms of precipitation like rain and snow, runs off the land as streams and rivers which collect into the ocean, evaporates, and begins the cycle again. Seasonal variations in temperature and precipitation can cause water quantity fluctuations in rivers, lakes, streams, and wetlands resulting in flooding or water shortages. Despite the impacts of climate change on seasonal averages, groundwater aquifers and lake and river surface waters are considered renewable supplies when used sustainably. The overexploitation of water exceeding the ability of natural processes to replenish supplies will impact freshwater availability. For example, excessive water removal may result in rivers drying up or a drastic reduction in the level of groundwater aquifers.
The quantity of freshwater available to each region of Canada varies based on location, demand, drought, and other inevitable impacts of climate change (Neighbour, 2020). Water usage impacts the quantity and quality of freshwater resources as much of the extracted water is circulated back into the waterbody from which it was taken. In some highly developed areas, extreme levels of pollution can make water un-useable for human, animal, and industrial purposes or useable only after extensive treatment (ECCC, 2013). For this reason, proper water monitoring is critical to manage the availability, quantity, and quality of Canada’s freshwater resources and prevent undue stress from human activity.
Shorelands provide numerous ecological services including wildlife habitat, water quality maintenance, wave energy dissipation, flood protection, organic matter processing, and transition zones for aquatic and terrestrial ecosystem exchanges (Strayer & Findlay, 2010). However, shorelands continue to be threatened by human activities and climate change impacts, greatly reducing their ability to provide these ecological services. Humans utilize shorelands for recreational purposes, transportation, building homes and industrial facilities, harvesting resources, and domestic, industrial, and agricultural water use (Strayer & Findlay, 2010). With increasing developmental pressures and freshwater demands, long-term ecological functioning must not be neglected for short-term economic gain. This recognition challenges Canadians to implement nature-based solutions that maximize ecological functioning while maintaining the use of shorelands.
Sustainable development ensures that the current use of natural resources does not affect the availability or usage for future generations (ECCC, 2013). This requires an integrated approach between environmental, social, and economic planning. Developing water resources in harmony with the natural ecosystem ensures neither the water nor the animal and plant life dependent on it are destroyed or depleted for short-term gain at the expense of future generations (ECCC, 2013). Implementing natural shoreline techniques builds freshwater resiliency and enhances ecosystem services. Additionally, vegetated shoreline buffers provide better nutrient processing, shoreline stabilization, wave attenuation, wildlife habitat, and aesthetic value than hardened shoreline practices (Harris et al., 2014). Clean and abundant freshwater is fundamental to human health, the environment, and Canada’s long-term economic growth.
Freshwater conservation efforts targeting individual parts of the shoreland aim to ultimately benefit the larger waterbody system (Strayer & Findlay, 2010). Wrack is the organic matter that naturally washes onto shore providing an important component of shoreline ecosystems. Wrack attracts wildlife, provides macroinvertebrate habitat, and supplies organic matter and nutrients to terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems (Harris et al., 2014). Traditional land use practices replaced natural shorelands of low slopes with steep or vertically engineered structures, consequently, reducing their ability to accumulate wrack and decreasing the ecological role of wrack in freshwater ecosystems (Harris et al., 2014). Naturalizing shorelines with native vegetation improves their capacity to retain large amounts of wrack and supports significantly higher macroinvertebrate abundance and diversity (Harris et al., 2014). When communities engage in stewardship actions, Canada’s freshwater, and all the life it supports, benefit together!
Through education, outreach, and program delivery, we can build community support for strong land use policies that protect local freshwater systems. Together, we can encourage municipal decision-makers to conserve and sustainably manage our freshwater resources. As individual environmental stewards, we can also protect local freshwater by making small, water-conscious decisions each day. Simple habit changes like only running full loads of laundry, turning the tap off while brushing teeth, and reducing shower times can result in substantial water savings (Neighbour, 2020).
Restoring shorelands to their natural state through the planting of native plant species builds capacity for freshwater resiliency. Vegetated shoreline buffers have a natural capacity to filter sediments and pollutants from surface runoff, oxygenate water, moderate temperatures, and provide wildlife habitat to protect the freshwater that sustains us all. With improved land use policies and community action to rehabilitate ecologically degraded shoreland ecosystems, we can protect the environmental, health, social, and economic benefits of Canada’s freshwater resources for future generations.
Environment and Climate Change Canada. (2013). Water in Canada. Government of Canada. https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/water-overview/publications/water-in-canada.html
Harris, C., Strayer, D. L., & Findlay, S. (2014). The ecology of freshwater wrack along natural and engineered Hudson River shorelines. Hydrobiologia 722, 233–245. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10750-013-1706-3
Neighbour, J. (2020). Does Canada need to conserve its water? National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/partner-content-where-our-water-goes-canada
Strayer, D. L., & Findlay, S. E. G. (2010). Ecology of freshwater shore zones. Aquatic Sciences, 72, 127–163. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00027-010-0128-9
This blog is part of a series generously funded under the the Government of Canada’s EcoAction Community Funding Program. This two-year project is led by Watersheds Canada, Quinte Conservation, Cataraqui Conservation, Dog & Cranberry Lakes Association, the Municipality of South Frontenac, the Municipality of Tweed, Friends of Stoco Lake, and local residents and focuses on restoring and sustainably naturalizing shorelines along Stoco Lake and Dog Lake in Ontario to improve freshwater quality.