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Pristine lakes and rivers

Long-term goal

Clean and healthy lakes and rivers support economic prosperity and the well-being of Canadians

On this page

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Why is this issue important

Lakes and rivers across Canada—from the Fraser, to the Mackenzie, to the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence, to the Saint John River, to the Churchill—sustain a rich variety of plants and animals, supply drinking water to millions of Canadians, provide opportunities for swimming, boating and recreational fishing, and support economic activities such as tourism, commercial fisheries, agriculture and shipping.

Many lakes and rivers have been impacted by water pollution and contamination. For example, untreated storm water, urban and agricultural run-off, and undertreated wastewater have caused excessive nutrient levels in some lakes, streams, and rivers, leading to algal blooms and zones of low oxygen that can make water unsafe for drinking, swimming and fishing.

Integrated watershed management

An integrated watershed management approach is a collaborative process in which all decision makers and agencies with management authority work together to meet the goals of a watershed management strategy. Work under this goal reflects an integrated approach that includes collaboration on research, monitoring and actions under basin management agreements in key aquatic ecosystems.

Canada in the world

Protecting lakes and rivers supports the 2030 Agenda and its global Sustainable Development Goals—in particular SDG 6, Clean Water and Sanitation; SDG 8, Decent Work and Economic Growth; SDG 12, Responsible Consumption and Production; SDG 14, Life Below Water; SDG 15, Life on Land; and SDG 17, Partnerships for the Goals. It also supports specific SDG targets, as well as other international agreements and initiatives.

Work under this goal supports progress toward the 2020 Biodiversity Goals and Targets for Canada and the global conservation objectives of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity—in particular, by helping to reduce pollution levels, including pollution from excess nutrients.

For details on how this goal supports international action, see Annex 3.

Connections with other FSDS areas

Protecting lakes and rivers supports other FSDS targets related to ensuring clean drinking water and building safe and healthy communities; achieving this goal is enabled by targets related to climate action and sustainable food:

Our partners

Some lakes and rivers, such as the Great Lakes and Lake Winnipeg, have basins that cross provincial and national boundaries. As a result, we use an integrated watershed management approach to work with a broad range of partners to solve the challenges facing these ecosystems.

Provinces and territories share jurisdiction over lakes and rivers with the federal government, and are working with us toward shared objectives for the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River, and Lake Winnipeg. Indigenous peoples, communities and environmental non-governmental organizations also play important roles.

Meanwhile, Canada works with US federal and state governments to address transboundary water issues binationally, as well as through the International Joint Commission and its boards, committees and task forces. Canada and the US also work together through the Great Lakes Fishery Commission to improve and perpetuate the Great Lakes fishery.

Partners taking action - Community Interaction Program

The Community Interaction Program under the St. Lawrence Action Plan provides funding for projects led by Indigenous communities, not-for-profit organizations and other partners to conserve biodiversity, improve water quality and ensure the sustainable use of the St. Lawrence. Examples of projects include the experimental restoration of an eelgrass bed in Mitis Bay and the feasibility study on the installation of an eel ladder and assessment of the abundance, distribution and quality of habitat in the St. Charles River.

Partners taking action - Alberta Oil Sands Environmental Monitoring Program

The Governments of Canada and Alberta are working with Indigenous peoples and their communities, stakeholders and environmental agencies to ensure the oil sands region is developed in a responsible way. Together we are working to provide comprehensive environmental monitoring data and information to improve understanding of the long-term cumulative effects of oil sands development. The monitoring program includes collecting water data to assess oil sands contaminants in the Athabasca River System, including monitoring water quality and quantity, sediment, and fish health.

Responsible minister/Key departments and agencies

Minister of Environment and Climate Change/ Environment and Climate Change Canada; Fisheries and Oceans Canada; Natural Resources Canada; Parks Canada; Transport Canada

Canada's starting point

  • To measure overall water quality and quantity in Canada, we track indicators that summarize the ability of select rivers across Canada to support aquatic life, and that summarize data from water quantity monitoring stations across Canada. The indicators show that national freshwater quality remained relatively stable between 2002 and 2017 at a majority of sites across southern Canada. Water quality at more than 80% of the sites was within the fair to excellent categories between 2015 and 2017. Water quantity was generally normal between 2001 and 2015.
  • To measure progress on reducing nutrient pollution, we track phosphorus levels as well as reductions in the amount of phosphorus entering lakes and rivers:
    • as of March 2017, Lake Winnipeg Basin Stewardship Fund projects were preventing an estimated 29 715 kilograms of phosphorus per year from entering Lake Winnipeg and its tributaries
    • going forward, we will also track estimated total phosphorus loads to Lake Erie, as well as phosphorus reductions resulting from projects funded through the Great Lakes Protection Initiative
  • To measure progress on restoring lake and river ecosystems in the Great Lakes, we track the number of Canadian Great Lakes Areas of Concern and the number of beneficial uses considered Not Impaired. Canadian Areas of Concern have continued to recover in recent years.
  • To measure the extent to which risks associated with industrial effluent are being reduced, we track compliance with regulations to reduce risks from metal mining and pulp and paper effluent. The rate of compliance with these regulations in 2016 is very high—over 95%. Going forward, we will also track compliance in the diamond mining sector.