Evaluation Summary Water Quality and Aquatic Ecosystems Health Program

About the program

  • The objective of the Water Quality and Aquatic Ecosystems Health Program is to provide information on and increase understanding of the impacts and risks posed by human activities on water quality and the health of aquatic ecosystems. The Program includes activities related to the following:
    • monitoring of freshwater, marine water, and the oil sands;
    • research into water quality and aquatic ecosystems health, including related grants and contributions and research under the Northern Contaminants Program; and
    • analytical, laboratory and research support.
  • The program also has close links with several other programs in the department involved in work related to water quality and other water issues, including programs addressing freshwater ecosystem initiatives (e.g., Great Lakes, Lake Winnipeg and the St. Lawrence River).
  • The program is delivered by the Science and Technology Branch (STB) of Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), in partnership with provinces and territories, in accordance with water quality monitoring agreements and as directed by water boards, and, in the case of marine water, in partnership with other government departments.
  • Program expenditures, including laboratory facility costs were $61.1M in 2015-2016.

What the evaluation found

  • Given the importance of freshwater as a resource, the known and emerging threats to water quality and their potential health impacts, as well as existing legislative obligations, there is a clear need to monitor, assess and report on Canada’s water quality.
  • The work of the Water Quality and Aquatic Ecosystems Health Program supports several priority government programs, and addresses commitments outlined in federal/provincial/international agreements related to water quality monitoring.
  • The federal government has responsibilities related to water management and has jurisdiction over transboundary waters, although it shares responsibilities for freshwater quality management with the provinces. To ensure clarity, the Program administrators have implemented a series of agreements that define its roles with respect to inter-jurisdictional water quality monitoring.
  • Research is being conducted in collaboration with others, with a focus on priority areas such as the oil sands, the Arctic, and the Chemicals Management Plan.Footnote 1
  • Credible, science-based and relevant water quality and aquatic ecosystems health information supporting the Program’s mandate and commitments is available to the public and to stakeholders through websites, data portals, and peer-reviewed publications. A range of internal and external stakeholders use water quality and biological indicator data from the program to inform policies, direct actions, assess impacts, and understand status and trends. Although the long-term monitoring data provided are highly valued by partners, there is a need to improve the access and timeliness of the water quality monitoring data and other scientific knowledge and data in order to better support decision-making by program partners and stakeholders.
  • Key risks have been identified and assessed for the freshwater and marine monitoring programs and are being used to manage activities. A considerable amount of work has been undertaken to prioritize freshwater quality monitoring activities through the development of a risk-based approach (RBA). While there has been substantial progress, the approach has yet to be fully implemented. For marine water quality monitoring, the program makes use of pollution surveys and surveillance to target activities and minimize risks.
  • In addition to the use of integrated watershed and risk-based approaches, the evaluation found that the program is employing other efficient operational processes, including taking measures to ensure activities remain focused on key priorities and the use of a collaborative delivery model.
  • Governance for the key program components, such as for freshwater and marine water quality and oil sands monitoring was found to be clearly defined.
  • The Program tracks its progress and reports in various legally required reports, generally at the activity/output level. However, it does not have a performance measurement strategy or approved logic model that clearly communicates the intended Program outcomes for the immediate and longer term, and identifies how progress toward these outcomes will be measured.


The following three recommendations are addressed to the ADM of STB.

  1. Review current processes and identify actions required to support publishing of freshwater quality monitoring data in a more timely manner.
  2. Develop a plan to fully implement the risk-based approach for freshwater quality monitoring.
  3. Within the context of the new Departmental Results Framework, improve performance measurement for the Program by developing an updated logic model with associated indicators and targets for each intended outcome.

The responsible ADMs agree with the recommendations and management responses have been developed that appropriately addressed each recommendation.

About the evaluation

  • The evaluation was conducted by ECCC’s Audit and Evaluation Branch between January 2015 and December 2016.
  • The following data collection methodologies were used to address the evaluation issues and questions: a document review; a bibliometric analysis of Program scientists’ publications during the 2010-2014 period; a file review of a sample of 17 of 40 grant and contribution projects funded during the 2010 – 2014 period; 41 key informant interviews conducted with program representatives, provincial and territorial partners and other external stakeholders; and two case studies.
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