Goal 6: Ensure clean and safe water for all Canadians

Why this goal is important

Canada has about 20% of the planet's freshwater resources and 7% of the world's renewable fresh water. 

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This Goal's focus is on restoring freshwater ecosystems and ensuring clean and safe water for Canadians which directly supports SDG Global Indicator Framework targets:

  • 6.1: By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all
  • 6.3: By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally
  • 6.4: By 2030, substantially increase water-use efficiency across all sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity and substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity
  • 6.5: By 2030, implement integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate

Canada's waters are an irreplaceable natural heritage that Canadians should use sustainably and be able to access equitably. In Canada, lakes and rivers supply drinking water to millions of Canadians and sustain a rich variety of plants and animals. Groundwater resources also provide drinking water to Canadians, sustain base flow in streams and rivers during dry periods, and support ecological services.

Addressing sources of water pollution and contamination, such as under-treated wastewater and run-off from cities and farms, can help ensure that lakes and rivers continue to provide opportunities for swimming, boating, and recreational fishing and support economic activities such as tourism, commercial fisheries, agriculture, shipping, manufacturing, and energy production over the long term. Fresh water is often sacred and at the centre of all life for Indigenous Peoples. For many, water permeates every aspect of existence.

Protecting and restoring water resources requires collaboration and partnership among the Government of Canada and provinces and territories, Indigenous Peoples, municipalities, conservation authorities, and other governments and organizations. Notably, Canada and the United States have a long history of effective cooperation in managing shared waters. More than 40% of the Canada-U.S. border is water, and more than 300 rivers and lakes (some of the largest in the world) lie along, or flow across, the border between Canada and the United States.

Finally, while Canada's drinking water is among the safest in the world, access to clean drinking water remains a challenge in some small and remote First Nations communities on reserves. The Government of Canada is committed to working in partnership with First Nations to eliminate all remaining long-term drinking water advisories on reserves and make sure that long-term investments and resources are in place to prevent future ones.

How the Government of Canada contributes

Freshwater management in Canada is a responsibility shared among federal, provincial, territorial, and Indigenous governments. 

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The Government of Canada has jurisdiction in areas such as fisheries, pollution prevention, shipping and navigation, international relations, transboundary waters, creating and managing protected areas and managing freshwater on federal lands. It also plays a leadership role in freshwater science and research to ensure that Canadians have the necessary information for evidence-based decision making on Canadian freshwater resources. For example, the government develops Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality in partnership with the provinces and territories.

Protecting and conserving Canadian waters is a key priority for the Government of Canada. The pollution prevention provisions of the Fisheries Act prohibit the release of pollution in waters frequented by fish. These provisions are some of the federal government's strongest tools for reducing pollution to water. Environment and Climate Change Canada manages these responsibilities by developing regulations, such as the Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations, that set strict requirements on any releases to water, and by applying and enforcing the Fisheries Act prohibition where there are no regulations.

The Canada Water Act provides a framework for collaboration among federal, provincial, and territorial governments in matters related to water resources. The Government of Canada also has agreements with provinces to work collaboratively on water issues, such as the Canada-Quebec Agreement on the St. Lawrence 2011 to 2026 (St. Lawrence Action Plan), the 2021 Canada-Ontario Agreement on Great Lakes Water Quality and Ecosystem Health, and the Canada-Manitoba Memorandum of Understanding Respecting Lake Winnipeg and the Lake Winnipeg Basin (2021 to 2026).

The Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 is the basis for collaborative management of Canada-U.S. boundary and transboundary waters. Canada is also a signatory to other international agreements with the U.S. to manage boundary and transboundary waters, such as the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the Columbia River Treaty. This work includes actions to restore and protect Lake Erie and other Great Lakes, as well as the 2016 commitment to reduce annual phosphorus loadings into Lake Erie by 40% from 2008 levels.

The Government of Canada has adopted protocols and guidelines to support First Nations in providing community water and wastewater services comparable to the levels of service that would generally be available in off-reserve communities of similar size and circumstances, as well as to set out clear standards for the design, operation and maintenance of drinking water systems.

Supporting access to clean drinking water in First Nations communities on reserves

The solutions to addressing drinking water in First Nations are unique to each community, and Indigenous Services Canada works closely with each community to find the most appropriate solution. On reserves, providing safe drinking water is a shared responsibility among First Nations communities and the Government of Canada. First Nations own and operate their water and wastewater systems and design and construct facilities. The Department provides advice and financial support to First Nations communities for their public water and wastewater systems and ensures that drinking water quality monitoring programs are in place.

Indigenous Services Canada is supporting First Nations partners to achieve sustainable access to safe drinking water, including by:

  • committing $5.6 billion in funding from 2016 to 2024 to First Nations to upgrade water and wastewater infrastructure on reserves, to better support the operation and maintenance of systems, and to improve the monitoring and testing of community drinking water
  • supporting First Nations to address and prevent long-term drinking water advisories
  • advancing reconciliation through the approval of the Safe Drinking Water Settlement Agreement

Between November 2015 and August 10, 2022, 135 Long-Term Drinking Water Advisories and 222 Short-Term Drinking Water Advisories have been lifted from public systems on reserves. Indigenous Services Canada continues to partner with First Nations to develop new approaches that will ensure that on-reserve water and wastewater systems are safe and adequately meet the needs of each community.

Stakeholder perspective: PortsToronto Trash Trapping Program

In an effort to combat and study single-use plastics and microplastics in waterways, PortsToronto launched its award-winning Trash Trapping Program in 2019. The University of Toronto Trash Team, as project partners, count and characterize the materials captured by PortsToronto Seabins in order to further understand the origination of floating plastic and litter in the Toronto Harbour. This informs technological and behavioural solutions to prevent these materials from entering Lake Ontario in the first place. PortsToronto and the University of Toronto Trash Team report that the Trash Trapping Program diverted tens of thousands of small pieces of plastic pollution from Lake Ontario over the course of a seven-week field season in 2021. Individual Seabins removed an estimated 209 pieces of small plastic per day, with the entire network capable of diverting 33-kilograms of litter throughout an entire season—the weight of approximately 3,400 plastic water bottles.

Source: PortsToronto

Additional context and updates regarding this goal

Targets, indicators, milestones and contextual indicators

Targets, indicators, milestones and contextual indicators

Theme:  Healthy lakes and rivers

Target: Restoration and protection of lakes and rivers (1)

By 2027, action plans are in place to advance restoration and protection of major lakes and rivers in Canada 

Indicator (i)

Number of action plans to advance restoration and protection of major lakes and rivers

This indicator tracks the number of action plans in place to advance restoration and protection of major lakes and rivers in Canada—specifically, the Great Lakes, Lake Winnipeg, Lake of the Woods, St. Lawrence River, Fraser River, Mackenzie River, the Wolostoq/St. John River and Lake Simcoe. As of January 2022, 3 action plans were in place.

Short-term milestone: Advance freshwater science and data (1)

By March 2024, ensure that the National Freshwater Data Strategy and National Freshwater Science Agenda are established.

Short-term milestone: Restore the Great Lakes Areas of Concern(1)

By the end of 2026, complete all actions required to restore 6 Areas of Concern in the Great Lakes, as outlined in the 2021 to 2026 Canada-Ontario Agreement on Great Lakes Water Quality and Ecosystem Health.

Short-term milestone: Create a new Canada Water Agency (1)

By the end of 2022, create a new Canada Water Agency to work together with the provinces, territories, Indigenous communities, local authorities, scientists and others to find the best ways to keep Canada's water safe, clean and well-managed.

Short-term milestone: Publish reports on the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River (1)
  • By the end of 2024, publish the 2024 State of the St. Lawrence River report
  • By the end of 2025, publish the Great Lakes Progress Report of the Parties
  • By the end of 2025, publish the State of the Great Lakes report
Short-term milestone: Report on the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (1)

By the end of 2025, report on all 9 objectives to be achieved for the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement outlines 9 general objectives on issues such as clean drinking water; consumption of fish and wildlife; pollutants in quantities or concentrations that could be harmful to human health, wildlife, or aquatic organisms; and other conditions that may negatively impact the waters of the Great Lakes.

Theme:  Drinking water and wastewater

Target: First Nations public drinking water systems (2)

By March 31, 2026, 97% of Indigenous Services Canada-funded First Nations public drinking water systems produce treated water meeting prescribed bacteriological standards in the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality.

Indicator (i)

Percentage of First Nations drinking water systems that meet the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality

This indicator measures the percentage of Indigenous Services Canada-funded First Nations public drinking water systems, with treated water exiting the treatment plant, as monitored by the water operator, which meet prescribed bacteriological standards in the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality. As of fiscal year 2019 to 2020, 94% of these drinking water systems met the established standards. The measurement of this indicator and its baseline may vary slightly as new data becomes available.

Target: First Nations wastewater effluent (2)

By March 2030, 85% of wastewater systems on reserves achieve effluent quality standards 

Indicator (i)

Percentage of wastewater systems on reserves where effluent quality standards are achieved

This indicator tracks the percentage of wastewater systems on reserves that meet the effluent quality standards of the Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations or an equivalency agreement. As this is a new indicator, no baseline data is available.

Target: Wastewater effluent quality (2)

By December 2040, 100% of wastewater systems achieve effluent quality standards 

Indicator (i)

Percentage of wastewater systems where effluent quality standards are achieved

This indicator tracks the percentage of wastewater systems that meet the effluent quality standards of the Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations or an equivalency agreement. In 2015, 77% of wastewater systems achieved effluent quality standards.

Short-term milestone: Repeal and replace the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act (2)

As part of the Safe Drinking Water Class Action Settlement Agreement, make all reasonable efforts to repeal the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, and to develop and introduce replacement legislation, in consultation with First Nations, by December 31, 2022.

Update

The repeal of the 2013 Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act through the Budget Implementation Act, 2022, No. 1 received Royal Assent on June 23, 2022.

Bill C-61, an Act respecting water, drinking water, source water, wastewater and related infrastructure on First Nation lands, was introduced on December 11, 2023.

Status: Achieved

Source: Indigenous Services Canada, 2023

Short-term milestone: Reduce risk to public water systems on reserves (2)

By March 31, 2026, ensure 70% of public water systems in First Nations communities have a low risk rating, up from a baseline of 57% in 2019 to 2020.

Short-term milestone: Reduce risk to public wastewater systems on reserves (2)

By March 31, 2026, ensure 69% of public wastewater systems in First Nations communities have a low risk rating, up from a baseline of 48% in 2019 to 2020.

Short-term milestone: Complete approved water and wastewater projects (2)

By March 31, 2026, more than 90% of the 385 water and 449 wastewater projects approved, but not yet completed, under the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program are expected to be completed.

Contextual indicator: Boil water advisories (i)

This indicator tracks why boil water advisories are issued. The indicator also shows the relationship between community size and the frequency of boil water advisories. In 2021:

  • 2% of boil water advisories were due to the detection of Escherichia coli (E. coli)
  • 8% were due to other microbiological water quality parameters
  • the remaining 90% were due to equipment and process-related problems
Contextual indicator: Sustainable water use (i)

This indicator provides a measure of water withdrawal from rivers, lakes, groundwater and oceans as well as water consumption by human activities in Canada. The indicator will provide national and regional information and by economic sector. The objective is to have this indicator released by the end of fiscal year 2022-23.

Contextual indicator: Water quality in Canadian rivers (i)

This indicator provides a measure of the ability of river water across Canada to support plants and animals. For the 2017 to 2019 period, indicator results rated water quality in rivers in Canada as fair to excellent at 82% of the monitored sites.

Update

For the 2018 to 2020 period, water quality in rivers in Canada was rated fair to excellent at 83% of the monitored sites

Source: ECCC Canadian Environmental lndicators, Water quality in Canadian rivers, 2023

Contextual indicator: Water quantity in Canadian rivers (i)

This indicator provides information about water flows in Canada. From 2001 to 2017, most Canadian rivers had normal water quantity.

Implementation strategies and departmental actions

Implementation strategies and departmental actions

Theme:  Healthy lakes and rivers

Implementation strategy: Develop knowledge of water sustainability in Canada (1)

Take action to build knowledge and scientific understanding of freshwater resources, including lakes and rivers, aquifers and groundwater, as well as water usage, consumption, and evaporation rates.

Implementation strategy: Implement water quality and ecosystem partnership programs (1)

Take action to improve water quality in freshwater ecosystems, including by reducing nutrient loading to lakes and basins in Canada, restoring degraded environments in transboundary watersheds, and better understanding the impacts of climate change and other stressors to inform priority setting and decision making.

Theme:  Drinking water and wastewater

Implementation strategy: Continue to take action towards eliminating remaining long-term drinking water advisories on reserves (2)

Working with First Nations, continue to take action in support of the commitment to eliminate remaining long-term drinking water advisories on reserves and increase efforts to ensure that long-term investments and resources are in place to prevent future ones. For example, continue to take measures to support Indigenous-led engagement processes, co-develop long-term strategies for sustainable drinking water and wastewater, and invest in water and wastewater assets, including their operation and maintenance.

Implementation strategy: Support First Nations control of water delivery (2)

Support First Nations communities to assume control and delivery of water and wastewater services, including by transferring water and wastewater services in communities to the Atlantic First Nations Water Authority.

Implementation strategy: Implement the Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations on reserves (2)

Implement the Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations mandatory minimum effluent quality standards through secondary wastewater treatment and other federal activities.

Implementation strategy: Implement the Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations (2)

Implement the Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations mandatory minimum effluent quality standards through secondary wastewater treatment and other federal activities.

Implementation strategy: Work with partners on drinking water quality (2)

Work with provinces and territories to develop the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality, which set out maximum acceptable concentrations of specific contaminants in drinking water. All provinces and territories use the guidelines as the basis for their regulations and requirements for drinking water quality and safety, ensuring that Canadians benefit from evidence-based decisions on Canadian fresh water.

Responsibilities and contributions of federal organizations

Responsibilities and contributions of federal organizations

1 Target theme: Healthy lakes and rivers
FSDS component Title Supports goal and/or target Responsible organization(s)
Target By 2027, action plans are in place to advance restoration and protection of major lakes and rivers in Canada Supports the goal Minister of Environment and Climate Change
Milestone Advance freshwater science and data Supports the goal and the Restoration and protection of lakes and rivers target Environment and Climate Change Canada
Milestone Restore the Great Lakes Areas of Concern Supports the goal and the Restoration and protection of lakes and rivers target
Environment and Climate Change Canada
Milestone Create a new Canada Water Agency Supports the goal

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Environment and Climate Change Canada (lead)

Milestone Publish reports on the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River Supports the goal Environment and Climate Change Canada
Milestone Report on the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement Supports the goal Environment and Climate Change Canada
Implementation Strategy Develop knowledge of water sustainability in Canada Supports the goal and the Restoration and protection of lakes and rivers target

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Environment and Climate Change Canada

Implementation Strategy Implement water quality and ecosystem partnership programs Supports the goal and the Restoration and protection of lakes and rivers target
Environment and Climate Change Canada
2 Target theme: Drinking water and wastewater
FSDS component Title Supports goal and/or target Responsible organization(s)
Target By March 31, 2026, 97% of Indigenous Services Canada-funded First Nations public drinking water systems produce treated water meeting prescribed bacteriological standards in the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality Supports the goal Minister of Indigenous Services
Target By March 2030, 85% of wastewater systems on reserves achieve effluent quality standards Supports the goal Minister of Indigenous Services
Target By December 2040, 100% of wastewater systems achieve effluent quality standards Supports the goal Minister of Environment and Climate Change
Milestone Repeal and replace the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act Supports the goal and the First Nations public drinking water systems target Indigenous Services Canada
Milestone Reduce risk to public water systems on reserves Supports the goal and the First Nations public drinking water systems target Indigenous Services Canada
Milestone Reduce risk to public wastewater systems on reserves Supports the goal and the First Nations public drinking water systems target Indigenous Services Canada
Milestone Complete approved water and wastewater projects Supports the goal Infrastructure Canada
Implementation Strategy Continue to take action towards eliminating remaining long-term drinking water advisories on reserves Supports the goal and the First Nations public drinking water systems target Indigenous Services Canada
Implementation Strategy Support First Nations control of water delivery Supports the goal and the First Nations public drinking water systems target Indigenous Services Canada
Implementation strategy Implement the Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations on reserves Supports the goal and the First Nations wastewater effluent quality target Indigenous Services Canada
Implementation Strategy Implement the Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations Supports the goal and the First Nations wastewater effluent quality target Environment and Climate Change Canada
Implementation Strategy Work with partners on drinking water quality Supports the goal Health Canada

Performance measurement

iIndicators supporting the goal and contextual indicators
Indicator type Target Indicator Source Update cycle
Target By 2027, action plans are in place to advance restoration and protection of major lakes and rivers in Canada Number of action plans to advance restoration and protection of major lakes and rivers Environment and Climate Change Canada Annual
Target By March 31, 2026, 97% of Indigenous Services Canada-funded First Nations public drinking water systems produce treated water meeting prescribed bacteriological standards in the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality Percent of First Nations drinking water systems that meet the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality Indigenous Services Canada Annual
Target By March 2030, 85% of wastewater systems on reserves achieve effluent quality standards Percentage of wastewater systems on reserves where effluent quality standards are achieved Indigenous Services Canada Annual
Target By December 2040, 100% of wastewater systems achieve effluent quality standards Percentage of wastewater systems where effluent quality standards are achieved Environment and Climate Change Canada Annual
Contextual Boil water advisories CESI Every 2 years
Sustainable water use CESI Indicator under development
Water quality in Canadian rivers * CESI Annual
Water quantity in Canadian rivers CESI Every 2 years

*Indicators that have also been included in the Canadian Indicator Framework.

For more detailed information see Strengthening transparency and accountability.

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