Water governance and legislation: shared responsibility

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In Canada, the responsibility for water management is shared by the federal, provincial, and municipal governments, and in some instances, by the territories and by Aboriginal governments under self-government agreements. This shared responsibility necessitates close cooperation and collaboration among all levels of government, Aboriginal peoples, and the public.

Jurisdictional Responsibilities

Canada is a federation. As in many areas of Canadian life, this means different levels of government have different jurisdictional roles related to water management, while there are also many areas of shared commitment.

Canadian provinces and one of the territories have the primary jurisdiction over most areas of water management and protection. Most of those governments delegate certain authorities to municipalities, especially the drinking water treatment and distribution and wastewater treatment operations of urban areas. They may also delegate some water resource management functions to local authorities that may be responsible for a particular area or river basin. Most major uses of water in Canada are permitted or licensed under provincial water management authorities.

Federal jurisdiction applies to the conservation and protection of oceans and their resources, fisheries, navigation, and international relations, including responsibilities related to the management of boundary waters shared with the United States. The federal government also has responsibilities for managing water in its own "federal house," which includes federal lands (e.g., National Parks), federal facilities (e.g., office buildings, labs, penitentiaries, military bases), First Nation reserves, as well as two of Canada's three territories (Nunavut and Northwest Territories).

Shared federal-provincial responsibilities include:

In practice, all orders of government, communities, the private sector, and individual Canadians have responsibilities and make decisions every day that influence the health and sustainability of freshwater resources.

Domestic Arrangements

Canadian governments have created institutions to focus on specific water issues that have implications for more than one province or territory. For example, the Prairie Provinces Water Board manages an agreement for the equitable apportionment of eastward-flowing Prairie rivers and the consideration of water quality problems.

The Mackenzie River Basin Board helps to implement the Mackenzie River Basin Transboundary Waters Master Agreement. This forms the basis for cooperation in protecting and addressing the water quantity and quality of an aquatic ecosystem that covers one-fifth of Canada.

The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME), while not a governance body, is an important collaborative institution through which the provinces, territories, and federal government discuss and act on common approaches to many environmental priorities.

CCME has become a vehicle for collaboration on national water priorities, including research, the development of science-policy linkages, acceleration of the development of water quality guidelines, and better linking of networks that monitor water quality across Canada.

Other federal-provincial-territorial ministerial councils (e.g., Forestry, Mines, and Agriculture) play important roles in environmental protection with impacts on water as part of their focus on the sustainable development of natural resources.

In much the same way, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (a non-governmental organization) effectively represents municipalities' interests. Among its many activities are efforts to identify water issues and best practices that municipalities are encouraged to take into account in their own strategies, policies, and practices.

Federal-provincial agreements

The Canada Water Act calls for joint consultation between the federal and provincial governments in matters relating to water resources. Joint projects involve the regulation, apportionment, monitoring or survey of water resources, and the pre-planning, planning or implementation of sustainable water resource programs.

Agreements for specific water programs provide for the participating governments to contribute funding, information and expertise in agreed ratios. For ongoing activities such as the water quantity survey agreements with each province, cost-sharing is in accordance with each party's need for the data. For study and planning agreements, it is usual for the federal government to meet half the costs and the provincial government the other half. The planning studies encompass interprovincial, international or other basins where federal interests are important. Implementation of planning recommendations occurs on a federal, provincial, and federal-provincial basis. Cost-sharing of the construction of works often includes a contribution from local governments.

A summary of recent agreements can be found in Appendix A of the Canada Water Act Annual Report.

Partnerships in Action

Protection of watersheds and ecosystems

Federal and provincial governments have jointly developed and implemented basin-wide action plans in collaboration with communities and other stakeholders. These action plans are designed to help resolve complex environmental issues, particularly deteriorating water quality that threatens human and ecosystem health.

During the late 1980s, the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes basin was the focus of the first large action plans to clean up, restore, and protect ecosystems. In 1991, governments built on those experiences when they targeted the Fraser River and the Atlantic coastal area for remedial action. Each of these plans involved extensive collaborative actions at the community level to prevent pollution and to restore polluted ecosystems. While each plan was designed to meet specific regional needs and priorities, all were based on an ecosystem approach, promoting partnerships that involve all sectors, encouraging community involvement and ensuring a sound scientific basis for decision making.

For more information, visit the Ecosystem Initiatives section.

Water monitoring

Environment and Climate Change Canada and its counterparts in provincial and territorial governments have a successful 27-year collaborative agreement on water resource monitoring and data/information within Canada, which is focused on water quantity monitoring. This represents a model of international relevance to countries that share major watersheds.

All jurisdictions conduct monitoring programs to assess water quality and to measure impacts of point and nonpoint sources of pollution. Many of these programs are designed to meet the specific priorities and circumstances of individual jurisdictions. Currently, provinces, territories, and the federal government are collaborating on developing a data referencing system under the auspices of the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment. This will facilitate linking water quality monitoring networks across the country to provide more complete information on water quality and trends.

In addition, Health Canada along with provincial and territorial health departments and public health organizations collect and synthesize data on waterborne disease under the National Enteric Surveillance Program. These data are used in outbreak identification and response and are useful in identifying trends and communities or regions at risk.


All jurisdictions in Canada are actively addressing challenges related to aging or inadequate drinking water and wastewater treatment infrastructure. The federal, provincial, and territorial governments have established funding programs that support collaboration with municipalities in improving the quality of infrastructure, with funding for water and wastewater and water supply utilities as a significant focus of these programs.

Similar large-scale investments are addressing the need for improved water and wastewater treatment facilities to meet the health and environmental needs of First Nations and Inuit communities.

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