Report to Parliament 2015 to 2016: Canada Water Act: chapter 5

3.1. Research on the Impacts of Climate Change on Aquatic Systems

In 2015-2016, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) undertook a number of activities to quantify and predict local, regional and national sensitivities of hydrological regimes and aquatic ecosystems to climate change, including:

  • Cataloguing freshwater biodiversity water sources across Canada’s North;
  • A study of the effects of permafrost thaw on tundra lakes, particularly the water chemistry response, and subsequent impacts on benthic invertebrate communities;  
  • Establishing the impact of warming air temperatures, wetter precipitation regimes and thawing permafrost on predominant hydrological and ecological processes and regimes in Canada’s permafrost regions;
  • A project to quantify the impacts on river and lake ice phenologyFootnote1 in northern regions;
  • Continued research evaluating changes in peak runoff events to the Arctic Ocean;
  • Ongoing research at the Baker Creek Research Catchment in order to obtain information on how baseline runoff and water chemistry regimes are changing so as to properly evaluate responsible resource development in the subarctic Canadian Shield;
  • Continued research assessing past and future climatic impacts on western Canadian water resources has quantified the large to synoptic-scale atmospheric circulation patterns responsible for observed hydro-climatic extremes and variability within key watersheds. Future work will involve determining changes to future atmospheric circulation patterns and resultant impacts on water resources within the region;
  • Assessment of climate variability and change on prairie wetlands and hydrology;
  • In collaboration with international and national academic partners, research on the vulnerability of those regions of western Canada reliant on water from mountain headwaters to increasing drought risk and diminishing snowpacks;
  • The establishment of the Great Lakes Evaporation Network that manages observation platforms to evaluate ice-lake temperature-evaporation-water level feedbacks and improve analytical tools to understand and predict the impacts, risks to, and vulnerabilities of the quality of the waters of the Great Lakes from anticipated climate change impacts; and
  • The development of a methodology to quantify the cumulative effects of climate and regulation on the frequency of ice-jam flooding in rivers that are harnessed for hydro-power generation. Its general applicability represents a significant advancement in our understanding of climate-hydrology interactions in regulated rivers.

3.2. Agricultural and Industrial Runoff

Research efforts continued throughout 2015-2016, between ECCC and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), in collaboration with academic research partners from the University of Calgary.

The collaborative research focuses on the mitigation of agricultural impacts on groundwater quality in the transboundary Abbotsford-Sumas aquifer. The Abbotsford-Sumas aquifer straddles the Canada-U.S. border and is a valuable source of fresh water for communities on both sides of the border. ECCC manages a network of monitoring wells on the Canadian side of the aquifer that are focused on the agricultural area where high nitrate levels have been observed in groundwater. Continuous groundwater monitoring in this portion of the aquifer has shown 70% exceedance of the Canadian Drinking Water Quality Guidelines (CDWQG) for nitrate since 1992. The CDWQG suggest the maximum acceptable concentration for nitrate is 10 mg/L Nitrate-N), while the average concentration, from 1990 through 2015, in the study area is about 14.4 mg/L Nitrate-N. In March 2015, nitrate values ranged as high as 51.8 mg/L Nitrate-N. The high average nitrate concentration, above the CDWQG levels, represents an ongoing concern for groundwater users on the US side of the international border, due to the southward direction of groundwater flow. Results of collaborative research on the water quality effects of current agricultural practices over this aquifer were published in the Winter 2015 issue of the Journal of Groundwater Monitoring and Remediation (Volume 35(1), pages 82-96).

A second component of this collaborative research effort is taking place on Prince Edward Island, where researchers from ECCC and AAFC collaborate with academic research partners (University of Calgary, University of Guelph, University of New Brunswick and University of Prince Edward Island) to study the effects of intensive agriculture practices on the quantity and quality of groundwater, and consequently on aquatic ecosystems. On Prince Edward Island, the unconfined aquifer set in fractured sandstone constitutes a valuable public resource as it is the only source of drinking water for the province. Over the last several decades, nitrate concentrations in both streams and groundwater show an upward trend, resulting in more frequent algal blooms and anoxic events experienced by several estuaries in the recent past. The research effort attempts to test the effects of novel crop production systems on the quality of the receiving waters and to understand the nutrient cycling in the soil zone as well as the transport of fertilizers through the shallow geological strata.  Results of this collaborative research were published in the Journal of Groundwater Monitoring and Remediation, 2015 (Volume 53(1), pages 30-42).

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