Canada Water Act annual report for 2019 to 2020: chapter 7

7 Ecosystem-based approaches to water quality management

This section describes a number of key cooperation-based ecosystem approaches through which ECCC works to ensure that Canadians have access to clean, safe and healthy water, and that the country’s water resources are used wisely, both economically and ecologically. While not all of these initiatives are formalized under the Act, they do contribute to the objectives of the Act through improving the management of water resources in Canada.

ECCC’s Ecosystem Initiatives are cooperative, place-based programs designed to deliver environmental results in targeted ecosystems. The objective of the Ecosystem Initiatives is to enhance or maintain ecosystem sustainability by addressing a range of local or regional environmental challenges through partnership-based work. Local activities are coordinated by ECCC and undertaken in collaboration with a range of local partners and stakeholders that may include other federal departments, provinces and territories, regional, municipal and local governments, Indigenous peoples, federal and state governments in the United States, businesses, non‑governmental and community organizations, and colleges and universities.

7.1 Lake Winnipeg Basin Program

The Lake Winnipeg Basin Program (LWBP) is the Government of Canada’s response to addressing water quality issues in Lake Winnipeg (2017-2022). The LWBP aims to engage citizens, scientists, and domestic and international partners in actions to restore the ecological health of Lake Winnipeg, reduce nutrient pollution and improve water quality.

The Canada-Manitoba Memorandum of Understanding Respecting Lake Winnipeg and the Lake Winnipeg Basin, signed under the Canada Water Act, facilitates a cooperative and coordinated approach to improve the ecological health of Lake Winnipeg and its basin. It includes efforts such as the development and reporting of lake indicators and publishing a State of the Lake Winnipeg report to be released in the spring of 2020. With the current Memorandum of Understanding set to expire in September 2020, Canada and Manitoba are collaborating to develop and sign a new Memorandum of Understanding in 2020.

Lake Winnipeg Basin Program Science Plan

The LWBP Science Plan builds upon previous work that characterized the state of Lake Winnipeg. Research is aimed at improving knowledge of nutrient export to streams and understanding impacts of climate variability and invasive species on the lake. The science plan has four priority areas:

  1. Reporting on progress towards restoring a healthy Lake Winnipeg;
  2. Monitoring to assess status and track changes;
  3. Research on nutrient sources and transport pathways to the lake; and
  4. Research on lake ecosystem components to achieve a sustainable nutrient balance.

The LWBP also supports the Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium, which operates and maintains the in-lake science platform on Lake Winnipeg, and the Canadian Watershed Information Network (CanWIN), a web-based open access data and information network.

Scientific projects in 2019-2020 focused on:

Nutrient reducing actions

In 2019-2020, Lake Winnipeg experienced large and frequent algal blooms due to high nutrient levels from multiple transboundary sources, including agriculture, industry, municipal wastewater and surface runoff.

Through application-based funding, the LWBP supports targeted stakeholder driven projects in key geographic areas within the Lake Winnipeg Basin that demonstrate an effective means of reducing phosphorus loading and increasing public knowledge and engagement on water quality issues. This includes activities such as:

ECCC, the Manitoba government and other partners are engaging people in nutrient reducing activities in several ways, including by supporting innovative nutrient reduction demonstration projects and research through the LWBP.

Projects funded by ECCC and completed between 2010 and 2019 have prevented an estimated 172 023 kilograms of phosphorus from reaching Lake Winnipeg. Through application-based funding, the LWBP supports stakeholder-led efforts in key geographic areas within the Lake Winnipeg Basin that demonstrate an effective means of reducing phosphorus loading, while also increasing public knowledge and engagement on water quality issues.

Figure 9 - Estimated cumulative reduction in the amount of phosphorus reaching Lake Winnipeg as a result of projects implemented through Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Lake Winnipeg basin programming, Canada, April 2010 to March 2019

Figure 9 - Estimated cumulative reduction in the amount of phosphorus reaching Lake Winnipeg as a result of projects implemented through Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Lake Winnipeg basin programming, Canada, April 2010 to March 2019
Figure 9 - Estimated cumulative reduction in the amount of phosphorus reaching Lake Winnipeg as a result of projects implemented through Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Lake Winnipeg basin programming, Canada, April 2010 to March 2019
Long description
Estimated cumulative reduction in the amount of phosphorus reaching Lake Winnipeg as a result of projects implemented through Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Lake Winnipeg basin programming, Canada, April 2010 to March 2019
Year Estimated phosphorus removal (kilograms of phosphorus per year) Year (kilograms of phosphorus) Estimated phosphorus removal (kilograms of phosphorus)
2011 4906 n/a 4,906
2012 1586 n/a 11,398
2013 0a n/a 17,890
2014 122 n/a 24,504
2015 8194 n/a 39,312
2016 7403 21,345 82,869
2017 7504 n/a 112,583b
2018 0a n/a 142,298b
2019 9 n/a 172,022b
2020 11,932 n/a 213,678


n/a = not applicable.

a No new phosphorus reduction projects were funded that year.

bThe value has been updated as a result of a correction in the reported value from a completed project.

Note: The estimated reduction in phosphorus load is based on the results of Lake Winnipeg basin programming funded projects completed between April 2010 and March 2019. Estimated phosphorus reductions for each project are summed to calculate the total. Year refers to fiscal year, which runs from April 1 to March 31. The year 2019 therefore refers to April 1, 2018 to March 31, 2019.

Source: Environment and Climate Change Canada (2019) Lake Winnipeg Basin Program.

Indigenous engagement

The water quality in Lake Winnipeg and its basin affects the cultural, social, spiritual, and economic well-being of Indigenous peoples. The LWBP supports opportunities to build capacity and increase engagement of Indigenous governments, organizations and communities on Lake Winnipeg basin water quality issues, including the incorporation of traditional knowledge in discussions on the ecosystem health of Lake Winnipeg.

Some key highlights from 2019-2020 include the following.

7.2 Great Lakes Protection Initiative

The Great Lakes Protection Initiative is ECCC’s primary program targeting federal water quality and aquatic ecosystem priorities in the Great Lakes. Through the Initiative, ECCC combines science and action to address the most significant threats to Great Lakes water quality and ecosystem health. Its current priorities for action include: working with others to protect the Great Lakes, restoring water quality and ecosystem health in Areas of Concern, preventing toxic and nuisance algae, improving the health of coastal wetlands, identifying at-risk nearshore waters, reducing releases of harmful chemicals, engaging Indigenous peoples in addressing Great Lakes issues, and engaging the public through citizen science.

Freshwater management of the Great Lakes is a responsibility shared by multiple levels of government. To coordinate efforts on water management, restoration and protection, ECCC works in close collaboration with other implicated federal departments, the governments of the United States and Ontario, local governments, Indigenous peoples and many other organizations, and individuals. This is accomplished through leading and coordinating implementation of the 2012 Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) and the Canada-Ontario Agreement on Great Lakes Water Quality and Ecosystem Health (COA), an instrument under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999. The GLWQA establishes long term bi-national objectives for the restoration and protection of the Great Lakes, while theCOA provides the governments of Canada and Ontario with a shared short-term (five-year) action plan for achieving Canada’s commitments under the GLWQA.

Key actions completed for the reporting period include:

To support others in taking action to protect the Great Lakes, Canada provided application‑based funding for partner-led projects to help advance progress on priorities, such as:

Restoring water quality and ecosystem health in Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs)

Areas of Concern (AOCs) are specific locations, such as rivers, harbours and embayments, where water quality and ecosystem health have been severely degraded by human activity at the local level.

In 1987, Canada and the United States designated 43 AOCs, 12 of which were in Canada and 5 are shared between Canada and the United States. Three Canadian AOCs have since been restored and “delisted” as a designated Area of Concern.

There are 14 beneficial uses that are assessed in each AOC. Environmental studies and monitoring determine whether beneficial uses in an AOC are impaired and require restoration. Once beneficial use impairments (BUI’s) are determined, Remedial Action Plans to restore beneficial uses are developed and implemented in cooperation with the Province of Ontario with input from First Nations, Métis, municipal governments, watershed management agencies and other local public agencies, and the public. Canada removes a BUI designation when criteria established in the Remedial Action Plan have been met.

Environmental quality in all of Canada's Great Lakes Areas of Concern has improved since the restoration program began in 1987. To date, of the 157 BUI’s initially identified for remedial actions or further study, 84 have been resolved and removed from the list. Efforts continue to restore and/or assess the remaining 73.

As of March 31 2020, Canada formally removed the AOC designation from Collingwood Harbour, Severn Sound, and Wheatley Harbour, three of the original AOC 17 areas. In addition, all the beneficial uses have been restored in the Nipigon Bay AOC and it will be removed from the list of Areas of Concern upon final approval of its completion report.

Through the Great Lakes Protection Initiative, Canada provides funding and technical support to partners at the local level to implement remedial and monitoring actions to advance the restoration of beneficial uses in AOCs.

Examples activities in 2019-2020 which ECCC led or supported to restore water quality and ecosystem health in Canadian Areas of Concern include:

Science and monitoring

ECCC undertakes research and monitoring to support decision-making in the Great Lakes. In 2019-2020, ECCC conducted a broad range of monitoring activities for nutrients, major ions, and harmful chemicals in water, sediment and aquatic biota to support decision-making in the Great Lakes. Science-related work included ongoing water quality assessments in the Great Lakes, the review and update of binational Lakewide Action and Management Plans, and ongoing data collection and analysis to support binational State of the Great Lakes environmental indicators and reporting.

In addition, ECCC conducted scientific studies of fish, wildlife, benthos, algae and plankton in AOCs, to assess the current status of BUI’s within Canadian AOCs. These assessments help direct remedial actions and confirm when delisting criteria have been met, allowing for the removal of BUI designations. In 2019-2020, Canada removed four BUIs: Niagara River – Eutrophication and Undesirable Algae; Thunder Bay – Degradation of Aesthetics; Bay of Quinte – Beach Closings; and Detroit River – Restrictions on Dredging Activities.

In addition, monitoring and assessment progressed in several other areas, with recent examples including:

Canada undertook numerous scientific activities in 2019-2020 in partnership with the Governments of Ontario and the United States to support implementation of the Canada-Ontario Lake Erie Action Plan with the goal of reducing annual phosphorus loading into Lake Erie by 40% from a 2008 baseline. This included improved calculation of phosphorus loads from Canadian sources and issuing of the first annual CESI report on phosphorus loadings and algal conditions in Lake Erie. Lake Erie phosphorus loads are publically reported annually through various mechanisms. Joint assessment of Lake St Clair water quality (2016-2019) continues in partnership with the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks.

In 2019-2020, an ECCC contribution agreement with Swim Drink Fish Canada allowed them to engage Canadians in a citizen science project to conduct water quality monitoring of beaches and other recreational waters and to educate citizens about the significance of water, where water comes from and how to use it sustainably.

Swim Drink Fish Canada established three monitoring hubs in the Great Lakes. The first monitoring hub was established in downtown Toronto through its Lake Ontario Waterkeeper Initiative. The second hub was launched in the fall of 2018 on Manitoulin Island and is hosted by Zhiibaahaasing First Nation. The third hub is on the eastern shores of Lake Erie in the Niagara Region. Volunteers help hub coordinators collect water samples in places where people swim, boat, and hold ceremonial activities.

In 2019-2020 volunteer training curriculum was developed and the citizen science data collected was made available to the public through an Open Data Portal. In Toronto, a collaboration with Harbourfront Centre Camps allowed the hub to engage 233 youth.

Monitoring of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in water was conducted in Hamilton Harbour in support of the Randle Reef remediation project. The results will be used to assess the reduction of PAH loadings in the harbour, resulting from cleanup efforts. Monitoring was conducted in the Detroit River for organic contaminants in support of assessing several BIU’s, with results identifying source areas in the watershed. However, levels have declined in the last decade reflecting efficacy of management actions.

In the Niagara and St. Lawrence rivers, regular sampling for nutrients, trace metals, and organic contaminants - ongoing since 1975 - continued to provide baseline water quality status, long term and seasonal trends and spatial distributions, determine compliance with water quality objectives, and identify emerging issues.

Research tools were developed to provide daily satellite imagery to map algal blooms extent and for assessing the spatial/temporal trends of these blooms in Lake Erie. Research efforts contributed to algal bloom predictions in Lake Erie and algorithms were developed using a combination of remote sensing and ECCC’s operational water cycle prediction model outputs.

Research efforts advanced the development of new modelling capability for understanding the effect of catchment inputs on local water quality and benthic algae (Cladophora) and improving our understanding of major drivers of variation. Nearshore monitoring efforts of the eastern basin of Lake Erie were expanded in 2019, in part due to Lake Erie CSMI. Underwater sensors were deployed during the growing season and sampling frequency of water quality, benthic algae, and dreissenid mussels was intensified to improve parameterization and validation of predictive models. Integrated watershed-lake models were implemented for Lake Erie to improve our understanding of the factors responsible for hypoxia and periodic wash-up of algae on shorelines.

7.3 St. Lawrence Action Plan

The Canada-Quebec Agreement on the St. Lawrence 2011-2026, also known as the St. Lawrence Action Plan, covers a span of 15 years, with 5-year planning cycles.

The St. Lawrence Action Plan is a platform for collaboration between the Canadian and Quebec governments intended to strengthen collective efforts for the integrated management of the St. Lawrence Basin, and to carry out joint actions to conserve and enhance its ecosystem. These efforts focus on three priorities:

This multi-year program, which has been renewed five times since it was first signed in 1988, has helped produce concrete results through cooperative efforts from the private sector, universities, research centres, Areas of Prime Concern committees (zones d’intervention prioritaire, known as ZIP committees), non-governmental organizations and riverside communities. The program focuses on all of the St. Lawrence River’s ecosystems and on the mouths of its main tributaries, from Lake Saint-François, straddling the border between Quebec and Ontario, to the eastern reaches of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

For 2019-2020, 37 projects were carried out as part of the Action Plan, for which a number of research projects, fieldwork activities, and decision-making tools were developed, including:

A network of governmental and non-governmental collaborators continued to conduct sampling campaigns required to obtain scientific data through the State of the St. Lawrence River Monitoring Program. ECCC collected data on water levels and flow rates, the fluvial transport of contaminants in water, benthic communities in Lake Saint-Pierre, wetland vegetation in Lake Saint-Pierre and Boucherville Islands, water monitoring in shellfish area, and Northern Gannet. Fact sheets were released on sediment contamination in Lake Saint-Louis, and land cover of the St. Lawrence. The interpretation of sediment contamination in Lake Saint-François, benthic communities in Lake Saint-Pierre, and seabirds was performed in 2019-2020. The Overview of the State of the St. Lawrence River 2019 was prepared and will be released in 2020-2021.

Activities under the St. Lawrence Action Plan’s numerical environmental predictions working group continued in 2019-2020. These activities are done through federal-provincial collaboration under the St. Lawrence Action Plan. The main activities of the group were:

Community involvement and awareness

Under the St. Lawrence Action Plan, ECCC and Quebec’s Ministry of Sustainable Development, Environment and Fight against Climate Change (Ministère de l’Environnement et de la Lutte contre les changements climatiques du Québec) are implementing the Community Interaction Program (CIP), which provides funding to non-governmental organizations and Indigenous communities for projects that aim to conserve and enhance the ecosystem of the St. Lawrence.

In 2019-2020, ECCC distributed $414 515 in funding for 15 projects. These projects involved riverside communities, including municipalities, First Nations, academia, industry and agriculture, local communities, and relevant provincial and federal departments. Specifically, the projects funded were intended to:

Moreover, the Areas of Prime Concern Program supports Stratégies Saint-Laurent and its 12 ZIP committees) in their cohesive actions to engage and support local stakeholders working to improve the quality of the surrounding environment. ECCC provided $1.1 million in funding under this program.

7.4 Atlantic Ecosystems Initiatives

The Atlantic Ecosystems Initiatives (AEI) provides grants and contributions funding for projects that improve the health, productivity, and long-term sustainability of ecosystems in Atlantic Canada. The program supports projects that use an ecosystem-based approach and include broad collaboration and cooperative action resulting in positive environmental impacts throughout Atlantic Canada. The program funds Atlantic Canadian organizations, including non‑government organizations, coalitions and networks of organizations, research and academic institutions, and Indigenous governments and organizations to deliver projects that address integrated ecosystem planning and decision-making, coordinated science and action initiatives.

For 2018-2019, the AEI piloted a place-based approach in two priority ecosystems of concern the Wolastoq/Saint John River (W/SJR) Watershed and the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence (SGSL) Watershed, to demonstrate focused results in these ecosystems over time. In 2019-2020, funding was available within these same two priority ecosystems for new projects that help to conserve, protect, and restore water quality from headwaters to estuaries.

In 2019-2020, ECCC committed over $500 000 in funding for four new multi-year AEI projects to enhance integrated ecosystem planning and decision-making, increase ecosystem knowledge and science, and undertake actions to conserve, restore, and enhance the SJR and SGSL ecosystems.

The following projects received funding:

7.5 Wolastoq (Wəlastəkw)/Saint John River Watershed in New Brunswick

In 2019-2020, ECCC continued to focus on four key commitments for the Wolastoq/Saint John River watershed under the Freshwater Action Plan.

Many activities were undertaken to advance a coordinated and integrated management approach for the watershed. ECCC facilitated meetings with other federal (Canada and U.S.), provincial and state, Indigenous, and non government partners to advance shared priorities such as water quality monitoring, data management and access, freshwater assessment, citizen science, and funding arrangements.

Progress continued under the Wəlastəkw River Interim Statement of Cooperation signed in 2017 by ECCC, DFO, Wolastoqey (Maliseet) Chiefs, and several U.S. Federal Agencies (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior (Bureau of Indian Affairs)). International summits were held in the spring and fall of 2019, focused on advancing a collaborative watershed governance model and ecosystem science initiatives.

ECCC worked with the Canadian Rivers Institute to develop a ‘State of Water Quality in the Wolastoq/Saint John River Watershed’ report. The report describes the current state and recent trends in water quality in the river, and will help inform discussions and support planning for future conservation, restoration and management for the basin.

In addition, ECCC led the coordination of a collaborative water quality monitoring inventory, with the objective to increase understanding about federal (Canada and U.S), provincial and state, and Indigenous water quality monitoring programs in the Wolastoq/Saint John River watershed. The inventory included information about the various monitoring programs such as parameters, frequency and locations of monitoring sites, in order to better understand and map the current data being collected in the watershed. This was followed by a workshop with representatives from various federal (ECCC, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada), provincial and state (New Brunswick Department of Environment and Local Government, Maine Department of Environmental Protection) partners U.S. federal agencies (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), and Indigenous people (Houlton Band of Indians, Maliseet Nation Conservation Council) to identify opportunities to facilitate collaboration and coordination of monitoring programs going forward.

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