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Freshwater: The Role and Contribution of Natural Resources Canada

NRCan's Earth Sciences Sector (ESS) provides essential knowledge and geomatics data, tools and solutions to support informed decision-making on water-related issues with domestic and international implications.

Earth science knowledge is essential for the evaluation of water resources, both surface water and groundwater. With an increasing number of Canadians relying on groundwater to meet household needs, burgeoning industrial demand (e.g., for oil sands development), and the likely impacts of climate change on water supply, it will be increasingly important to understand the factors influencing water quantity and quality.

The generation and dissemination of new knowledge to contribute to the well-being of Canadian citizens is at the forefront of all ESS activities. Through geomatics and geoscience, this sector provides the infrastructure for efficient and effective discovery, access and management of Canada's geoscience data, information and knowledge for decision support within government, industry and the public.

Groundwater is an "invisible" resource, making its use difficult to monitor and manage.

~ Marcus Moench [6]

What is Geomatics?

Geomatics is the science and technology of gathering, analyzing, interpreting, distributing and using geographic information. Geomatics encompasses a broad range of disciplines that can be brought together to create a detailed but understandable picture of the physical world and our place in it. These disciplines include:

  • surveying
  • mapping
  • remote sensing
  • geographic information systems (GIS)
  • global positioning system (GPS)

Canada's geomatics community is a recognized world leader in providing the software, hardware and value-added services that can help clients address problems and opportunities in such areas as:

  • the environment
  • land management and reform
  • development planning
  • infrastructure management
  • natural resource monitoring
  • sustainable development
  • coastal zone management and mapping

~ Geomatics Canada, NRCan

Groundwater availability and quality

The key knowledge gaps with respect to the amount of available groundwater include the number, size and characteristics of major aquifers (the geological units in which groundwater resides), their vulnerability and sustainability. NRCan has taken a federal leadership role in hydrogeology, particularly with respect to understanding the magnitude of Canada's groundwater resources. Much progress has been made to protect both the quality and quantity of our water resources through partnership programs (e.g., programs with the provinces and other government departments, and the Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement); however, more needs to be done, particularly in the area of trans-boundary aquifer issues such as key groundwater aquifer delineation and recharge zones across the country.

Climate change

Our world's climate is changing. Global temperatures rose by 0.6°C during the 20th century and are projected to increase between 1.4–5.8°C over this century. Climatic variables, such as temperature and precipitation, greatly influence the hydrological cycle, and changes in these variables will affect, runoff and evaporation patterns as well as the amount of water stored in glaciers, snowpacks, lakes, wetlands, soil moisture and groundwater. Specific impacts will vary across the country; regional projections include declining water levels for the Great Lakes, decreasing soils moisture in the southern Canada and a reduction of wetlands in the Prairies. These changes are expected to advance as average temperatures rise.

The impacts of climate change will continue to be felt for many decades and in many economic and social sectors. Key anticipated effects of climate change on Canada's water include:

  • decreases in water quality from lower summer streamflows, saltwater intrusion into coastal aquifers (resulting from sea-level rise), and increases in the intensity and frequency of flooding;
  • decreases in water availability resulting from increased intensity and frequency of drought, declining snowpack and glacier dimunition; and
  • increasing conflict between competing water users.

While Canada is working to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, it is essential that Canadians understand the potential impacts of climate change on water in order to adapt to changing conditions.


Canada's glaciers hold water resources equivalent to all of the water contained by our lakes and rivers.

As a Nordic country, much of Canada's freshwater is derived from seasonal and perennial snow and ice, which exerts important controls on the timing and magnitude of water fluxes. The presence of snow and ice concerns all manner of water-related resource and hazards issues. When conditions are warm and dry, glaciers act to regulate surface water flows. Glaciers also play a role in recharging groundwater aquifers. This aspect of our hydrology is critical to understanding the variability of water supply under a changing climate and developing water-management strategies, particularly for western Canada.

As an example of NRCan's diverse freshwater geoscience activities, NRCan has signed a Memorandum of Agreement with Environment Canada under which the two departments will cooperatively monitor and study glacier fluctuations and their hydro-ecological impacts.


As a direct threat to water quantity in Canada, drought impacts a wide range of water-sensitive sectors including agriculture, industry, municipalities, recreation, and aquatic ecosystems.[8] The ability to predict drought onset, intensity, and termination more accurately requires improvements in modelling and monitoring of current drought conditions, as well as better short-term (seasonal) climate forecasts.[9]

Drought in Canada

The following are activities where NRCan contributes to improving our capability to monitor, model, and predict droughts in Canada.

  • Development of a total water supply database including, for example, improved data of streamflow records, wetland numbers, glacier volume, and groundwater supplies.
  • Better understanding of the amount and distribution of groundwater resources, including linkages to climate and surface water supply.
  • Development of better methodologies to incorporate remote sensing and in-situ techniques for drought and water-resource monitoring and management (to augment information provided by the climate station network). The geospatial and temporal capacity of satellite imagery offers many opportunities for advanced monitoring capabilities.
  • Incorporation of existing Geographical Information System (GIS) techniques to provide better spatial representations of drought; for example, the migration patterns of drought and its associated synoptic circulation patterns could be tracked on a variety of temporal scales.

Water-Related Earth Sciences Sector Activities

Groundwater Program

The Groundwater Program is delivered through four projects:

  1. National Groundwater Database, Outreach and Monitoring
  2. Assessment of Regional Aquifers: Towards a National Inventory
  3. Thematic Groundwater Research
  4. Remote sensing in support of groundwater monitoring and vulnerability assessment


The GWP will produce the following outcomes.

  • By the end of the three-year program, NRCan will have mapped and fully assessed 12 regional aquifers systems, but this would only be a modest start, far from a full inventory of the groundwater resources of Canada.
  • The hydrogeological information produced will be used by governments at all levels to assess the sustainability and quality of some key Canadian aquifers.
  • Information on aquifers at high risk will assist governments and municipalities to make informed decisions related to water and waste management issues.
  • NRCan will provide training sessions on how to effectively use groundwater databases and models, and vulnerability studies.

Groundwater Program

The growing importance and recognition of the Canada's groundwater resources is demonstrated through NRCan's Groundwater Program (GWP), which is working towards creating an inventory of groundwater resources and regional aquifer assessments, including sustainable yield and vulnerability. NRCan is building partnerships with other government departments, provincial governments, universities, and the private sector for the purpose of carrying out the full assessments of regional aquifers. The GWP operates with a very high degree of cooperation and transparency, which is enhancing the Program's impact across Canada and beyond our borders, as well as contributing to the recognition of NRCan's leadership on the sustainable development of Canada's freshwater resources. Although the inventory is far from complete, the GWP has already yielded very good knowledge of trends and indicators for the water resources of Canada as a whole. Thirty key regional aquifers have been identified, six of which will be fully mapped and assessed by 2006. The focus will be on determining the extent and characteristics of the most strategic groundwater resources. The data and information from these aquifers are being populated into NRCan's National Groundwater database. The database and supporting tools such as maps, publications and models, will enable water management agencies and well owners to make decisions that will support a reliable groundwater supply.

NRCan is also involved in international groundwater activities. In cooperation with the Canadian International Development Agency, NRCan managed PROASNE, a Northern Brazil–Canada technology transfer program designed to help develop the region's groundwater resources as a means of augmenting the long-term water supply for the rural communities. Results of the program include reducing the hardship caused by drought and improving living conditions in general.

Program highlights:

Oak Ridges Moraine research contributes to Ontario water-resource management and land-use policy

Reducing Canada's Vulnerability to Climate Change Program

The goal of the Reducing Canada's Vulnerability to Climate Change (RCVCC) Program is to reduce the vulnerability of Canadians, their communities, and the country's infrastructure to climate change. This goal will be achieved through conducting and publicizing research aimed at an improved understanding of the sensitivity of Canada's landmass and coastal areas, and through the incorporation of new knowledge in planning and resource management. The Program's six projects are linked by common themes, including landscape and ecosystem vulnerability. Of these projects, five have a specific interest in water-related issues. The project study areas overlap geographically and share common socio-economic aspects.

Program highlights:

Reducing the Vulnerability of Canada's Water – RCVCC Program Projects

GSDNR Projects

  • Communications, Outreach and Assessment
  • Image Processing Standards for Earth Observation Data
  • Geomatics Services for National Parks and Ocean Spaces
  • National Imagery Coverage – Landsat 7
  • GeoNames Applications
  • Geographical Names Board of Canada Secretariat
  • National Atlas Frameworks
  • National Elevation Data
  • National Hydro Network
  • National Transportation Networks

Geomatics for Sustainable Development of Natural Resources Program

Effective natural-resource management requires geospatial data and information to support actions and decisions. The Geomatics for Sustainable Development of Natural Resources (GSDNR) Program provides consistent, reliable, high-quality, accurate geospatial information to ensure that clients and stakeholders have the capacity to make responsible decisions. Consistent improvements are being made to the reliability and use of this information by incorporating new sources of data, where applicable, and moving towards integration with other reference sources within NRCan. As part of the GSDNR Program, a national-scale watershed framework has been developed in partnership with the Water Survey of Canada (Environment Canada). This framework is being utilized for environmental indicator reporting by Agriculture Canada, Statistics Canada and Environment Canada. Work has also been completed to harmonize a water mapping framework for North America in partnership with the U.S. and Mexico, as a base for continental environmental reporting. In addition to these generalized frameworks, production has started on the National Hydro Network—a federal-provincial partnership to build a detailed digital hydrological database for the nation.

Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation Program

The Government of Canada is committed to improving our knowledge of the impacts of climate change and identifying appropriate adaptation measures. The Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation Program, delivered through Natural Resources Canada, helps meet this commitment by providing funding for research and activities to improve our knowledge of Canada's vulnerability to climate change. This will enable Canadians to better assess the risks and benefits posed by climate change, and to build the foundation upon which appropriate decisions on adaptation can be made. The Program also facilitates interaction between stakeholders and researchers through support of the Canadian Climate Impacts and Adaptation Research Network (C-CIARN) and defines research priorities. There are 13 regionally and sectorally based C-CIARN offices, one focussing on water resources and another on landscape hazards including flooding and drought.

NRCan responds to natural hazard emergencies

During and immediately following the flooding of the Saguenay River in 1996, and the Red River and in 1997, NRCan took action to assist. The Department contributed satellite imagery to monitor flood development and maps to assist in rescue and recovery operations. Immediate reconnaissance was undertaken to assess the of the impacts and significance of flood sedimentation—information critical for health considerations. In the case of the Red River flood, NRCan initiated an assessment of long-term flood hazards, influencing the International Joint Commission recommendations for major revisions to flood protection works in Winnipeg and southern Manitoba.

Natural Hazards and Emergency Response Preparedness Program

This Program assists in the mitigation of natural hazards and is intended to reduce the loss of life and economic costs of all natural disasters in Canada. To reduce losses from natural hazards, the Program works with national and international partners and clients to produce: a modern robust analysis of seismic risk, suitable for developing a modern building code; effective forecasts of magnetic storms and mitigation strategies against damage to electrical grids, satellite communication and pipelines; and landslide, tsunami, tidal wave, flood- and volcano-hazard inventories and assessments, used to build effective response scenarios and disaster mitigation for populated centres at risk. Emergency-response programs are enhanced through the provision of comprehensive digital and custom maps for emergencies, integrated hazard and infrastructure information, and the capacity to measure radiation contamination from accidental dispersal or potential terrorist acts.

Sustainable Development through Knowledge Integration – The Pathways Project

The Pathways Project is part of the Sustainable Development through Knowledge Integration Program (SDKI). SDKI aims to move selected portions of the Earth Sciences Sector's information and knowledge assets into the decision-support environments of government, industry and the public. The Pathways Project specifically aims to bridge the gap between science knowledge and policy decision-making for issues related to resource scarcity and public safety in selected local and regional areas in southern B.C.. Pathways activities focus on adding value to traditional ESS information through the development of vulnerability, risk and land-use assessments related to groundwater and natural hazards. The Project is also integrating a suite of methods and web-based tools. Pathways provides decision support for current land-use decisions and the assessment of future growth strategies that may impact groundwater quantity and quality. In addition, the Project is developing and refining a sustainable water yield model for surface and groundwater availability in the study areas.

Legislated Environmental and Resource Assessments (LERA)

The LERA Program provides resource assessments so that the mineral and energy resource potential is duly considered when establishing protected areas. These assessments will apply to lands under federal jurisdiction and under consideration as National Parks, Marine Protected Areas or other special designations that restrict mineral or energy development, including those in the territories (Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut) and Canada Lands off-shore. In response to federal government agencies' requests and as required by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA), the Program will also provide expert geoscience reviews of projects undergoing environmental assessment ensuring the identification, consideration and minimizing of adverse environmental impacts.

Through NRCan's LERA Program, the expertise of Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) is constantly sought to review environmental impact statements (EIS) for projects of various sizes throughout Canada; these may include mines, pipeline developments, waste-disposal facilities, etc. GSC's hydrogeologists are often asked to comment on water quantity and quality issues in their review of EISs. GSC permafrost scientists, in their review of EISs for northern mining projects, are often asked to comment on the design and impacts associated with tailing containment facilities that rely on permafrost for dam foundations or encapsulation of waste (which is directly applicable to water quality). Through LERA, NRCan plays an important role in ensuring that water quality and quantity issues are adequately considered in environmental assessments, and that related environmental impacts are minimized and/or mitigated.

Metals in the Environment Program

This program supports the assessment and management of ecosystem and human-health risks posed by metals in the environment. This is achieved by informing regulations and risk-management decisions with improved understanding of the presence of metals in the environment. Water is a conduit for metals to be transported and is an important entry point for metals into the food system. The Metals in the Environment Program characterizes the surficial environment, including water, with respect to concentrations of metals and thereby identifies areas at potential risk of toxicity. Additionally, activities within the Program investigate geochemical processes which affect the level and bioavailability of metals. Overall this information is passed to other departments for developing risk-management policies.


6 Moench, M., "Groundwater : The Challenge of Monitoring and Management," in Gleick, op. cit., p. 79. Back to text.

8 Bonsal, B., G. Koshida, G.E. O'Brien, and E. Wheaton, "Droughts," pp. 19-25 in Environment Canada, Threats to Freshwater Availability in Canada (Ottawa: Natural Resources Canada, Environment Canada, 2004), p. 19. Back to text.

9 Ibid. Back to text.

(Notes 11 through 14 are included on the program highlights page.)

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