ARCHIVED - NRCan's Role and Freshwater

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Freshwater: The Role and Contribution of Natural Resources Canada

In the context of the Government of Canada's contribution to clean, safe and secure freshwater resources, NRCan has two principle roles to play:

  • to provide the information and understanding necessary for informed decision-making through science and policy expertise, and
  • to minimize impacts of natural resource sector activities on aquatic ecosystems through science and technology innovation.

NRCan is responsible for federal resource policies, and science and technology (S&T) that support the sustainable development and competitiveness of the energy, earth sciences, forest, minerals and metals sectors, and their allied industries. The Department enables the Government of Canada to address resource issues in a comprehensive manner, from a national perspective. In doing so, NRCan works with communities both within Canada and around the world to improve their capacity to better manage their natural resources, including freshwater.

Figure 2-1: Ocean drainage map

NRCan has a unique responsibility for improving our knowledge of Canada's freshwater resources. Resource development through the energy, forestry, and mining and minerals sectors can have significant impacts on Canada's freshwater resources. Energy production is a major user of water, and resource extraction/harvesting activities can result in negative impacts on water quality and aquatic ecosystems. Each of these sectors use large quantities of freshwater in their operations, and both water use and wastewater management are ongoing challenges. Increasing our understanding of freshwater issues and developing the tools to help meet the resource-sector industries' water-management challenges are important aspects of the work done at NRCan.

When viewed alongside the contributions of other departments, NRCan expenditures on freshwater-related activities represent less than five percent of total federal government spending on freshwater activities.

NRCan's program contributions related to freshwater are very modest in proportion to total federal expenditures on freshwater-related activities (i.e., less than five percent), but they are quite varied and very diverse—a function of the Department's considerable expertise and experiences in earth sciences, energy, forestry, and mining. Throughout each of the natural resource sectors, NRCan works in partnership with industry, universities and local communities to develop and deploy innovative S&T-based solutions to water-related challenges.

In the context of groundwater, the Resources and Technical Surveys Act (RATS Act) provides NRCan with the mandate to describe the geological structure of Canada, which includes the delineation of aquifers. Consequently, NRCan has a role in supporting other government departments for whose mandate geological structures are relevant and important. NRCan has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Environment Canada under which NRCan will study groundwater quantity and Environment Canada will study groundwater quality.

Key NRCan water-related activities:

Understanding water resources and hazards:

  • Mapping groundwater capacity and vulnerability
  • Surface water mapping
  • Source water composition and protection
  • Climate change impacts
  • Riparian zone and forest ecology and hydrology
  • Development of small hydro technologies
  • Hazards:
    • monitoring floods and analyzing flood risk
    • shoreline erosion
    • drought history

Minimizing resource sector impacts:

  • Improving treatment of mining effluent and metals in aquatic ecosystems
  • Sustainable forestry practices
  • Pesticides and herbicides in the environment
  • Enhancing water-use efficiency in industrial processes
  • Reducing contaminated water discharge from oil sand and heavy oil processing

NRCan and Sustainable Development

Sustainable development is central to the mandate of NRCan. In some respects sustainable development is a challenge, but it also brings opportunities for Canadians—helping us to maintain the benefits of resource development, fuelling innovation to create new benefits, and ensuring that future generations will also be able to enjoy a high quality of life, supported in part by our great wealth of natural resources. NRCan was the first federal department to enshrine sustainable development in its mandate and legislation.

The 1995 amendments to the Auditor General Act established the requirement for federal departments and agencies to table a sustainable development strategy in Parliament every three years. The purpose of the strategy is to outline how the department will systematically integrate the principles of sustainable development into their policies, programs, legislation and operations. Through these strategies, the federal government is accountable to Canadians for their decisions and actions. NRCan's sustainable development strategy, Moving Forward (2004), established four key results to advance sustainable development. Within these key results, there are two specific action items pertaining to water:

  • Increasing our understanding of Canada's water resource supply and minimizing the impacts of natural resource sector activities on aquatic ecosystems, and
  • Improving NRCan operations through sound environmental management.

A complete list of activities and targets relating to water from Moving Forward can be found in Appendix 2.


"Corporations throughout the world have a unique and crucial role to play in the sustainable management of water. In economic terms, the business case for sustainable water management is, at its simplest, based on the fact that reduced water quality and availability lead to higher costs and business interruption losses."

~ Travis Engen, President and Chief Executive Officer,
Alcan Inc.


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