Canada’s large rivers face growing threats; The Fraser is in good shape now, WWF-Canada says, but development could change that

Serious action is required to keep Canada’s rivers flowing and to prevent them from being drained by expanding cities, soaring energy demands and climate change, says a new report to be released today.

"Flow regimes in some of Canada’s most important rivers, such as the South Saskatchewan and the St. Lawrence, have been modified to the extent that ecosystems are in serious trouble," said the report, Canada’s Rivers at Risk, produced by WWF-Canada, an environmental organization.

"Soon, many others — including some of the planet’s increasingly scarce, large, free-flowing rivers like the Skeena [in B.C.], the Athabasca, and the Mackenzie — could be in trouble, as well, as demands on the waters grow and climate change intensifies."

Overall, the study assessed the flow of 10 major Canadian rivers that drain into the Pacific, the Arctic, the Hudson Bay and the Atlantic, and the impact of economic development, infrastructure and hydroelectric dams in the water basins.

The report compared the process of evaluating the flow of a river to measuring blood pressure in a human in order to assess the country’s water supply and potential threats to both the environment and local industries.

"Nature’s boundaries, not political boundaries, define when and where water flows, and how much is available, both for nature and for people," said the report.

"The water we use — when we turn on the tap for a drink, generate electricity or grow food — is water that we share with all life on earth."

The report, which did not examine pollution levels, urges federal and provincial governments to work together to establish new measures to prevent major water diversions and promote responsible and sustainable development for new infrastructure projects.

"The challenge for Canada, as one of the world’s water-wealthy nations, is to protect and restore the nation’s rivers, while playing a leading role in feeding and fuelling an incredibly thirsty and warming world."

Of the 10 rivers evaluated, the Athabasca and Fraser were considered to be in the best shape, but faced threats from future economic development. The Skeena and Mackenzie rivers were assessed as still having "natural" flows.

In Central Canada, the Nipigon, Grand and Ottawa rivers were assessed as "fair," while to the east, the St. Lawrence and St. John rivers were assessed as "poor."

The South Saskatchewan River was considered to be the "most threatened river" of the country because of hundreds of dams and withdrawals of 70 per cent of its flow for agricultural and urban use, not to mention potential climate change impacts.


The report looks at two major rivers in B.C., the Fraser in the central and southern part of the province and the Skeena in the northwest.

Fraser River

Status: Good; Forecast: Steady

"Flow regulation and fragmentation moderately affect the river": The report specifically cites a dam and water diversion on the Nechako River, a tributary of the Fraser, for reducing summer flows by 60 per cent, apparently causing problems for sturgeon. It also warns that large water withdrawals from the interior have caused some localized low water levels, stressing fish.

Skeena River
Status: Natural; Forecast: Steady

But the report warns there are potential problems from a coal bed methane plant planned near the river’s headwaters and increasing water withdrawals for agriculture.

Canada’s Rivers at Risk