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Establishing a Canada Water Agency

 Ralph Pentland, Norm Brandson & Tony Maas  |   February 2020


Photo: Unsplash

In November of this year, the Forum for Leadership on Water (FLOW) wrote to the Prime Minister supporting the concept of a new Canada Water Agency.  In that letter we noted that in a recent report entitled Water Security for Canadians, FLOW, along with several partners made the case that, “It is no longer desirable – or even possible – to maintain the status quo in terms of water management and governance in Canada”.

We were pleased to note that in his recently released Mandate Letters, the Prime Minister instructed the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) to work together with the Minister of Agriculture to create such an agency “to work together with the provinces and territories, Indigenous communities, local authorities, and others to find the best ways to keep our water safe, clean and well-managed.“. 

We were also pleased to note that a Parliamentary Secretary to both the Minister of Economic Development and the Minister of ECCC was instructed to assist both Ministers in this assignment.  We believe that the social, economic, and environmental issues facing the water sector, especially in light of climate change, will require close collaboration between all these Ministries, and several others.

The emerging water crisis is affecting Canadians’ safety in the face of extreme events and undermining the public’s trust in government’s ability to protect their homes and properties from floods and fires, provide adequate food in times of drought, provide safe drinking water, and ensure clean waterways for fishing and swimming. The agricultural sector is being particularly hard hit.  For example, we have just experienced the worst harvest in Saskatchewan since 1980 due to spring drought and a soggy late summer. 

It is our considered view that the mandate to establish a Canada Water Agency quite appropriately recognizes the need for multijurisdictional cooperation.  Most water management decisions are made locally, through individual provincial, Indigenous, and municipal jurisdictions.  Yet the majority of our river and lake basins are transboundary, involving multiple provincial, local, and Indigenous governments, and often the United States in basin management.

In that context, a meaningful federal role is required in at least four areas:  creating, sharing and mobilizing knowledge needed to predict and respond to water problems and opportunities, including those related to floods, drought and pollution; improved transboundary water management; strengthened reconciliation with Indigenous peoples; and collaborative river basin investigations in areas of shared or overlapping jurisdiction. 

We believe that collaborative river basin investigations and follow-up implementation could be a very powerful tool to assist the agriculture and other economic sectors to adapt to climate change, while at the same time respecting other societal values including interjurisdictional obligations, water stewardship, and Indigenous rights.

It is our view that a Canada Water Agency could be established relatively quickly by building from existing strengths and existing laws.  A number of large and medium-scale water programs, many of them already working in concert with other orders of government, exist in Environment and Climate Change Canada, Agriculture Canada, and in several other departments.  Where appropriate, some of these programs could be brought together, and others linked via strengthened coordinating mechanisms.  The existing Canada Water Act could provide one very appropriate vehicle for further multi-jurisdictional cooperation.

We also believe that the new institution should build strong linkages with existing and any future external science networks, such as Global Water Futures coordinated out of the University of Saskatchewan and the LakePulse Network coordinated out of Sherbrooke University. 

FLOW members will be following developments in this area with great interest and will be pleased to offer additional advice and assistance to the federal government as appropriate.

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