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Review of the National Hydrological Service

Ted R. Yuzyk & Ralph Pentland  |   February 2020


Photo: Government of Alberta

In the fall of 2017, an 11-member Blue Ribbon Panel was convened to review Canada’s National Hydrological Service (NHS). The Panel was comprised of a highly knowledgeable and diverse group of water experts from around the world, including two members of FLOW (the authors of this article). Their objective was to review the NHS and provide recommendations to help it address key challenges and move the federal water agenda forward.


The NHS, part of Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), has two key priorities: transboundary water management and water quantity monitoring and hydrological services. When it was established in 2014, the purpose of the NHS was to align water activities under a national reporting structure. However, the NHS has faced numerous significant challenges, including: capacity issues, data integrity challenges, and the erosion of operational budgets. The Panel was brought together by senior NHS management to help address these issues.


Over the course of the two-day meeting, the Panel reviewed pertinent documents and received presentations from senior program managers in the NHS. The Panel’s final report, submitted in December 2017, provides advice and recommendations on ten major topics:


  1. Water in Environment and Climate Change Canada

  2. Current Scope and Mandate of the NHS

  3. Proposed Expansion of the NHS

  4. National Administrators Table

  5. Expertise and Capacity

  6. Recruitment and Training

  7. Field Infrastructure and Monitoring Technologies

  8. Federal Water Coordination Mechanism.

  9. Water Data, Products and Services

  10. Adequacy of the National Hydrometric Network

The Panel put forth a total of 19 recommendations: five that focus on water in ECCC and 14 that specifically address the NHS mandate. The departmental recommendations are cross-cutting, addressing both water management in the department and the broader water agenda across federal departments. To address fragmentation, the Panel recommended developing both a comprehensive policy statement that covers all water activities in the department and an updated federal water policy that applies across the federal government.


The NHS-specific recommendations focus on the broad range of functions that are carried out by the NHS. This includes recommendations related to field monitoring, emerging data needs and products, and the dissemination of essential information. The Panel recognized that aging infrastructure and a lack of investment in critical program areas was greatly impacting the NHS’s ability to deliver its mandate.


Two positive developments have occurred in the time since the report was submitted. First, momentum is building behind the establishment of a Canada Water Agency to address fragmentation of current federal water management. The current federal government has committed to establishing such an agency; most recently, the Prime Minister instructed the Minister of ECC to work together with the Minister of Agriculture to create a federal water agency that will “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” (read more here).


Second, in June 2019 the federal government committed to investing an additional $90 million over 5 years to revitalize the NHS. This investment will help the NHS better fulfill its mandate and work towards modernization of Canada’s water monitoring services. Although much work remains to be done, these recent developments should help advance the recommendations put forward in the Blue Ribbon Panel’s final report.

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