Call for New Approach to Water-Use Management in Canada

The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) recently outlined the steps that Canada should take to sustain water use by its agriculture, manufacturing, mining, oil and gas, pulp and paper, thermal electricity generation and other natural resource sectors. NRTEE's report − titled Charting a Course: Sustainable Water Use by Canada’s Natural Resource Sectors − proposes fundamental changes to water-use management across Canada. These changes include the use of economic instruments to improve water conservation and efficiency and the use of a collaborative approach to water management. While the report focuses on the natural resource sectors, the implications are much broader.

According to the report, a lack of reliable, publicly available data on water quantity (with respect to both supply and demand) has negative implications for current and future water resource management in Canada. For example, it notes that the lack of baseline water-use measurements undermines efforts to improve efficiency because the potential to improve is often difficult to estimate, actual improvements cannot be quantified and incentives for reductions cannot be readily implemented. The report also indicates that, in Canada, governments at all levels lack the "capacity" to integrate supply-side and demand-side water quantity data to evaluate future water availability at a watershed scale.

The report indicates that according to the water data publicly available, the natural resource sectors accounted for approximately 86% of Canada's overall water use in 2005 and it predicts that, due to forecasted growth, these sectors may require an increased level of water in the future. Even if overall water-use efficiency increases sufficiently to offset any growth in these sectors, the report notes that there may be regional water shortages, especially in areas with significant oil and gas and agricultural operations. This issue, together with other changes (such as climate change), has led NRTEE to conclude (in an earlier report) that the long-term sustainability of Canada's water resources "remains in question." In addition, NRTEE has suggested that Canada’s water governance and management structures may not be well positioned to deal with an uncertain water future, especially with respect to water quantities.

In response, NRTEE recommends that federal, provincial and territorial governments develop new water strategies based on the following core principles:

  • Water has value (in economic, social and environmental terms) and should be managed without harm to its sustainability or that of the ecosystems in which the water is found;
  • Water must be conserved and used efficiently; and
  • Water governance and management should be adaptive and collaborative.

The report sets out proposals and policy approaches to improve water conservation and efficiency. For example, the report indicates that provincial and territorial governments should establish demand-side water data systems that have reporting requirements for water-licence holders, and governments should research sector-specific future water data needs for their jurisdictions.

In addition, the report also proposes the use of economic instruments – such as water charges and tradable water permits − since economic instruments allow the economic value of water to be revealed. The report also notes that economic instruments provide incentives and flexibility for water users by motivating them to determine their water use and adopt water-conserving technologies. Further, the report notes that NRTEE’s research suggests that a 20% water intake reduction (by the natural resource sectors) could be achieved with water prices ranging from 5 to 9 cents per cubic metre. However, the report acknowledges that this research needs to be further considered with improved data sources and discussed with the natural resource sectors to better understand the opportunities to reduce water use in response to water prices.

NRTEE also proposed improvements in the use of collaborative governance for water initiatives. These proposed improvements call for governments to affirm the legitimacy of collaborative water governance approaches by acting on recommendations provided by the collaborative process as much as possible and committing to provide formal feedback to the participants in the process when these recommendations are not implemented. According to NRTEE, collaborative water governance processes need, at least, terms of reference that clearly describe the roles and responsibilities of the participants.

As a next step, NRTEE has indicated that it will convene experts from across Canada at an event to be held on January 12, 2012, in Ottawa, Ontario. The purpose of this event is to develop a national action plan on how to effectively implement the report's recommendations.

For further details, please see the report.

To discuss these issues, please contact the author(s).

This publication is a general discussion of certain legal and related developments and should not be relied upon as legal advice. If you require legal advice, we would be pleased to discuss the issues in this publication with you, in the context of your particular circumstances.

For permission to republish this or any other publication, contact Janelle Weed.

© 2021 by Torys LLP.
All rights reserved.