Canadian Geographic
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Watershed awareness

Rural watershed issues

One percent of Canada’s population resides in highly rural watersheds. About one-quarter of this population live in Quebec, followed by another quarter in Manitoba and another quarter in Saskatchewan.

Even for those living in rural parts of the country, approximately one-third live within what Statistics Canada considers a “highly urban watershed.” Therefore, on a watershed scale, the lines between city and country are blurred. It is also important to note that the rural issues addressed below, such as agriculture, are focused on Canada’s south.

First, Canadians living on a rural watershed (over one-half of all watersheds in Canada are considered highly rural) rely on groundwater more than do Canadians in the rest of the country. Estimates suggest that between 20 and 40 percent of all rural wells have nitrate concentrations or coliform bacteria counts in excess of drinking-water guidelines. In addition, as many as 75 percent of the water systems in First Nations reserve communities have significant threats to the quality and safety of the drinking water. Furthermore, according to an Environment Canada study, Canada’s groundwater resources are vastly understudied.

Agriculture and water-use management in Canada are tightly intertwined, and understanding their relationship is critical to sustainable watershed management practices.

Water is withdrawn from rivers, streams, reservoirs and wells to irrigate one million hectares of cropland in Canada per year. Agriculture is Canada’s biggest net consumer of water and returns less than 30 percent back to the system. More than three-quarters of agricultural water withdrawals take place in the west, mostly for irrigation to offset moisture deficits in dry areas. Alberta has 60 percent of the total irrigated cropland in Canada, most of which lies in the South Saskatchewan River Basin, which sees 28 percent of river flow go to crops each year.

However, improved irrigation techniques, such as irrigation scheduling and drip irrigation, can yield savings in water usage. Urban waste water from canning and processing industries also has the potential to irrigate certain crops.


Supported by three-dimensional animated graphics, this piece allows users to select everyday items, like coffee, cotton or potatoes, and learn how much water it takes to produce them.


On the next page:

Urban watershed issues

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Quiz :

Under the Canadian Constitution Act, responsibility for water is shared between:

Landowners and the federal government
Municipal governments and provincial governments
the federal government and provincial or territorial governments