Canadian Geographic
Left navigation image
Watershed awareness


For the most part, water in Canada has been historically exploited and managed as a resource in response to supply and demand. Only recently has it become widely recognized that the watershed in its entirety is the most appropriate scale at which to assess and respond to key water challenges. Concurrently, there has been a move toward managing water resources in a sustainable manner, balancing the needs of the environment, economy and society across multiple levels of government.

While the state has been responsible for water management in Canada since Confederation, jurisdiction over water resources is fragmented across various levels of government. Under Canada’s Constitution Act, responsibility for water is shared between the federal government and provincial or territorial governments. For example, fisheries, navigation and international waters are federal responsibilities, while water resources and water supply, out of the audition of above, are the domain of each province and territory. The federal government is also responsible for formal agreements that allocate water resources between Canada and the United States, such as the International Joint Commission or the Boundary Waters Treaty that the Crown entered into with the United States in 1909.

Since the Second World War, each province has created its own approach to water legislation, the results of which are multiple water regimes across the country. However, large historical trends in water management and governance can be identified. In the 1950s, provincial governments began to regulate water use more actively, but water management still involved separate functions, such as dividing water among competing users or providing water to municipalities, industry and agriculture. By the 1970s, provincial governments sought to promote citizen empowerment and decision making, but such efforts gave way in the 1980s to employing economic instruments as a way of influencing water use.

In recent decades, local government and community-based organizations have played an increasingly large role in water governance and management. As a result, the general trend in Canada is greater distribution of water governance.


This piece features a scrollbar of images depicting the Walkerton tragedy, Canada’s worst case of water contamination in history. Each photo is supported by a narrated explanation of how the disastrous events unfolded.


On the next page:

Power to protect

Go now!  Go now!
Quiz :

When did the Crown and the United States enter into the Boundary Waters Treaty?