Canadian Geographic
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Watershed awareness

Urban Canadians in action

Roughly 80 percent of Canadians live in cities towns, and approximately two out of three Canadians live in a highly or very highly urban watershed. Between 1966 and 2001, the amount of built-up land area in Canada increased by about 123 percent.

Urbanization dramatically alters the hydrology of natural landscapes, so the main issues facing urban watersheds relate to water usage, what happens to the water after it’s used and how cities and communities deal with storm water.

One hundred years ago, rivers and creeks in many cities were co-opted as sewers. Predictably, these rivers-turned-sewers were smelly and disease-ridden. They were eventually covered up, sequestered underground as land was paved over. However, even the most urban condo dwellers live in a watershed, and it’s critical that Canadians don’t lose sight of this fact, even if they have lost literal sight of the natural features of their watersheds.

One trend in Canada’s major cities involves reconnecting urbanites with their watersheds by exploring the “lost creeks” of the urban jungle, to raise awareness of the neglected creeks and rivers underfoot. Andrew Emond of Montréal charts the lost waterways underneath his city at In Toronto, Helen Mills founded, which guides Lost River Walks through the city and provides Lost River maps online.

Ultimately, such initiatives raise awareness of urban watershed resources. Many cities are now taking steps to “daylight” their rivers and creeks, uncovering them and allowing the water to run its course above-ground. The end result reduces toxic runoff to larger bodies of water, increasing local fish populations and aquatic biodiversity.

One such example of “daylighting” is Mud Creek, a tributary of Toronto’s Don River that was uncovered by the Evergreen Brick Works, where ponds filter urban storm water before the water continues to the Don River. Guichon Creek, at the Burnaby Campus of the British Columbia Institute of Technology, is another example of urban stream restoration. Forty years ago, the creek ran its course in an underground drainage channel, but thanks to the efforts of students and staff in the Fish, Wildlife and Recreation program, much of its streamside and in-stream habitat has been re-established. Efforts are now under way to “daylight” the remaining portion of the creek, which flows in an underground culvert.

Individual homeowners can also take a considerable load off their water resources, municipal infrastructure and watershed by using rainwater from their roof’s downspouts. Rainwater used in this way doesn’t pick up surface pollutants and drain untreated into local water bodies, nor can it accumulate and gain so much momentum that it destroys the aquatic habitat features of the surrounding creeks and rivers.

This has become all the more critical due to climate change, since extreme storms are hitting urban centres more frequently than in the past. Many cities in Canada sell rain barrels at a subsidized price, and awareness for water-wise urban gardening and landscaping options that increase the water permeability of property are also on the rise.


This piece allows users to learn about the average person’s daily water consumption in Canada, and some of the ways Canadians can reduce their consumption. An animated diagram supports these explanations.


On the next page:

Northern Canadians in action

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Quiz :

Up to what percentage of the water systems in First Nations reserve communities have significant threats to the quality and safety of their drinking water?