Rural Water Resources Planner: Federal Government
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Federal Government

Federal jurisdiction applies to the conservation and protection of oceans and their resources, fisheries, navigation, and international relations, including responsibilities related to the management of boundary waters shared with the United States. 

The federal government also has responsibilities for managing water in its own "federal house" which includes federal lands (e.g. National Parks), federal facilities (e.g. office buildings, labs, prisons, military bases), First Nation reserves, as well as Nunavut and Northwest Territories. Management of the water resources in the Yukon was transferred from the federal government to the Government of the Yukon on April 1, 2003.

The menu below provides information on some of the federal departments involved in water management and the main legislation used to manage and protect water resources:



Federal Departments

Over nineteen federal departments are involved in water management activities, however the primary responsibility for federal water management rests with five departments: Environment Canada, Health Canada, Natural Resources Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

Environment Canada

"Environment Canada (formed in 1971) is, by far, the federal lead for water issues. Environment Canada conducts water research to protect and enhance water resources, surveys and monitors water quality and water quantity in the natural environment, monitors trans-boundary flows, and has some legal regulatory responsibilities designed to protect and safeguard natural water supplies. Environment Canada and provincial ministers of the environment set the Canadian Environmental Quality Guidelines. Guidelines pertinent to water include limits established for the protection of aquatic ecosystems, municipal uses of water (community supplies), recreational uses of water, and agricultural uses of water (Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, or CCME). Environment Canada has responsibility for such Acts as the Canada Water Act, the Canadian Environment Assessment Act, Canadian Environmental Protection Act, and the International River Improvements Act. Environment Canada plays a critical role in protecting the natural environment, including Canada's water resources. Under administrative or equivalency agreements with many provinces, federal legislation is held in abeyance providing provincial legislation is equivalent or more stringent to the federal acts."1

Additional detail on Environment Canada's roles and responsibilities pertaining to water can be found on the Environment Canada website.

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Health Canada

"Health Canada assumes responsibilities for public health protection and safeguarding human health. Health Canada is the lead federal department responsible to establish formal Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality, in dialogue with the provincial and territorial governments through the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Subcommittee on Drinking Water. Health Canada is also responsible for setting health-based standards for materials in contact with drinking water, ensuring the safety of pre-packaged water and ice in food production (Food and Drugs Act), assisting First Nations with drinking water safety on their lands, and providing drinking water guidance to other departments, governments and citizens. Health Canada is responsible for the Pest Control Products Act - the Pest Management Regulatory Agency governs the manufacturing and selling of pesticides (approvals, classification, packaging, labeling). Health Canada co-leads the Canadian Environmental Protection Act with Environment Canada." 1

Additional detail on Health Canada's roles and responsibilities pertaining to water can be found at the Health Canada web site.

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Natural Resources Canada

"Natural Resources Canada retains responsibilities for natural resources (minerals, metals, energy, forests, earth sciences), conducts water research with forestry, mining and energy sectors. Under the Resources and Technical Surveys Act, Natural Resources Canada has broad scientific authority, and conducts natural resources research programs and mapping activities. Natural Resources Canada conducts groundwater research and ground water mapping activities across Canada. Canada's Climate Change Secretariat is part of Natural Resources, and reports to Natural Resources Canada and Environment Canada." 1

Additional detail on Natural Resources Canada's roles and responsibilities pertaining to water can be found at the NRCAN web site.

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Fisheries and Oceans Canada

"Fisheries and Oceans Canada is responsible for freshwater (inland) and saltwater (oceans) fisheries, complete with regulatory responsibilities under the Fisheries Act. The Fisheries Act prohibits any activity that results in the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat. Key responsibilities of Fisheries and Oceans Canada include the management and control of inland and marine fisheries, conservation, protection and restoration of fish and fish habitat, prevention and response to pollution, navigation, search and rescue, and harbor infrastructure." 1

Additional detail on Fisheries and Oceans Canada's roles and responsibilities pertaining to water can be found at the Fisheries and Oceans Canada website.

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Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC)

"Agriculture and Agrifood Canada (AAFC) has no regulatory responsibilities for water. AAFC is an economic department that works with the Agri-Food sector to promote a competitive Canadian agricultural industry and agricultural practices that protect the environment. The sector relies on natural resources for agricultural production and therefore depends on a protected and healthy environment. In particular, the agricultural sector is by far the largest consumer of water in regions that utilize irrigation water, returning very little of the water withdrawn from its source. Furthermore, AAFC conducts research, demonstration, and knowledge outreach to encourage the adoption of agricultural best management practices that safeguard water supplies and the environment from potential agricultural contaminants such as pesticides and nutrients."1

One branch of AAFC, the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA), established in 1935, had an active role in water development and water management infrastructure, primarily in the Canadian Prairie Provinces. PFRA worked cooperatively with the three provinces and planned, designed and developed a large number of water storage, management and control structures. It also played an active role in national water programs and had some international obligations related to water and agriculture.

PFRA Plaque

PFRA was integrated into the Agri-Environment Services Branch (AESB) in April 2009 and many of its former roles and responsibilities are no longer being carried out by the AESB. The AESB works with the provinces/territories and stakeholders to address agricultural water-related issues and protect the environment. The AESB Water webpage provides water management information that promotes agricultural sustainability.

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Other Federal Departments

"Examples of other federal activities in water management are varied. 

  • Indian and Northern Affairs Canada has shared responsibilities with First Nations Band Councils for drinking water and wastewater systems on First Nations reserve communities. Responsibilities include the development of water infrastructure (construction, operation and maintenance). Indian and Northern Affairs Canada are responsible for the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, Northwest Territories Water Act, the Yukon Water Act, and the Dominion Water Power Act (power installations on federal lands.

  • Transport Canada is responsible for the Canada Shipping Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act which regulates the building of structures within navigable waterways to ensure unimpeded navigation.

  • Parks Canada is responsible for national parks, including activities related to water: ecological integrity of national parks, environmental and water resource protection, and water and wastewater systems in national parks. 

  • Foreign Affairs Canada assumes responsibility for the International Boundary Waters Treaty Act, and is concerned with trade, including the controversial topic of whether or not Canada would ever permit the bulk sale of water. 

  • The Canada Labor Code assigns all federal departments with water responsibilities for the drinking water provided to federal employees and the public on federal-owned land and institutions (i.e. potable water obtained from federal buildings). 

Of the 19 federal departments with some degree of activity in water, it is estimated that the Government of Canada spends about $750 million annually on water related activities (T. Banks and E. Cochrane, 2005.)" 1

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Federal Acts and Approvals

There are numerous federal and provincial acts that affect the management and regulation of water resources in Canada. Approval under various federal and provincial regulatory acts is required prior to undertaking construction activities in any water body or diverting surface or groundwater for use.

The following legislation are the main tools that the federal government uses to protect water resources. Some of the acts enable federal departments to undertake activities to protect and not all acts require approval, but can be used as a means to ensure that a project or activity does not adversely impact the quality of water.



Department of the Environment Act (1970)

A federal statute that established Environment Canada as the federal agency with the general responsibility for environmental management and protection. This includes matters relating to the preservation and enhancement of water, air and soil, renewable resources, including migratory birds and other non domestic flora and fauna, meteorology, and the enforcement of rules and regulations related to boundary waters.

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Canadian Environment Assessment Act, Environment Canada

A federal statute that requires federal departments to undertake environmental assessments for projects or activities for which federal government has decision making authority as a proponent, land manager, funding source or regulator. 

The environmental assessment identifies the potential effects of developments on the environment and through the development of appropriate mitigation measures either eliminates or reduces the adverse effects. All projects receive an appropriate degree of environmental assessment which will depend upon the scale and complexity of the likely effects of the project. There are four levels of assessment: screening, comprehensive study, mediation, and assessment by a review panel.

A project can be exempted from an environmental assessment if it is deemed to have insignificant effects and can be excluded. In the case of agriculture this includes the development of new or modification of existing irrigation structures that would not likely release a pollutant into a water body, or the construction, expansion or modification of a domestic or farm water supply well, pump house, water tank holding facility or dugout on agricultural land that is further than 30 m away from a water body or would not likely release pollutant into a water body.

For more information visit the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency web site.

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Navigable Waters Protection Act, Transport Canada

A federal statue that regulates activities that could interfere with the public's right to navigation on a water course. This includes dumping or removal of material and the placement of structures within a navigable water way. The act applies to watercourses that have the capacity to float a vessel for recreational, commercial or transportation purposes.

Any proposed works that impede navigation requires approval from the Minister of Transport to authorize construction.

For more information visit Transport Canada's Navigable Waters Protection Program Frequently Asked Questions webpage.

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Fisheries Act, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

A federal statute that prohibits the discharge of any substance that could be deleterious to fish or fish habitat and activities that could result in the alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat. The act includes all water courses and areas that contribute to flow in the stream or to the food source supply for the fish.

Proposed work that is to be carried out in or near a fish-bearing watercourse, must have the approval of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).

Generally, the majority of requests to DFO for approval of works or undertakings in or near the water will come to the attention of the Department through established interagency referral systems.

For more information visit the DFO Fisheries Act webpage.

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International Rivers Improvement Act, Environment Canada

A federal statue that prohibits the construction of any structures on or changing the natural flow of a river out of Canada without a license to do so. A license is required for any activity that may alter the flow of rivers flowing into the United States.

For more information visit Environment Canada's International Rivers Improvements Act- Annual Report for 2010 webpage.

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Canadian Environmental Protection Act, Environment Canada

This is the main federal statute to protect the environment. The act makes pollution prevention the cornerstone of national efforts in reducing and managing toxic substances in the environment. The act enables the federal government to undertake research, develop guidelines and codes of practice, and enter into agreements with the provinces and territories.The act does not apply to substances that are regulated under other federal acts such as pest control products. 

The intent of the act is to protect environmental and human health through pollution prevention and to contribute to sustainable development without compromising the ability of future generations to meet future needs.

Environment Canada administers the act but assesses and manages the risk of toxic substances jointly with Health Canada.

For more information visit Environment Canada's Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 webpage.

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Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality, Health Canada

Ensuring safe drinking water is a shared responsibility with all levels of government. Health Canada plays a lead role in the development of the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality in partnership with the provinces and territories. The guidelines form the framework for the establishment of drinking water quality requirements for all Canadians.

For more information visit the Health Canada's Drinking Water webpage.

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International Boundary Waters Treaty Act, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

A federal statute that authorizes the Canada-US Boundary Waters Treaty Act of 1909. The Treaty provides the principles and mechanisms to manage the waters and resolve disputes concerning water quantity and water quality issues of international waters shared between Canada and the United States.

For more information visit the International Joint Commission web site.

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Canada Water Act, Environment Canada

A federal statute that enables Environment Canada to enter into agreements with other government agencies to collect data and conduct research on water quantity and water quality issues.

The act also enables Environment Canada to undertake comprehensive water resource management plans and design and implementation for the efficient conservation, development and utilization of waters.

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Other Federal Acts

Canada Wildlife Act

Although there is no approval requirement there may be conditions attached under the federal and provincial environmental approvals.

Oceans Act, Fisheries and Oceans Canada 

A federal statute to protect estuarine, coastal and marine ecosystems from land and marine based activities.

Migratory Birds Convention Act, Environment Canada

The statute that establishes agreements with the US to protect migratory birds and their habitat. The act prohibits the release of substances that may be harmful to migratory birds in the area that they frequent. Although there is no approval requirement there may be conditions attached under the federal and provincial environmental approvals.

Northwest Territories Waters Act and Yukon Waters Act, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada

The federal statute that authorizes the federal government to assume responsibility for inland waters and to delegate the management of these waters to the Territories.

Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada

The federal statute that controls pollution by waste deposition from ships in Arctic waters.

Dominion Water Power Act, Parks Canada

The statute that authorizes the use of public lands for hydro power development.

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1. This description has been extracted from a paper entitled The Case of Canada - Institutions and Water in the South Saskatchewan River Basin, February 2007. Authors: Darrell R. Corkal, Bruce Inch and Philip E. Adkins, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada - Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration