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Surface Water Quality Program

Surface waters include lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands. The science of surface water quality and aquatic ecology, also known as limnology, is practiced by biologists, chemists and engineers, and is supported by many technologists. Government agencies and university researchers have conducted much of the past scientific investigation of surface waters, but Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils (WPACs), industries and municipalities are now active partners in many studies. The Water for Life strategy stipulates the formation of WPACs for major river basins in Alberta.

We encourage you to learn about water quality issues in Alberta and be active in protecting our valuable aquatic ecosystems. We welcome your questions and comments at:

Or contact the Information Centre:

What is surface water quality and why is it important?

Surface water quality encompasses a wide range of conditions that are part of the aquatic environment in a waterbody. In turn, the aquatic environment provides diverse habitat and a clean water supply for aquatic life, wildlife and humans. In Alberta, there is a wide variety of aquatic ecosystems across the mountain, boreal and prairie-parkland regions.

There is no single or simple measure of water quality. Water may be tested for a few characteristics or numerous natural substances and contaminants, depending on the need. This can be done using traditional methods, such as collecting a representative water sample from a waterbody and sending it to a laboratory for analysis. Surface waters may also be analysed more immediately using basic, hand-held electronic meters. More sophisticated electronic meters can also be installed that can store and transmit data via satellite technology.

Water quality measurements fall into three broad categories:

  • Biological characteristics such as the types and quantities of bacteria, protozoan parasites, algae, invertebrates, plants and other animals
  • Chemical characteristics such as nutrients, minerals, metals, oxygen, organic compounds and a wide range of pollutants (e.g., pesticides, hydrocarbons, pharmaceuticals, PCBs)
  • Physical characteristics such as temperature, colour, suspended solids and turbidity

Physical, chemical and biological measurements can be used together to describe the overall quality or health of aquatic ecosystems.

For further details, see:

What influences water quality?

Many factors influence water quality including climate and precipitation, soil type, geology, vegetation, groundwater and flow conditions. For example, fast-flowing mountain streams have different physical, chemical and biological characteristics than slower-moving boreal and prairie streams. Similarly, the freshwater lakes and wetlands in the Rocky Mountains and on the Canadian Shield of north-eastern Alberta are often different from those in the rest of the boreal or prairie regions.

Human activities also influence water quality. The greatest impacts are usually from point sources associated with the discharge of treated wastewater from municipalities and industries. In recent decades, significant and ongoing improvements to wastewater treatment technology have reduced the impact of point source pollution in Alberta rivers.

Water quality is also affected indirectly by activities on land. Rain and snowmelt can move materials from the land surface into nearby watercourses. Therefore, extensive land-use activities like logging, agriculture, mining and urban development can impact water quality. This non-point source pollution can include sediment, nutrients and toxic contaminants. In an urban environment, non-point source pollutants enter waterbodies through storm-drain networks. These pollutants typically include sediment and hydrocarbons from paved areas and pesticides and fertilizers from lawns and parks.

Certain pollutants originating from urban, industrial and agricultural activities can also be transported long distances by atmospheric processes, and deposited directly onto land and waterbodies within a drainage basin. Acid rain is one of the best known examples of this type of impact. This long-range transport can also include soil minerals, nutrients and numerous man-made chemicals. A recent example is the discovery of persistent pesticides and PCBs in water and aquatic life of mountain lakes in Alberta.

The quantity of water also affects quality. Major rains and high-flow events typically wash sediment, nutrients, pesticides, bacteria and other substances off the land and into rivers, thereby lowering water quality. Conversely, the less water there is, the lower the capacity of a waterbody to dilute and assimilate wastes. Climate change, groundwater supply (and quality) and increased consumptive demands may therefore affect water quality in the future. These factors could also influence the timing of river flows, which could impact the suitability of habitat for aquatic life.

Historical perspective on monitoring and issues

Scientists use surface water quality data, collected in extensive monitoring and research programs, to assess the condition of aquatic ecosystems and the effectiveness of environmental policies and management practices.

  • Surface water quality assessments have been conducted on lakes and rivers in Alberta since the 1940s. Initially, the work focused on basic inventories to describe the state of fisheries and water resources in Alberta.
  • During the 1950s and 1960s, problems caused by excessive nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen) and oxygen-demanding substances entering the aquatic environment, primarily from municipal and industrial sources, were of great concern. More systematic data collection programs were implemented, beginning in the late 1960s. Long-term monitoring is essential to understand aquatic ecosystems and to determine trends over time.
  • Following the creation of the department and the development of provincial legislation for regulating point-source discharges in the 1970s, field studies expanded to include non-point source issues associated with logging, agriculture, mining, urban runoff and atmospheric deposition.
  • In the 1980s and 1990s, concerns emerged about the general health of aquatic ecosystems, reflected in the presence of minute quantities of toxic substances found in various ecosystem components (water, sediments, plants and animals). The tendency for some contaminants (e.g., pesticides, metals and PCBs) to bioaccumulate in fish and wildlife and pose a risk to human and environmental health was recognized.
  • More recently, issues have arisen regarding the presence of human pharmaceuticals, flame retardants, pathogens and new agricultural chemicals in aquatic ecosystems. Potential sources of these contaminants and toxins include large urban areas and intensive agricultural operations.
  • Lake management is also a growing area of interest, as is the need for watershed work to assess, mitigate and better manage impacts, especially from nutrients. There is also concern with the occurrence of toxins from cyanobacteria (commonly referred to as blue-green algae) and implications for the health of livestock, pets and humans.
  • Aquatic ecosystem health is now a major focus of interest and work. This involves enhanced monitoring to complete a province-wide evaluation, as well as the development of ecological indicators and guidelines to evaluate the health of aquatic ecosystems. A large component of this is the determination of in-stream flow requirements for fish and other aquatic ecosystem components.

See Monitoring programs and ongoing activities, below, for further discussion of current issues.

Why do we monitor water quality?

Water quality measurements provide essential data and knowledge to:

  • Evaluate the condition and functions of aquatic ecosystems, including spatial patterns and temporal trends
  • Evaluate the influences and impacts of human activities, and the risks to human and ecosystem health
  • Measure environmental performance, support the development of water polices and management practices, and to assure the goals of Water for Life and the Land-use Framework
  • Support planning initiatives, decision-support tools such as water quality modeling, and cumulative effects management
  • Support stakeholder education and capacity building

How is surface water quality evaluated?

Data from monitoring programs are compared over time, from place to place, and to expected conditions, in order to evaluate impacts on aquatic ecosystems. In most cases the data are also compared to surface water quality guidelines to evaluate the suitability of the water for specific uses. Such guidelines are developed following scientific protocols and are usually based on toxicity studies or conditions which support the intended use. Water quality is usually deemed to be acceptable when the values are within the guidelines. Surface water quality guidelines should not be used as a "pollute up to" limit.

In Alberta, surface water quality guidelines have been established to protect:

  • Agricultural uses (stock watering and irrigation)
  • Aquatic life
  • Recreational and aesthetic purposes

A single variable or substance may have different numerical guidelines for different uses. For example, the acceptable amount of fecal coliform bacteria in water used for irrigating vegetable crops is different from the guideline that is applied to waters used for swimming. Fecal coliform bacterial levels are not usually a direct concern for the protection of aquatic life; therefore, there is no guideline established for this use. The final evaluation of water quality for a particular site or waterbody is typically based on the most stringent of all uses for that waterbody. The guidelines for aquatic life are generally more stringent than for the other uses.

Note that drinking water is not one of the uses discussed here. It should always be assumed that surface waters are unsafe to drink unless treated. Even a mountain stream not disturbed by human activities could contain naturally occurring parasites, such as from wildlife feces. Once surface water is treated, it can be evaluated against the Canadian Drinking Water Quality Guidelines. Of course, the cleaner the raw water is to begin with, the easier and less costly it is to treat.

Water quality data are also evaluated with statistical methods to determine differences from place to place, and for long-term trends. Computer-based water quality models use monitoring data to further evaluate the ecological functioning of rivers and lakes and evaluate water management decisions by simulating future scenarios.

Monitoring programs and ongoing activities

Surface waters in Alberta are monitored by several government, industry and stakeholder groups. This monitoring evaluates water quality and aquatic ecosystem conditions over a broad area of the province to support the shared responsibility to manage cumulative effects and protect water quality and aquatic ecosystems.

To support these efforts, Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) conducts extensive water quality monitoring, reporting and evaluation. Examples include the Long-Term River Network, the River Water Quality Index and monitoring of lakes throughout the province. Lake monitoring is supported by partnerships with the Alberta Lake Management Society and Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program in north-east Alberta.

The department also provides significant consultative and advisory services on a wide range of water quality issues to:

  • Other government departments (including Alberta Agriculture and Forestry and Environment Canada), agencies, industries, municipalities, institutes, watershed stewardship groups (e.g., specific lake, or stream-based, groups) and the public.
  • Regional cumulative effects management initiatives, such as the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA) in north-east Alberta and the Industrial Heartland in central Alberta
  • Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils (including Bow River Basin Council, Oldman Watershed Council, North Saskatchewan River Watershed Alliance, Lesser Slave Watershed Council, Battle River Watershed Alliance, Beaver River Watershed Alliance, Milk River Watershed Council, Red Deer River Watershed Alliance and South East Alberta Watershed Alliance)

Overall, the focus of monitoring activities in Alberta has generally reflected contemporary issues of concern, and it continues to evolve as new information and knowledge is gathered and interpreted. The development of provincial monitoring and reporting networks is also a key ongoing activity, especially for rivers and lakes. Monitoring networks for streams and wetlands are not as well developed. More recently, work is progressing on the development of ecological indicators and decision-support tools to assess cumulative effects within major watersheds, including the influences of point and non-point sources of contaminants. Monitoring, evaluation and reporting also identifies policy gaps and informs new policy development.

Water quality science has advanced considerably since Alberta first entered the field and continues to progress. This has led to the development, refinement and standardization of field and analytical methods. Government scientists and technologists continue to lead and participate in the development of guidance and policy for surface water quality monitoring.

Recent guidance documents include:

  • Aquatic Ecosystems Field Sampling Protocols
  • Guidance for Deriving Site-Specific Water Quality Objectives for Alberta Rivers
  • Guidelines for Quality Assurance and Quality Control in Surface Water Quality Programs in Alberta
  • Guiding Principles for Water Quality and Aquatic Ecosystem Monitoring

At the forefront of today's environmental issues are concerns dealing with the measurement of aquatic ecosystem health. This is partly driven by the provincial Water for Life strategy, more recently by the Land-use Framework and a strong desire by partners to integrate cumulative effects into planning at watershed and regional scales. Work to support Water for Life and the goal for healthy aquatic ecosystems includes an initial assessment of aquatic ecosystem health in Alberta and ongoing refinement of monitoring networks.

Reports and data

Surface water quality data collected by the Alberta government are stored in an extensive electronic database. Related sediment and biological data, and some water quality data collected by partners are being added to the database. Municipal and industrial water quality data collected by government are also included in this system. All data undergo quality control and validation procedures before they are entered into the database. Improvements to the data storage and retrieval systems are ongoing to enhance the availability and value of the information. The data and some useful reporting tools are available at:

Data are also available in brochures, reports and scientific papers; see:

Summary information such as the Alberta River Water Quality Index is also reported in the annual Measuring Up report.

How is water quality protected?

AEP's mandate to protect water quality emanates from the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (EPEA) and the Water Act. Under EPEA, the department regulates industrial and municipal point-source discharges to surface waters, protecting water quality in the receiving waterbody. The Water Act is more broad-based in the approach to water management and includes mechanisms to protect overall water quality at major watershed scales (e.g., provision for the development of surface water quality guidelines and site-specific objectives). Some lower-risk activities, such as temporary diversion of water or construction of water crossings, are managed by adherence to Codes of Practice.

Non-point source pollution control remains a challenge in the sense that no single agency or level of government has sole responsibility for the integration of land use activities into water quality protection strategies. Co-operation between agencies, industries, municipalities and all other stakeholders is required to ensure this important aspect of water pollution is understood and integrated into the protection of our waterways. The Water Act enables the development of Water Management Plans for Alberta's major watersheds, based on the Framework for Water Management Planning.

Under the Water for Life strategy, Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils are developing these plans into more holistic watershed management plans. The plans, approved by government, are important to achieve better, more integrated management within river basins. Appropriate levels of monitoring and reporting are required to measure performance of the plan and the cumulative effects of point and non-point sources on water quality and ecosystem health. The Government of Alberta is working towards more active development of cumulative effects and decision-making tools, including broad geo-spatial models and more detailed surface water quality models.

AEP also conducts a legislated compliance and inspection function. This program helps to ensure that municipal and industrial facilities meet their regulatory approvals or registrations, which are designed to protect the environment from adverse effects. The focus is on identifying and correcting non-compliance. Significant non-compliance can result in enforcement action.

In the cases where rivers flow from one province to the next, trans-boundary agreements are in place to ensure that adequate water quality and quantity are maintained. Examples of trans-boundary agreements include the Prairie Provinces Water Board (PPWB), Master Agreement on Apportionment (for east-flowing waters), and the Mackenzie River Basin Board (MRBB) Transboundary Waters Master Agreement (for north-flowing waters):


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Updated: Jun 27, 2018