Advancing Canada’s Scientific Understanding of Cumulative Impact Assessment

There is growing agreement in Canada that protecting the environment and sustaining its structure and functions requires thinking about, planning, and managing all of our activities together within a particular geography in a more coordinated fashion.

Decision makers need to consider potential impacts of everything we do within watersheds, individually and in aggregate, on the waters that flow through them and the biota they support. In almost all cases, political boundaries do not coincide with geographical boundaries, and for monitoring of the water, and the plants and animals dependent on the water, coordination would be better managed within the area of land drained by a river, the catchment or watershed.

This is the idea behind Cumulative Effects Assessment (CEA), which is increasingly being recognized and specified in Canadian legislation from shore to shore to shore, from the Northwest Territories’ Cumulative Impact Monitoring program to British Columbia’s Water Sustainability Act to Prince Edward Island’s proposed Water Act.

Predicting impacts of our activities on lakes, rivers, estuaries and coastal environments, and also groundwater, is a difficult thing to do. The scientists of the Canadian Rivers Institute (CRI), however, have significantly advanced the science and understanding of this process through its leadership role within the Canadian Water Network’s Canadian Watershed Research Consortium.

This December, the CWN is celebrating the success of the Watershed Research Consortium by highlighting the projects that made up this pan-Canadian effort to advance the science around watershed management.

CRI was critical in the success of this national initiative, which included six research nodes in total: two in the Canadian Maritimes, two in Ontario and one in each of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories.

CRI scientists lead three of the six research nodes, while two nodes had heavy involvement from CRI research associates.

Research for each node was completed by 2016. Detailed technical reports, journal publications and brief, plain-language synthesis of results were released and are now available on the CWN website.

With the research phase of the CWRC now complete, node partnerships have turned their attention to implementation of the monitoring recommendations provided by their research teams.

Dr. Michael van den Heuvel, CRI Director and leader of the research team for the Northumberland Strait – Environmental Monitoring Partnership (NorSt-EMP), one of the research nodes in the Maritimes, said the work involved in the CWRC was a perfect fit for CRI.

“We’re a very applied research institute and we like to work with solutions for end-users. Our aim is to support water resource managers in understanding how aquatic ecosystem such as rivers and estuaries function and knowing the best monitoring frameworks to apply,” Dr. van den Heuvel said.

Dr. van den Heuvel noted the national initiative also aligned well with one of CRI’s overarching goals of training the next generation of skilled aquatic scientists, providing invaluable experience to dozens of students across the country.

“Students in these nodes had the opportunity to interact with a multitude of end-users — from different organizations such as the federal government, provincial government, NGOs and industry,” he said. “It’s quite a unique opportunity for students to interact with so many end-users in terms of how their research is regarded and being used.”

Adds Dr. Simon Courtenay, CRI Science Director who also worked on the NorSt-EMP node, “I think these projects involved cutting-edge research, but also, what’s exciting for the students is the chance to be part of something bigger. They were involved in a program that had nodes all across Canada, trying to address the same questions but in different geographies and with different particulars.”


CRI Scientists involved in the Canadian Water Network’s Canadian Watershed Research Consortium:

Northumberland Strait – Environmental Monitoring Partnership

Research led by Michael van den Heuvel, CRI Director and Canada Research Chair in Watershed Ecological Integrity (University of Prince Edward Island); Kerry MacQuarrie, CRI Science Director and Canada Research Chair in Groundwater-Surface Water Interactions (University of New Brunswick); André St-Hilaire, INRS-ETE (Université du Québec), Simon Courtenay, Science Director at CRI and Scientific Director of the Canadian Water Network (University of Waterloo); and CRI Christina Pater (UPEI)

Tobacco Creek Watershed

Joseph Culp, CRI Science Director (UNB), Adam Yates, CRI Science Director (Western University), and Patricia Chambers, CRI Research Associate (UNB)

St. John Harbour Watershed

CRI Science Directors Simon Courtenay, Allen Curry, Karen Kidd and Kelly Munkittrick (former SD), and CRI Research Associates Marie-Josee Abgrall (Parks Canada), Heather Hunt(UNB), and David Methven (UNB) led and conducted research through CWN’s NorSt-EMP.

Grand River Watershed

Led by CRI Science Directors Mark Servos (University of Waterloo) and Adam Yates (Western University).

Slave Lake Watershed

Research led by CRI Science Director Tim Jardine (University of Saskatchewan)