We drink it. We swim in it. We farm with it. We waste it.
And we have less of it than you think.

Originally published April 22, 2019.

In Hot Water

Whether we’re flushing it down our toilets or using it to produce tomatoes, beef or oil, Canadians use a lot of water. But Wilfrid Laurier University researchers say our water and the systems that rely on it are vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

“There’s a perception in Canada that we have tons and tons of water,” says Associate Professor Alex Latta, an expert on water politics and environmental citizenship. “But water doesn’t move through the landscape that quickly. If you look at our balance of water in and out each year, we don’t have as much water as we think.”

As climate change makes weather less predictable, Canadians are likely to see more droughts and more floods. Some places may see both extremes within a season as heatwaves evaporate moisture and end in intense storms that wash away dried-out soil.

Winters are also changing. In much of southern Canada, it’s getting harder to maintain outdoor skating rinks and to ski and snowmobile. In the North, ice roads are open for shorter periods and infrastructure is threatened by thawing permafrost.

“Long before we run out of water, we will feel the impacts of climate change on our water,” says Latta.

Water Bodies

From the wide mouth of the St. Lawrence to the glacial streams of the Rockies, Canada’s water bodies are vital to our ecology, economy and identity.

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Troubling Transformations

Canada’s rivers and lakes are changing as our climate shifts.

Some of the changes are subtle, such as water levels trending lower. Some changes are dramatic. A glacial river in the Yukon has changed direction, from flowing north to flowing south. Some lakes have disappeared while others have appeared seemingly out of nowhere.

You’ve probably heard about melting ice caps resulting in sea levels rising. However, the effect on lakes tends to be the opposite.

“An increase in temperature means an increase in the rate of evaporation,” says Professor Mary-Louise Byrne. “So whether small lakes or the Great Lakes, there will be a water level fall, though it will vary by area.”

Rivers, and the species that live in them, are also changing, says Joseph Culp, a senior Environment Canada research scientist based at Laurier. For example, salmon are being found further north than ever before.

In the winter, water bodies are seeing less and later ice formation. In the North, where lake and river ice are crucial to winter travel, it’s becoming harder to get around and engage in traditional activities such as hunting.

snowmobiles on lake
Animals, Indigenous communities and Laurier researchers alike rely on lake and river ice for travelling around Canada's northern regions.

Across the country, extreme rainfall events and floods are causing more runoff, which results in more contaminants in the water. If levels of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen – found in fertilizer – get too high, toxic algal blooms can result, particularly in warm weather.

Increased rainfall and warmer weather means more toxic algal blooms in our lakes.

When algae start to die off, oxygen in the water gets low. One of the worst algal blooms occurs yearly in the western end of Lake Erie, resulting in a huge “dead zone” visible from space, says Professor Michael Wilkie, co-director of the Laurier Institute for Water Science.

All these changes to our water bodies have economic as well as environmental impacts. Algal blooms hurt fisheries and tourism. Dropping lake levels can drive down lakefront property values. Floods and melting ice roads can cut off entire communities and virtually stop all economic activity.

“The biggest problem is that we will not have the same predictability as we had in the past,” says Byrne. “Our planning has been based on years of climate records. Now, with climate change, predictions are suspect.”

Dive Deeper

Explore how climate change affects Canada’s water bodies.

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In all its forms, water is the lifeblood of our ecosystems, where everything is so interrelated that one small change can cause a chain reaction of consequences.

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Ripples of Change

Water isn’t just the liquid we drink, shower in or paddle down. It’s also the vapour in the air, the moisture in the ground and the ice on the tundra. In all its forms, it’s a crucial part of every ecosystem – from the wildest, untouched habitats to sprawling metropolises.

Ecosystems are complex and small alterations can spark a cascade of changes ranging from subtle to cataclysmic.

For example, small changes in water temperature have already meant some fishes are already finding new habitats while others are being squeezed out of theirs, says Professor Michael Wilkie, a fish physiologist and toxicologist. Some fishes are having trouble reproducing while others are simply dying.

Trace contamination in water can also have major effects. Deborah MacLatchy, Laurier’s president and vice-chancellor as well as a professor of biology, studies how Canadian fish respond to stressors including climate change and water contaminants.

Her lab focuses on endocrine disruptors – contaminants that can alter fish reproduction, development and growth. Evidence that climate change can amplify the effects of endocrine disruptors on fish continues to grow.

“We have outcomes that not only improve our fundamental understanding of fish biology but also allow us to make evidence-based recommendations on how humans can better manage our impact on aquatic environments,” says MacLatchy. “The most successful approach we have found is through partnerships – when scientists work with communities, industries, and government regulators – to find solutions that work.”

moose in delta
With huge percentages of trees falling victim to pests and pathogens, plus enormous forest fires also fuelled by warm and dry weather, all kinds of organisms, from mosses to moose, face a loss of habitat.

The mountain pine beetle is another example of a change that starts small – in this case, about five millimetres at adult size. They can burrow into trees, starving them of nutrients and water.

Historically, younger and healthier trees were better able to resist them. Cold winters killed most of the beetles, keeping their populations in check.

However, after years of warm winters, dryness and fire-suppression programs leaving more older pines standing, mountain pine beetles have spread to unprecedented levels.

Drought-stressed trees tend to be more susceptible both to pathogens and pests,” says Associate Professor Jennifer Baltzer, Canada Research Chair in Forests and Global Change. “Trees have ways of resisting damage agents, but they’re more vulnerable if they’re experiencing some other stress.”

In southeastern Canada, the emerald ash borer is also wreaking havoc on forests. This too is driven by mild winters failing to adequately knock back their populations.

“How changing winter conditions are going to impact pest populations is a big concern for forests in Canada,” says Baltzer.

Wetlands are also vulnerable. With both dry and wet areas, they support extraordinary biodiversity. However, given their dependency upon water, they are especially susceptible to the anticipated water-related changes to our climate.

“Water availability and water quality really drives everything that happens in wetlands,” says Associate Professor Kevin Stevens, a wetlands expert. “Climate change threatens both.”

brown trees in Jasper
In 2018, nearly half the trees in Jasper National Park turned the reddish brown of death as the result of a beetle attack.

Dive Deeper

Explore how climate change affects water in Canada’s ecosystems.

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In the North

The North is Canada’s fastest-warming region, where climate change isn’t a future threat – it’s now.

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The Big Thaw

Warming temperatures are affecting every aspect of life in the North, from animal habitat to the stability of urban infrastructure.

Laurier has researchers working at northern sites ranging from Ontario’s “Ring of Fire” to Lake Hazen on Ellesmere Island. A major geographic focus is the Northwest Territories, where Laurier has a partnership agreement with the territorial government.

Though the sites vary dramatically, all of them are warming.

“Species that are cold-tolerant could become rarer or extinct,” says Joseph Culp. “For instance, Arctic char distribution may be reduced while Pacific and Atlantic salmon move up into the Arctic and compete with existing fauna.”

Some sites are getting drier, but others are experiencing more intense rains and thunderstorms. These are causing soil erosion and permafrost thaw, which in turn is causing more erosion.

In some areas, permafrost includes large underground ice deposits. As this ice melts, it can lead to thaw slumps – essentially landslides on stream and lake shorelines, some gigantic.

Melting of ground ice has led to some lakes completely draining away. In other areas, new lakes have formed as underground ice melts, says Professor Philip Marsh, Canada Research Chair in Cold Regions Water Science.

When thaw slump causes large amounts of sediment to fall into rivers, higher riverbeds and muddier water can decrease the habitat for aquatic organisms and make it difficult for them to get light and nutrients.

“We may lose species, at least locally,” says Culp.

 thaw slump
A permafrost thaw-induced landslide along the Mackenzie River.

Another consequence of permafrost thaw is more mercury in water. A certain amount of inorganic mercury occurs naturally in the atmosphere. Over millennia, it falls onto surface land and ice, which becomes permafrost as successive layers are deposited on top.

“As it thaws out, permafrost will release whatever it had in it,” says Professor William Quinton, director of the Cold Regions Research Centre. “If you get a 10-centimetre thaw, that could release a century of atmospheric deposition.”

As water drains into rivers and lakes, microbes in those waters convert inorganic mercury to methylmercury, which is toxic.

Methylmercury accumulates in water and in the bodies of aquatic organisms. Predatory fish accumulate high levels of mercury, which can pass into humans. Some lakes in the North have such high mercury levels that large fish are no longer safe to eat regularly, says Quinton.

Other contaminants, such as arsenic released from mining, also become more of a concern with climate change, says Professor Brent Wolfe, who is co-leading the Sub-Arctic Metal Mobility Study (SAMMS) with Assistant Professor Jason Venkiteswaran, a fellow geoscientist.

Wolfe and Venkiteswaran’s study aims to understand how metal pollutants move through water and air, as well as the effects they may have on drinking water and aquatic organisms.

“Might these pollutants get re-mobilized as a consequence of climate change producing permafrost thaw or increased forest fires resulting in the burning of polluted soil?” asks Wolfe. “Could any arsenic released from the landscape find its way into aquatic ecosystems? That’s what the SAMMS program is addressing.”

Dive Deeper

Explore how climate change affects water in the North.

Select a topic to explore more.


Climate change is causing greater weather extremes, and people and property are caught in the crosshairs.

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Extreme Weather Warning

One of the effects of climate change is that weather is trending toward greater extremes. When it’s dry, it’s really dry. When it’s wet, rains are more intense and storms are more destructive.

There have always been wildfires, but hotter weather is leading to more water evaporation and drier forests. Fires are therefore becoming larger, more frequent and more severe.

Large swaths of Canada are prone to drought. And hot, dry weather is stressing crops on farms even in areas such as Ontario where true drought is rare.

“As a country, we need to think more broadly about regions that experience severe water stress,” says Associate Professor Alex Latta. “If parts of the prairies end up experiencing long-term drought and topsoil loss, economies are going to suffer and governments are going to have to figure out how to help farmers.”

Communities that haven’t historically had to deal with extreme heat are the least prepared when heatwaves strike, says Professor Brenda Murphy, who leads the Resilient Communities Research Collaborative.

“The further north you go, the less likely people are to have air conditioning.”

Floods can affect communities of all sizes. The Insurance Bureau of Canada says floods have already become the single greatest threat to houses, eclipsing residential fires.

Intense storms put pressure on culverts, storm sewers and water mains. When there’s more water than this infrastructure can handle, floods result, not only near rivers but also in people’s basements. 

High winds, including tornados, are another risk predicted to increase as climate change advances – a major risk to Ontario, Quebec and the prairies, since their most-populated areas are in tornado zones.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, extreme winter weather is also on the rise.

“Some research has predicted more polar vortex types of events and also more ice storms,” says Murphy. “This affects things like the number of accidents on the roads, the capacity of salt trucks to get out and whether salting will even work, because salt doesn’t de-ice effectively when it’s too cold.”

Regardless of type, disasters put great stress on critical infrastructure such as transportation networks, communication networks, and health and safety networks.

When parts of these critical networks aren’t functioning due to a disaster – for instance, if a major road is underwater or a power plant is knocked out – it makes it even more difficult to respond to the disaster.

While these are big enough problems even in well-resourced cities, they’re worse in small or isolated communities where there might only be one road to town or one power plant, says Murphy. This is why she says provincial and federal governments need to provide extra resources to help rural communities plan for and respond to disasters.

“We cannot download all this responsibility to the local communities,” Murphy says. “Small, rural communities just cannot do this stuff alone.”

burned house
Hotter weather is leading to more frequent and more severe forest fires, which have devastating consequences for both natural and manmade environments.

Dive Deeper

Explore how disasters and extremes affect different communities and locations.

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Indigenous Knowledge

Indigenous environmental thinking considers the relationships between humans and the natural world.

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Connecting Indigenous and Western Knowledge

Indigenous people all over Turtle Island (North America) face major water problems.

First Nations are far more likely than any other type of community to face protracted boil-water advisories – some have lasted more than 20 years. To make matters worse, many communities’ water is vulnerable to the effects of climate change, including permafrost thaw, rising sea levels and higher water temperatures.

To understand some of these issues, Laurier researchers work closely with Indigenous communities across Canada and around the world.

When they do, non-Indigenous researchers need to adapt their ways of working because Indigenous peoples think about the environment differently, says Assistant Professor Miguel Sioui.

“Western environmental thinking is driven by a rights-based mindset based on, ‘What can I take? What is owed to me by society or by the constitution?’” says Sioui, a member of the Huron-Wendat Nation. “Indigenous environmental thinking is driven by what I call a responsibility-based approach. It’s about, ‘What are my duties toward the land and to my fellow human and other beings?’”

balsam poplar tree
Edward Cholo, an Indigenous elder, environmental monitor and trapper, provides an image of a balsam poplar tree blooming a month early.

Indigenous knowledge stems from Indigenous environmental thinking, informed by detailed experiential knowledge about a particular area, which considers the relationships between humans, animals, plants and other features of the land, says Sioui.

But Sioui warns against drawing absolutist distinctions between the two systems of thought.

“Empiricism in traditional ecological knowledge is well documented among both Indigenous peoples and academics,” he says. “In order to survive in a harsh environmental context, there’s a lot of observation that’s required and what some would call science that’s required in order to develop new ideas and information about the land.”

Indigenous and western scientific knowledge are therefore “very reconcilable ways of thinking,” says Sioui. “Indigenous peoples are capable of thinking in a so-called western scientific manner and there’s nothing stopping western scientists from seeing the relationships between different elements of an ecosystem.”

Some wonder what Indigenous knowledge can contribute to the science and policy of climate change, which is about what’s happening now and in the future. However, that question is rooted in a misunderstanding of Indigenous knowledge, says Associate Professor Alex Latta, who is non-Indigenous but has worked extensively with Indigenous communities in Canada and Latin America.

“We need to recognize that Indigenous knowledge isn’t just what’s passed down. It’s also new knowledge developed by contemporary Indigenous peoples as they continue to use the land,” says Latta.

Using New Knowledge to Protect Water

It used to be that university researchers went into Indigenous communities, took what they wanted and left.

While this sometimes still happens, researchers, communities and funders have different expectations today, says Professor William Quinton, who has been working with the Dehcho First Nations in the Northwest Territories for 20 years.

“The land belongs to the local communities, so there’s a real need to collaborate, form relationships and exchange knowledge.”

Two projects co-run by Indigenous communities and Laurier researchers recently received funding from the Global Water Futures research partnership, of which Laurier is a key member. One is the Matawa Water Futures project, which involves social and physical scientists working with nine Northern Ontario First Nations to maintain and monitor watersheds in the face of proposed industrial development.

“Indigenous water stewardship, which has been going on since time immemorial, is challenged in the face of contemporary development,” says Professor Terry Mitchell, who is co-leading the project with Sarah Cockerton, manager of environmental programs for Four Rivers of Matawa First Nations Management. “This Matawa-led, Indigenous-informed water science program has regional and national potential to decolonize water science.”

“We want to combine western science and traditional ecological knowledge to build more robust, more holistic water monitoring frameworks with the hope that these integrated approaches will serve as a model for broader Canadian society and also global society,” says Sioui, a member of the project team.

“Indigenous peoples are very interested in what scientific research being done by universities like Laurier can contribute to their understanding of what’s going on in their environment,” says Latta, another member of the team. “Indigenous knowledge is being applied alongside science by Indigenous people who are out on the land doing community-based water monitoring, using western tools and interacting with western researchers.”

Foundational to all this work is developing relationships, which is the focus of another Global Water Futures-funded project, Water Knowledge Camps, which Associate Professor Jennifer Baltzer is co-leading with Leon Andrew, a Shúhtaot'ı̨nę elder with the Tulı́t’a Dene Band.

“Traditional knowledge and western science have a lot to offer one another when both are respected,” says Andrew. “By spending time together on the land, these two streams can become one.”

indigenous students
Dehcho high school students learn to use drones for data collection at a Scotty Creek field course. 

Through the formal and informal interactions of on-the-land camps, the project aims to build trust and share knowledge between community members and researchers. The camps also support the vision of developing local and regional Indigenous Guardians programs, which are being implemented across Canada to enable communities to take the leadership role in land and water monitoring and management.

“There’s already so much capacity in these communities to do this monitoring, but we can help provide training and support so that the information collected can be used in decision making,” says Adjunct Professor Andrew Spring, who is currently working with the Tsá Tué Biosphere Reserve in Délı̨nę, Northwest Territories, to support the community’s vision for protecting Great Bear Lake and its watershed.

Other researchers collaborate with communities in different ways. Professor Philip Marsh and his team work with the Inuvialuit Fisheries Joint Management Committee, the Gwich'in Renewable Resources Board, the Inuvik Hunters and Trappers Committee and with a community climate monitoring program run by the Tuktoyaktuk Community Corporation.

“We provide them data we’ve been collecting and information on what might be coming,” says Marsh. “They bring us insight into the landscapes, insight into the long-term histories of these areas, and cultural links to the landscape.”

“The situation today is unprecedented, with the land warming up so much,” says Quinton. “We have to come together and work on these things.”

Dive Deeper

Elders share their knowledge and experience of water in their areas.

Select a topic to explore more.

Making Change

How we use water impacts other people, local ecosystems and ultimately our planet. We must all do our part to protect our most valuable resource.

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What Can We Do?

Climate change is arguably the biggest challenge facing our water and the planet more generally. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do about it.

“It’s all of our responsibility to be aware of Canada’s waterscape and water challenges in relation to climate change,” says Associate Professor Alex Latta. “How we use water as individuals impacts other people and local ecosystems. The better we can do as stewards, the more those systems can be resilient as climate change puts stress on them.”

Simple steps, such as installing water-efficient toilets and low-flow showerheads, can make a big difference.

For example, if four people in a household flush five times a day each, switching from a 13-litre toilet to a 4.8-litre toilet means an annual savings of nearly 300,000 litres.

Because climate change is so hard to turn around, we must take steps to adapt to a hotter world even as we try to curtail warming, says Latta.

For example, as climate change brings more intense storms, more freezing rain and more intense heat waves, we can stormproof homes, plant shade trees and have supplies ready in case the power goes out for an extended period of time.

Businesses and organizations can also act by making buildings more sustainable. The greenest buildings, such as Laurier’s LEED Gold-certified Lazaridis Hall, go well beyond high-efficiency toilets – they produce their own energy and recycle water.

Farmers and property developers can install features on their land, such as ponds and constructed wetlands, that capture stormwater runoff and help purify it. Laurier Associate Professor Kevin Stevens is at the forefront of research on building the most effective new wetlands.

Governments, from villages to nations, must make policy decisions now to adapt to and mitigate climate change, as well as to protect water, says Latta.

And ultimately, what governments do has a lot to do with what individuals do.

“Many people don’t realize that the decisions they make, not only as consumers but also as citizens – when they vote, when they speak to their politicians or when they could speak to their politicians but don’t – affect the environment,” says Latta. “One of the reasons our governments are not acting quickly enough is because people are not putting enough pressure on them.”

Lazaridis Hall
Lazaridis Hall is designed with several environmentally sustainable features, such as an underground cistern that captures rainwater off the roof for use as greywater throughout the building, high-efficiency lighting, and a chilled beam heating and cooling system that automatically turns off and recycles air when no one is within the area.

Dive Deeper

Explore what we can do to mitigate or adapt to changing water systems.

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Thanks to the following Laurier faculty and staff for sharing their research and multimedia: Jennifer Baltzer, Mary Louise Byrne, Joseph Culp, Alex Latta, Deborah MacLatchy, Philip Marsh, Terry Mitchell, Brenda Murphy, Tyler Plante, William Quinton, Miguel Sioui, Andrew Spring, Kevin Stevens, Jason Venkiteswaran, Michael Wilkie, Brent Wolfe.

Additional thanks for photos to: Sumeep Bath, Dieter Cazon, Mihai Costea, Jelle Faber, Bryce Gunson, Branden Walker.

Megwetch to Mary Anne Caibaiosai and máhsı to Edward Cholo for sharing their traditional knowledge. Nia:wen to Erin Hodson, Laurier’s Indigenous curriculum specialist, for her input.

Thanks to the following people who helped shape this initiative by sharing their thoughts on and questions about water:

Laurier students and recent alumni: Megan Danbrook, Jingyi Hong, Alexandra Morisette, Ibrahim Musa, Rachel Schryver, Teddy Zho.

Farmers: Rosemary Crick, Cory Eichman, Leslie Moskovitz.

Northerners: Dieter Cazon, Kristen Tanche.


Words by Karen Kawawada.

Production by Mallory O'Brien, Emily Lowther, Kristine Lougas.

Development by Evan Bracken, Kerry Nelson Milovic.

Design by Jessica Hillis, Justin Ogilvie, John Ternan.

Communications by Lori Chalmers Morrison, Rebecca Kieswetter, Kimberly Elworthy.