Water Management in Québec
Figure 1 : Water quality in Québec rivers (1995-1997)
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Overall, water quality in Québec can now be considered to be relatively high, compared to the prevailing situation in most industrialized countries. However, over time, other environmental problems have become more acute, especially nonpoint source pollution and toxic pollution. Certain toxic substances and pesticides are still found in some rivers, where high levels of nutrient elements may be recorded. A water quality index, developed to reflect the range of values observed in Québec, has shown that in river basin headwaters and in outlying regions, water quality is generally high (see Figure 1).
Water quality decreases in the south-west of Québec, especially in the agricultural areas of the St. Lawrence Lowlands, mainly because of the nonpoint source pollution resulting from the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and animal waste. Studies of biological communities and the quality of riverbank vegetation also reveals the impact of agricultural activities. However, much recent work has been carried out in this area, in particular since the 1997 implementation of the new Regulation respecting the reduction of pollution from agricultural sources and the Agroenvironmental Investment Assistance Program, which has a budget of $400 million.
The contamination of the environment by toxic substances is another point that cannot be ignored. The data shows that this type of contamination has decreased considerably since the 1970s, but is still significant.
With regard to lake water acidification, data collected for over 1,500 lakes by Québec's spatial lake acidity monitoring network shows that almost 20% of lakes are acid, and that half of all lakes are likely to suffer biological damage relating to the acidification of surface water. The acid-rain problem is far from solved, but recent reductions in SO2 emissions will probably result in a partial improvement in the quality of the ecosystems affected.
In the St. Lawrence, water quality has also improved in response to the water treatment processes implemented in recent years. For example, the quantity of fecal coliforms measured off Contrecoeur dropped significantly from 1992 when the wastewater treatment plant for the south shore came into service (Figure 2). Levels of several other variables (phosphorous, coliforms, suspended solids, ammonia nitrogen) also decreased between 1990 and 1997.
Concentration of fecal coliform in the
St. Lawrence River at Contrecoeur (1990 - 1997)
A substantial difference in water quality can be observed between Lake Saint-Louis, where water quality is high, and the river downstream from Montréal. The microbiological traces left by the effluent from the Communauté urbaine de Montréal wastewater treatment plant can be observed in the centre of the river and along the northern bank as far downstream as Bécancour. Although its overall water quality exceeds that of most of the world's great rivers, the St. Lawrence still receives contaminant discharges that limit use of the river in certain sectors.
One of the most important uses of surface water is clearly as a source of drinking water. In Québec, municipal water systems distribute drinking water to 5.5 million people, mainly taken from watercourses. Forty-five percent of the population is supplied from the St. Lawrence River, and another 35% from other rivers and lakes. Although the water generally undergoes a complete treatment process before distribution to consumers, 250 systems deliver surface water that has simply been chlorinated, while 25 systems deliver water that has undergone no treatment whatsoever.
The drinking water distributed is generally of high quality. Seventy-five percent of the water distributed by the systems meets the bacteriological standards of the Drinking Water Regulation at all times. Deviations from the standards often occur only once a year, and the consumers concerned are informed by way of public notices that recommend the boiling of drinking water.
Between 1989 and 1995, 24 epidemics, mainly gastro-enteritis, relating to the consumption of surface water and affecting over 800 individuals, were reported to the public health system. These cases represented only a fraction of the total number of water-related outbreaks of disease, since many cases are neither detected nor reported to the public health system and thus do not come under epidemiological scrutiny.
In addition, 97% of the distribution systems meet the chemical standards for which regulatory controls are applied.
The water of Québec is, in many areas, naturally coloured. The chlorinating of coloured water leads to the formation of chlorine by-products that are known to be carcinogenic in animals and are suspected to be carcinogenic in humans by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). About thirty water systems in Québec distribute water to around 100,000 individuals that contains amounts of chlorine by-products that exceed national and international recommendations. In addition, concentrations of the herbicide atrazine, used in early summer on the corn crop, can temporarily exceed recommended Canadian levels in around twelve distribution systems.
The uses made of surface water, besides collection, are many and varied (swimming, sailing, fishing, hunting, leisure activities, etc.). Certain activities have not yet been reintroduced in certain sectors. For example, swimming in the St. Lawrence remains a highly restricted activity in certain zones, in particular because of the danger to health. The same is true for many water-based activities that involve direct contact with the water. The eutrophication of certain bodies of water has also led to a significant reduction in their recreational potential.
Considering the number of different organizations involved in water management in Québec, and the many different goals they pursue, it is becoming increasingly difficult and complex to integrate activities at the local level. In many countries, the drainage basin has been selected as the geographical basis for water management, and collaboration between users and managers is an important tool in planning and implementing actions. The management methods vary from one country to another and reflect the need to act either in connection with the state of the resource, or in connection with the prevailing organizational culture, or in connection with both.
In Québec, where the state of the resource is generally good, around 50 organizations have been established over the years to manage specific bodies of water. These local or regional initiatives are generally designed to protect or reintroduce certain uses of the water resource, and can take various forms. However, almost all are based on the interest of owners whose land borders on the water in ensuring that it is better managed, and they rely on collaboration between users and managers to achieve their goals. An umbrella group, the Réseau des organismes de rivières du Québec (Réseau d'OR) brings together around twenty organizations working in the field who support a drainage basin-based management approach.
In connection with this approach, the Government of Québec signed the charter of the International Network of Basin Organizations in Mexico in March 1996, thereby giving concrete expression to its commitment to comply with the principle of drainage basin-based management as followed in many countries around the world. As a concrete result, the government initiated a pilot project on integrated water management by drainage basin; a committee made up of 23 representatives from the area formed by the drainage basin of the Chaudière River was established to draft initial water guidelines and propose a strategy for implementation. The Comité de bassin de la rivière Chaudière (COBARIC) will file a report in late 1999.
Scientific knowledge on water and aquatic ecosystems has increased considerably over the last twenty years, thanks in particular to the monitoring work undertaken by the Ministère de l'Environnement. A basic network consisting of 350 testing stations located in the 40 major drainage basins in southern Québec provides regular samples and allows water quality to be monitored over space and time. This monitoring of general quality is based on recognized parameters such as biological oxygen demand, suspended solids, nitrates, phosphorous, coliforms and certain toxic products. The data is needed to evaluate both trends in water quality and the impact of a particular source of pollution, a type of land use or a water treatment program.
With regard to toxic substances, concerns relating to their presence in the environment have led to the implementation of a program to monitor the presence of contaminants in the flesh of fish caught for sport in Québec's lakes and rivers. In addition, the Ministère takes measurements of the contaminants present in the water and in sediments. Data is also collected on the pesticides used in agriculture by sector of activity including, in particular, the potato, corn and apple orchard sectors.
A hydrological measurement network, known as the Réseau de mesures hydrologiques, also exists; the current network includes almost 250 stations to measure water level or water flow, located in roughly 200 lakes and bodies of water. Responsibility for the network is shared between various bodies, including provincial government departments, the federal government, Crown corporations and certain private companies.
Overall, a considerable and varied amount of data is collected to measure surface water quantity and quality. However, the data remains incomplete in some respects such as, for example, the amounts of water collected, the quality of industrial effluents and rainwater, and the monitoring of lakes under pressure from urban and agricultural development.
In light of the above information, certain concerns can now be defined.
4 Some enterprises in this sector use groundwater.