Ministère du Développement durable, de l'Environnement
et de la Lutte contre les changements climatiques
Home Site Map Qué E-Mail Search About the site Français

Water Management in Québec
Public Consultation Document

Discussion Themes (continued)

Surface Water

Surface Water

Situation and Status

In Québec, water is present in abundance. Renewable freshwater resources make up one-third of the water resources available in Canada as a whole, and roughly 3% of the resources of the planet. Given its relatively small population, Québec enjoys one of the best per capita water resource ratios in the world, equal to eight times the planet-wide average.

Water is present throughout Québec's territory, which has over 4,500 rivers and half a million lakes. The abundance of the resource is linked to the substantial annual rainfall, which reaches over 750 mm each year, 80% of which returns to the ocean via the hydrographic network.

Surface water usesIn Québec, only a small percentage of the annual gross volume of available water is collected: 0.5%. Municipalities account for 49% of the amount collected, and the manufacturing sector for 46%. The needs of the mining and agriculture sectors make up approximately 5%. It is important to note that many businesses, such as those working in the food and drink sector, are dependent on water both for their production processes and as an ingredient in their products.

Under the Civil Code of Québec, surface water is considered to be public property, and the owners of property bordering on water may have access to and use it. However, they must return the water used to the watercourse without substantial modification, and must also ensure that they do not deprive other riparian owners of the same rights.

The legal framework for water management is complex. The rules adopted by the various levels of jurisdiction are designed to ensure that society can function smoothly, and in addition to the Civil Code of Québec, various other acts and regulations govern the many uses of water. These acts and regulations are provincial, municipal or federal in origin, and are administered by a wide range of public bodies3: federal and provincial departments, municipalities, regional county municipalities and urban communities.


Socio-economic Issues

Water is a major socio-economic issue, as can be seen from the following examples of the use made of water in Québec.

  • On January 1, 1997, over 96% of all the electricity generated in Québec was hydro-electricity, produced at comparatively low cost.
  • The pulp and paper industry, and the related production industries, are major industrial users of water in Québec. Their operation and existence depend to a great extent on water resources. Together, they employ around 34,000 individuals, and their total shipments reached $10.6 billion in 1996.
  • The mining industry is a also a major water consumer. It provides employment to almost 18,000 individuals, and in 1997 accounted for total shipments of over $3.5 billion..
  • The bio-food industry4 is also a major player. This sector, which is highly dependent on water resources, generated almost $5 billion of the gross domestic product in 1996, and accounts for 133,000 jobs (excepting retail sales and the restaurant sector).
  • Québec's navigable waterways, and in particular the St. Lawrence River and Seaway, constitute an incomparable strategic advantage in terms of economic trade with both the centre of the American continent and the rest of the planet.
  • The Port of Montréal generates annual revenues of roughly $1.7 billion, and contributes to the on-going existence of 17,600 direct and indirect jobs. The Port of Québec, too, provides employment to over 6,500 individuals and generates revenues of almost $350 million.
  • The environment sector boasts 350 businesses specializing in water, employing roughly 6,000 individuals.
  • Photo : SeaplaneThe economic activities generated in Québec by all nautical businesses reach almost $1.5 billion; around 1,000 businesses are active in this sector, including almost 40 in the manufacturing sector. The industry supports almost 8,000 jobs.
  • In Québec, almost 500,000 homes are located beside a lake or river, which has a direct influence on their value.
  • Sport fishing generates economic activities worth $1.25 billion each year, and involves almost 1 million fishers.


Impact of Water Collection

The government authorizes the collection of surface water under the Environment Quality Act. In addition, other occasional uses of surface water, for example to irrigate cultivated land during a drought, do not require authorization. It should be noted that the installation of a domestic water intake specifically authorized by a municipality does not require authorization from the government.

Given the large volume of renewable surface water available, the current impact of collection is slight or inexistent, and conflicts over water use are infrequent. However, the reduced flow of certain watercourses at low flow can be accentuated by water use. For example, these include the Saint-Charles River (the main drinking water intake for the City of Québec), and the Bécancour River (used for the irrigation of cultivated land). Certain situations are even more problematical, such as the case of the Yamaska River where water demand can, in some sectors, reach 1.6 times the river flow during dry spells. However, these are isolated cases. Lastly, no application for authorization to export water in bulk or to divert watercourses to the U.S. has yet been made.


Water Quality

Trends in Water Quality

Despite its abundance, the quality of Québec's water has been affected by urbanization, industrialization and the intensification of agriculture. From the early 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, the contamination of the St. Lawrence by wastewater led to serious sanitary problems, and in particular to epidemics of cholera and typhus, and the period of strong economic, demographic and agricultural growth that followed the Second World War resulted in an accelerated deterioration in water quality. A study of the state of the St. Lawrence in the 1970s first raised awareness of the low quality of Québec's surface water, and led in 1978 to the launching of the Programme d'assainissement des eaux du Québec (Québec Wastewater Treatment Program (known by its French acronym PAEQ)).

Since then, a large number of municipal and industrial clean up programs and action plans have been implemented, and the regulatory framework has been made considerably stricter. In twenty years, an appreciable improvement in water quality has been observed, and the overall particle and organic load from municipal sewage systems has been reduced significantly. In addition, the effluents from a growing number of industrial facilities is now processed in water treatment plants. Another important aspect is the work carried out to treat the industrial effluents that do not pass through the water treatment system, and that are pumped directly into watercourses. For example, the pulp and paper industry has invested millions of dollars in treating its wastewaters.

Figure 1 : Water quality in Québec rivers (1995-1997)

Click to enlarge - Water quality in Québec rivers

Click to enlarge

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.

Figure 2

Concentration of fecal coliform in the
St. Lawrence River at Contrecoeur (1990 - 1997)

Concentration of fecal coliforms

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.


Drinking Water

Drinking water supplyOne 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.


Use of Water and Management by Drainage Basin

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.

  • Given the wide availability of surface water in Québec and the low impact of water collection on the aquatic environment, is it advisable to systematically tighten up controls on certain collection activities? If so, which activities in particular?
  • What criteria should be used to determine the flow of water needed to meet the needs of aquatic ecosystems?
  • In the event of a problem situation, should certain uses be given priority (such as the drinking water supply)?
  • Do you have concerns about the quality of drinking water taken from lakes and rivers, specifically with respect to:
    • appearance?
    • taste?
    • smell?
    • potential contamination by toxic products?
    • microbiological contamination?
  • Do you consider that you are kept sufficiently informed by the relevant authorities about the quality of drinking water taken from lakes and rivers?
  • What do you consider to be the most important water-related health risks?
  • Do you believe that the quality of drinking water taken from Québec lakes and rivers is threatened?
  • What position should the government take in respect of projects involving the bulk export of surface water and projects to export water by diverting rivers?
  • What priorities should be targeted to complete government depollution measures? For example, is there a need to strengthen controls concerning point source pollution (disinfecting of wastewater, detention basins for better control of domestic sewer overflows) or to strengthen controls concerning nonpoint source pollution?
  • Pollution reduction efforts are mainly designed to preserve water quality in rivers and lakes. Depending on the targets for water quality, the amount of investment needed will vary. What quality targets should be set for Québec as a whole?
  • What benefits can be expected from this approach, and what would an acceptable cost be? Among the expected benefits, which would represent the most significant improvement: the preservation of wildlife species, an increase in recreational uses, a reduction in the treatment costs for drinking water, environmental recognition at the national and international levels, the development of ecotourism, or others?
  • Could an approach to water management based on drainage basins constitute an interesting alternative?
  • Should collaboration between users and managers be translated into a legal capacity to act, or should action remain voluntary?
  • To what extent should decisions about certain aspects of water management be made at the local level?
  • Considering that land use has an impact on the state of the water resource, should links be established between land use planning and water management? If so, how?
  • What priorities should be set in terms of knowledge about water? Are the current assessments made of water quality and the state of aquatic ecosystems adequate? Do we possess sufficient knowledge about aquatic and river-bank life? Could some areas be covered better? How should the needs of various user groups be taken into account?

3 Appendix 3 contains a summary of the role of each level.

4 Some enterprises in this sector use groundwater.

Back to Index Previous Section Next Section Last Section

Return to the top