Ripples of Progress: The soft launch of the Canada Water Agency and its incoming impact on national water policy

As heatwaves and wildfire season have now arrived across much of Canada, so has the increased focus on the impacts of severe weather events – like heat and drought – and how best to adapt and mitigate them amid a rapidly changing climate.

While clean energy and sustainable growth are central to the federal government’s environment plan, there has also been a notable build-out of its conservation and biodiversity agenda. Following the “historic” agreement signed in December at COP15 in Montreal, the federal government has taken action to reaffirm its commitment to conserve and protect 30% of the country’s land and water by 2030 and officially launched consultations on the development of a National Biodiversity Strategy to achieve this goal. More recently, Prime Minister Trudeau announced the launch of the highly anticipated Canada Water Agency (CWA), which will be a central institution working towards the conservation and management of its namesake: Canada’s abundant freshwater resources.

Water will be a crucial and complex geopolitical issue moving forward – look no further to negotiations south of the border around the Colorado River Basin as a signal of what’s to come. Canada is home to a fifth of the world’s freshwater, and its role in industry, communities, biodiversity, and the livelihoods of Canadians cannot be overstated.

Establishing the Canada Water Agency is a principal component of this government’s effort to manage water issues. First promised in the Liberal Party’s 2019 campaign platform, the agency was described as a means to “keep[ing] our water safe, clean and well-managed.” Since then, policy professionals and water stakeholders across the country have been anxiously waiting for more details and to see progress on this significant initiative. Although first promised to be launched by the end of 2022, plans for establishing the Canada Water Agency have since evolved, including establishing its headquarters in Winnipeg and a commitment to introducing legislation by the end of 2023 to make it an independent agency.

The Prime Minister recently confirmed that the first priority of the agency would be to open and amend the Canada Water Act – the federal government’s primary freshwater legislation that provides a framework for cooperation with the provinces and territories in the conservation, development, and use of Canada’s water resources. Revisions sought will be the first since the Act was passed in 1970.

It’s a strong mandate to execute upon. All provinces and territories have statutes around the protection and allocation of freshwater. And with provincial governments such as Alberta and Saskatchewan introducing legislation to protect their jurisdictional authority – through the Alberta Sovereignty Act and the Saskatchewan First Act, respectively – the federal government can likely expect some pushback from those that want to enforce their provincial rights when it comes to this shared resource. Revisions to the Canada Water Act have the potential to be contentious and must reflect the changing reality of freshwater in Canada, including the impacts of climate change, distinct regional considerations, and the importance of Indigenous rights.

With great expectations to fulfill, a lot is left to be determined in the rollout of this Agency following its soft launch this past May. Yet, amongst a great deal of uncertainty are (likely) many opportunities to be involved, as vast consultations will be needed to ensure the Canada Water Agency and revisions to the Canada Water Act reflect the diverse needs and considerations of stakeholders across the country. These are decisions of both national and global importance, and cannot be taken lightly.

Trust that PAA Advisory | Conseils will be there to follow the latest developments and keep our clients up-to-date.