by Communications and Media Coordinator Amanda Wong

What better way to celebrate World Wetland Day by learning how we are managing and protecting our waters in Canada? In this blog you’ll discover the services watershed management provides for the people of Turtle Island and the challenges they face. Real world insight is provided by Milk River Watershed Council’s Program Coordinator, Mary Lupwayi, who answers several of our questions on the challenges of watershed management around the Milk River in Southern Alberta. 

Drainage basins in Canada. Retrieved from

The waterways on planet earth are all connected, we and all other living things rely on them for our survival and they are also the backbone of the world’s manufacturing and agriculture industries. As the Canadian population continues to increase, demands and pressures on the fresh water systems will continue to escalate. Watershed management is important to ensure healthy waterways for current and future generations. In addition, watershed management is key in conserving and protecting over 7000 animal and plant species found within this country [11]. 

Drakes Bay, part of California’s Tomales-Drake watershed. Credit: Brian Cluer, NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region, California Coastal Office.

Turtle Island has five main watersheds which are supported by several sub-basins.The five main open watersheds are the Pacific Ocean Watershed, Arctic Ocean Watershed, Hudson Bay Watershed, Atlantic Ocean Watershed, and the Gulf of Mexico Watershed [9]. The majority of water drains to main watersheds but there are watersheds that are in closed systems which do not drain to any oceans [9]. The map below demonstrates the main watersheds and the 1382 sub-basins [10].

What is a watershed? 

Watersheds are the area of land that catches rain and snow that drains into marshes, streams, river, lake or groundwater [1]. All major waterways have a watershed associated with it [1].

How are they managed?
In Canada, watersheds are managed differently in each province and territory. For some regions watershed management is placed under government control, while others divide the responsibility between regional councils, or conservation authorities who aid in running watershed programs. Management of water bodies include municipal, provincial, federal government, parks/protected areas, non-governmental organizations, research, and local communities [2]. While direct management typically falls into the responsibility of local managers, Crown watershed management is enforced through several federal laws including The Constitution Act, Canada Water Act, Canadian Environmental Protection, Canadian Assessment Act, and The International River Improvement Act [12]. Water management strategies don’t always fit under clear provincial legislation but instead are included in various policies that involve resource management [12].

It should be noted that the Indigenous people have been managing waterways since time immemorial [13]. Indigenous peoples have a deep respect for water [13]. Currently there are many treaty negotiations occurring across Canada which aim to establish First Nations Rights to own and manage lands, water, and resources [14]. An example of this are the negotiations of modern treaties in British Columbia [14]. In addition, the United Nations adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous (UNDRIP) which protects the rights of Indigenous peoples around the globe. Article 25 of UNDRIP states, “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in this regard.” [15]. Going forward UNDRIP will aid in advancing co-governance structures (between Indigenous communities and the Crown) for land, water, and natural resources which respect Indigenous law and knowledge [14].

What do provincial/territorial or local watershed management plans aim to accomplish? 

Watershed management aims to protect water sources and address environmental challenges like water pollution and consumption stress from urbanization [2]. The main areas of focus in watershed management consist of water supply, quality, drainage, stormwater runoff, water rights, watershed planning, and watershed uses [8]. Management across the country is unique and caters to environmental stresses and demands of each watershed. In addition to managing the specific watershed, some watershed management providers also address freshwater delivery and water quality in homes [3].

Watershed Council & Conservation Authority Watershed management principles

Many watershed councils and conservation authorities follow an integrated watershed management approach. The pillars that are considered in management is the environment, economy, and society [4]. 

Diagram of aspects considered in integrated watershed management. Retrieved from

As we’ve seen, water creates links between ourselves, the environment, and the economy. The interconnectedness of the resource also requires a management style that also prioritizes these connections [4]. Integrated management uses science to guide on how to regulate natural resources and human activity management [4]. In addition, this method evaluates the positive and negative impacts of each element, and how protocols may influence each component of the system [4]. A unique trait of adaptive management is that after implementing the management plan, resource managers will review, assess and monitor the results and use these to guide an  improved iteration to the management plan [4]. In addition, adaptive management requires collaboration that spans over many levels of governance, which allows for shared decision making and priority setting by many different stakeholders [4]. The evolving management strategy that requires multi stakeholder collaboration makes this approach unique and effective   [5]. 

Interview: Milk River Watershed Management Strategies (Southern Alberta) 

AW: Does the Milk River Watershed Management follow a certain management strategy?

ML: Milk River Watershed Council engages with representatives of key stakeholders in the watershed to seek consensus on land and water resource management strategies that support the achievement of shared environmental, social, and economic outcomes for the watershed.

Challenges Watershed Management Address

As listed above, watershed management has many challenges to address. These challenges can include water supply/ distribution, aquatic habitat conservation/ restoration, water pollution runoff, flooding, and erosion [6]. 

With so many points of stress it’s no surprise that watershed stresses increase as demands also grow. When monitoring water pollution across Canada data showed the worst cases of water pollution occur in the southern regions with the most dense populations, agricultural and industrial activity [7]. There are several sources of pollution including pathogens, biochemical oxygen demand, nutrients, toxic materials, acidification,and heat [7]. While some of these pollutants may be handled by water treatment facilities, watershed managers also provide education programs to prevent pollutants from being dumped into waterways. These programs are provided to citizens, industries, and municipalities who are located near these major waterways [7]. 

AW: What Milk River challenges does you council attempt to address and resolve? 

ML: Apart from funding challenges, one of the challenges we are facing is water security.  Securing adequate water supplies in the Milk River basin is essential to address the ongoing challenges caused by periodic and prolonged drought experienced in this largely semi-arid region of southern Alberta. Water shortages occur frequently and are expected to increase in response to changing climate. The most notable droughts were experienced in the 1940s, 1976, 1977, 2001, 2007 and 2017. The Milk River and its tributaries are a primary source of water for the Milk River community. The impact of drought is felt most by the towns, rural water co-ops, and Milk River irrigators who rely on the river for their water supply. 

AW: How is your council attempting to tackle this problem?

ML:A water supply project in the Milk River Basin, Alberta, could mitigate the impacts of water shortages for existing water users, and potentially provide additional opportunities for the community and region. However, this is a huge undertaking that requires a lot of funds and a multilevel government initiative. As an independent, non-profit organization, our role as a Watershed Planning and Advisory Council, is to report on the health of our watershed, lead collaborative planning, and facilitate education and stewardship activities that promote watershed conservation.


As we can see watershed management is complex and unique to each region.  Milk River Watershed Council provides concrete examples of challenges they encounter in managing their watershed, like dealing with water insecurity in Southern Alberta. Watershed management is a collaborative effort and requires knowledge sharing across watershed managers, councils, NGOs, governments, Indigenous communities, and citizens to better understand and protect aquatic ecosystems.

We’d like to thank  Mary Lupwayi and the Milk River Watershed Council for all the help and great insight on watershed management in Canada.