Environmental Trends

Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators Newsletter

CESI Volume 1, Issue 2, March 2010

(also available in PDF (276 KB))

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Research Corner: Day-in-the-life of a CESI Water Quality Monitoring Specialist

Denis Parent is a Water Quality Specialist with Environment Canada. Like many people, you probably envision Denis in a white lab coat, surrounded by microscopes and beakers, but that is a picture that is way off base. Instead, picture Denis on a snowmobile in a remote area of Nova Scotia making his way to a river with an established water monitoring site. Once there he will take water samples to ensure appropriate water quality guidelines are met to conserve and protect aquatic life.

Picture of a CESI water quality monitoring specialist

"I am quite passionate about my work," says Denis, who works for the Fresh Water Quality Monitoring and Surveillance Division - Atlantic Section, within the Science and Technology Branch of Environment Canada. With a background in environmental studies and water resource technology, Denis has been doing this type of work for 15 years and enjoys being out in the field, traveling the Atlantic provinces, meeting people and working with partners such as provincial governments and local community groups to help sustain the environment. He is one of eight water quality specialists across the country monitoring water quality for CESI. In total more than 400 water monitoring sites, including the North, are shared by federal, provincial and territorial monitoring programs.

Denis' average working day takes him away from his office in Dartmouth to locations such as the Little Sackville River in Nova Scotia where there is an established monitoring site. An automated probe at the site measures water temperature, pH levels, conductivity and dissolved oxygen concentrations on an hourly basis. The balance between water temperature, pH and conductivity influences the toxicity of substances in the water (e.g. metals).

For example, ammonia becomes more toxic as temperature and pH increase. Fish require oxygen to live so it's important to know the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water.

Denis calibrates the probe, replaces it with a new one and then takes physical water samples which he sends to Environment Canada's Atlantic Laboratory for Environmental Testing in Moncton, New Brunswick. He does this several times a year to ensure that he captures seasonal differences in water quality findings are captured.

When the lab returns the raw data to Denis, he processes and interprets it and reports his findings. The results of Denis' work can be seen in the Water Quality Indicator of the Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators (CESI).

Picture of a CalignESI water quality almonitoring specialist

The Water Quality Indicator measures the extent and severity of water pollution for various locations across Canada and provides accurate and concise information about the state of water quality in Canada to individuals, academics and all levels of government.

Through the CESI initiative, Environment Canada re-established water quality monitoring stations in Nova Scotia in 2006 and currently reports on seven established stations, with six more stations to be added in the coming year. "As our work continues we will be able to report on water quality trends which will be very helpful for the users of the information we produce", says Denis.

In the Atlantic Provinces, water quality data for CESI is also collected by the provinces under established federal-provincial agreements such as the Newfoundland and Labrador Water Quality Monitoring Agreement. These agreements, or partnerships, are key to reporting on the national CESI indicator as they provide a source of long term water quality data and local water expertise.

Did You Know:

The CESI initiative has established more than 150 new water quality monitoring stations across Canada to track freshwater quality.

Of the 153 representative sites monitored across Canada from 2005 to 2007, fresh water quality was rated as "excellent" at 6% of the sites. It was rated as "good" at 34%, "fair" at 42%, "marginal" at 14%, and "poor" at 4%.

Innovation Corner: CESI Indicators and Canadian Industry

While we are fortunate to live in a country with an abundance of fresh water, it is important to remember that our water supply is under constant threat from pollutants. Our homes and industries can all contribute to poor water quality. Poor maintenance of septic systems, industrial waste, and air pollutants are all examples of waste that can find their way into our lakes and rivers.

Why do we measure water quality?
Canadian Water Quality Guidelines exist for four separate categories - aquatic life, agricultural water uses, drinking water and recreational water. CESI's water quality indicator deals specifically with the guidelines for the protection of aquatic life and reports on the wide range of substances in fresh water lakes and rivers across Canada that may harm plants and animals that live in freshwater. By monitoring the specific chemicals found in water, Environment Canada is able to assist in the protection and conservation of plants, invertebrates and fish.

How can Canadians affect water quality?
We all need to be vigilant in our efforts to prevent water pollution. It often takes mere drops of chemicals and pollutants to contaminate large bodies of water. How we dispose of used oil, left-over paint and toxic solvents can have an impact on our water quality. Flushing these substances down the toilet or pouring them into sewers can result in harmful chemicals entering our freshwater lakes and rivers.

Canadian industry can also have a tremendous impact on our water quality. According to the 2005 Statistics Canada Industrial Water Use Survey, manufacturers, including producers, metal mining and food production, had a combined total untreated discharge of 2.36 billion cubic metres.

Most manufacturing and industrial facilities have wastewater processes in place to recycle and/or treat water prior to its release back into the environment. Sometimes these systems cannot remove all possible harmful substances.

The National Pollutant Release Inventory reported that in 2006 at least 115 000 tonnes of pollutants were released from 481 municipal and industrial facilities in Canada.

Did You Know:

  • One drop of oil can render up to 25 litres of water unfit for drinking;
  • One gram of PCBs can make up to one billion litres of water unsuitable for freshwater aquatic life;
  • One gram of lead in 20,000 litres of water makes it unfit for drinking. Older homes often contain plumbing made of lead or soldered in lead, which can leach into water;
  • In a year, 2000 Canadian businesses spent $274.5 million on water-related pollution prevention technologies.

How can the Water Quality Indicator benefit industry?
The CESI water quality indicator provides a signal on water quality for a wide range of sites in Canada. Some sites are in undeveloped areas while others are closer to manufacturing or industrial sites. While looking more closely at the relationship between land use and the WQI scores, it is evident that the majority of the Good and Excellent sites are in remote areas, whereas Fair or Poor water quality is often observed at sites where stressors exist.

Industries and businesses could calculate their own water quality indicator using the CESI-WQI formula to assess the quality of water in and around their facilities. This information could be used to compare, to a certain extent, their calculated WQI to the CESI-WQI scores of stations near their sites.

Some industries analyze their discharge for contaminants and may have mitigation technologies in place in order to meet water quality standards set by regulations and laws (for example, the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 Metal Mining Effluent Regulation, and provincial and municipal standards, etc.).

The CESI-WQI gives cumulative and broader information because it is a composite index (i.e. a large number of factors averaged together to form an overall indicator). It gives an indication on the potential impacts of all the factors included in its calculation.

Your feedback is important to us!

Send us your feedback on the CESI initiative. We also welcome your input on topic areas you would like to see covered in future issues of this newsletter.


CESI was launched in 2004, in response to the recommendation made by the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy in 2003, that the federal government establish a core set of environment and sustainable development indicators to track key factors of importance to Canadians. Environment Canada, Statistics Canada and Health Canada work together to develop and communicate these indicators and to present related information on society and the economy to policy makers and the Canadian public, in collaboration with provincial and territorial partners.

For more information about CESI indicators, go to the CESI website or Contact CESI by email.