Canadian Forest Service Publications

Impacts and prognosis of natural resource development on water and wetlands in Canada's boreal zone. 2015. Webster, K.L.; Beall, F.D.; Creed, I.F.; Kreutzweiser, D.P. Environmental Reviews 23(1):78-131.

Year: 2015

Issued by: Great Lakes Forestry Centre

Catalog ID: 35970

Language: English

Availability: PDF (request by e-mail)

Available from the Journal's Web site.
DOI: 10.1139/er-2014-0063

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Industrial development within Canada’s boreal zone has increased in recent decades. Forest management activities, pulp and paper operations, electric power generation, mining, conventional oil and gas extraction, nonconventional oil sand development, and peat mining occur throughout the boreal zone with varying impacts on water resources. We review impacts of these industries on surface water, groundwater, and wetlands recognizing that heterogeneity in the dominance of different hydrologic processes (i.e., precipitation, evapotranspiration, groundwater recharge, and runoff generation) across the boreal zone influences the degree of impacts on water resources. Through the application of best management practices, forest certification programs, and science-based guidelines, timber, pulp and paper, and peat industries have reduced their impacts on water resources, although uncertainties remain about long-term recovery following disturbance. Hydroelectric power developments have moved toward reducing reservoir size and creating more natural flow regimes, although impacts of aging infrastructure and dam decommissioning is largely unknown. Mineral and metal mining industries have improved regulation and practices, but the legacy of abandoned mines across the boreal zone still presents an ongoing risk to water resources. Oil and gas industries, including non-conventional resources such as oil sands, is one of the largest industrial users of water and, while significant progress has been made in reducing water use, more work is needed to ensure the protection of water resources. All industries contribute to atmospheric deposition of pollutants that may eventually be released to downstream waters. Although most industrial sectors strive to improve their environmental performance with regards to water resources, disruptions to natural flow regimes and risks of degraded water quality exist at local to regional scales in the boreal zone. Addressing the emerging challenge of managing the expanding, intensifying, and cumulative effects of industries in conjunction with other stressors, such as climate change and atmospheric pollution, across the landscape will aid in preserving Canada’s rich endowment of water resources.

Plain Language Summary

The literature on the risks to water quantity and quality within the boreal zone posed by industrial development, including roads, forest management, pulp and paper operations, mining, oil and gas extraction, peat mining and electric power development was reviewed and a prognosis developed. In general, the evolving system of regulations, guidelines and standards for natural resource development is improving the prognosis for water resources for some sectors in some areas, but in other areas legacy impacts persist, deposition of aerial pollutants to receiving waters continues, and expanding industrial development poses new risks to water quantity and quality. Additionally, the potential confounding influences of a changing climate may exacerbate natural resource development impacts on water resources. Key knowledge gaps identified were: (1) current monitoring networks are insufficient to capture spatial and temporal variability of the boreal; (2) impacts specific to boreal wetlands and groundwater resources are largely unknown, and; (3) the cumulative effects of natural resource development activities over space and time, coupled with the uncertainties related to climate change, have not been rigorously examined. Adequate protection of boreal water resources will require science-based policies that recognize their susceptibility to multiple threats and promote an integrated approach to watershed management.