How healthy is our Ottawa River watershed?

By Carol MacLeod

PHOTO: © G. BARANSKI Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

The mighty Ottawa River flows past our doorstep. The water we drink comes from, and our waste water goes back into, the Ottawa River watershed, including three great rivers, their tributaries and wetlands: the Rideau in Ontario, the Gatineau in Quebec and the interprovincial Ottawa River. Our river flows into the St. Lawrence. In fact, our waterway stretches all the way between Ottawa and Washington, as Benedict Arnold demonstrated in his 1775/76 American expedition to capture Quebec, and more recently in the Capital to Capitol canoe trip [read more about this trip here]

If you want to know about the health of the Ottawa River watershed, who better to ask than the Ottawa Riverkeeper/Sentinelle Outaouais ( Since 2001, the Ottawa Riverkeeper has been dedicated to ensuring swimmable, fishable, drinkable waterways throughout the system.

The Ottawa is a key transportation link to the North American interior, a natural timber slide, a source of hydroelectricity and, for two centuries, a sewer.  I asked Alexandra Brett, director of communications and Meaghan Murphy, Riverwatch program director, how the Riverkeeper views the state of Ottawa’s rivers. According to Brett, water quality in the Ottawa River watershed has improved a lot over the past 40 years, but there is still a long way to go. It is, for the most part, safe to drink the water and swim in it. Although few laws protect the wetland sources of the river’s tributaries, most jurisdictions along its waterways have laws on effluents. Some parts are healthier than others. Not surprisingly, it’s better upriver than where it disgorges into the St. Lawrence, where some fish are struggling.

Threats to the system include residues of effluents from logging and pulp and paper plants. The Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) nuclear facility at Chalk River releases chemicals into the river, and its water-cooled process raises water temperature. AECL is addressing these issues.

Hundreds of hydro dams and weirs control water levels in the watershed, preventing flooding and supporting boating and navigation. Increasingly, the watershed is used as a ready source of water for irrigation. Industrial processes such as fracking and limestone slurry production need large amounts of water. In 2012, water levels in the St. Lawrence River were so low that shoreline docks stood well above the water, freighters offloaded at Quebec City and goods were transported inland by less energy-efficient means. But dams also affect biodiversity. Fish cannot move freely through the watershed. Silting related to dams destroys fish habitat.

Wetland, flood plain and shoreline disruption and degradation related to urban sprawl factor significantly in critical shallow water habitat destruction for aquatic species. Old landfills and septic systems past their best-before dates leak bacteria into waterways. We can expect more “weather events” as climate warms and stormwater runoff flushes the river with pesticides and animal waste in rural areas, and fecal matter, petrochemicals and salt in urban centres. Pharmaceuticals found in drugs and beauty products are not currently removed from waste water. On good days, all city water – both storm and sanitary system – is treated, but when we have heavy rains or snowmelts, it overflows into the watershed.

The Ottawa watershed is interprovincial, so responsibility for clean water is shared among federal, provincial, urban and rural municipalities, and owners of those highly desirable waterfront lots. Legislation and protection for the watershed varies. Surprisingly, the Ottawa has not yet been designated a heritage river in the federal Canadian Heritage Rivers System, although a group is pressing for designation.

There is no intergovernmental plan to manage the whole Ottawa River watershed. Brett believes that such a plan, with contingent regulation, enforcement and monitoring, is imperative to the health of the watershed. Developing and implementing a plan implicates many interest groups – all levels of government, industry, developers, sport fishers, environmental groups and, above all, engaged communities the length and breadth of the watershed. The Riverkeeper has brought groups together in a coalition reminiscent of the forest management accord reached among forest industries and environmental groups.

The City of Ottawa’s Ottawa River Action Plan (ORAP) addresses an egregious issue facing the river – sewage overflow. As Brett points out, “The problem comes from the overflows from the old combined sewers that carry stormwater and raw sewage together. There are several places where they release into the Ottawa River in the downtown area when it rains, and the volume overflows the system’s capacity.” The city is constructing stormwater ponds above- and below-ground around the city, and plans to build more holding tanks. Preventing sewage overflow into the Ottawa River will have a big impact on water quality at an environmentally sensitive part of the river. While the Riverkeeper strongly supports ORAP, citizens need to press elected representatives to fund and implement the plan.

Carol MacLeod is active in environmental issues, and as a seasoned canoeist, joined the 2012 Capital to Capitol canoe trip.

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