Western Canadian freshwater availability: current and future vulnerabilities Journal Articles uri icon

  • Overview
  • Research
  • Identity
  • Additional Document Info
  • View All


  • The western cordillera supplies freshwater across much of western Canada mainly through meltwater from snow and ice. This “alpine water tower” has been, and is projected to be, associated with changes in the seasonality and amount of freshwater availability, which are critical in supporting the societal and environmental flow needs of the region. This study incorporates existing information to synthesize and evaluate current and future freshwater supplies and demands across major north-, west-, and east-flowing sub-basins of the Canadian western cordillera. The assessment of supply indicators reveals several historical changes that are projected to continue, and be exacerbated, particularly by the end of this century and under a high emission scenario. The greatest and most widespread impact is the seasonality of streamflow characterized by earlier spring freshets, increased winter, and decreased summer flow. Future winter and spring warming over all basins will result in decreases in end of season snow and glacier mass balance with greatest declines in more southern regions. In many areas, there will be a greater likelihood of summer freshwater shortages. All sub-basins have environmental and economic freshwater demands and pressures, especially in more southern watersheds where population and infrastructure are more prevalent and industrial, agricultural, and water energy needs are higher. Concerns regarding the continued ability to maintain suitable aquatic habitats and adequate water quality are issues across all regions. These water supply changes along with continued and increasing demands will combine to create a variety of freshwater vulnerabilities across all regions of western Canada. Southern basins including the South Saskatchewan and Okanagan are likely to experience the greatest vulnerabilities due to future summer freshwater supply shortages and increasing economic demands. In more northern areas, vulnerabilities primarily relate to how the rapidly changing landscape (mainly associated with permafrost thaw) impacts freshwater quantity and quality. These vulnerabilities will require various adaptation measures in response to alterations in the timing and amount of future freshwater supplies and demands.


  • Bonsal, Barrie
  • Shrestha, Rajesh R
  • Dibike, Yonas
  • Peters, Daniel L
  • Spence, Christopher
  • Mudryk, Lawrence
  • Yang, Daqing

publication date

  • December 2020