Groundwater Activities

The Prairie Provinces Water Board (PPWB)'s Strategic Plan has three goals that are relevant for groundwater: Goal 2 - protect and use groundwater in a sustainable manner; Goal 4 - report emergency and unusual groundwater conditions; and Goal 7 - Sharing information, knowledge and research amongst jurisdictions. General information is provided below and on groundwater quantity and quality in the Prairies.

Prairie Groundwater: Out of Sight but not Forgotten

Although mostly hidden from sight, groundwater is an important source of water for people. The vast majority (97%) of the world's fresh water, excluding the water trapped in polar ice, is contained within the ground[1]. Groundwater supplies are of tremendous social, economic, political and environmental value. More than half of the world depends upon groundwater supplies. About 30.3% (9 million) Canadians utilize groundwater and more than 80% of rural Canadians rely exclusive on groundwater for drinking supplies[2] in 1996 although use varies considerably in different regions[3]. All residents of Prince Edward Island rely on groundwater supplies. In contrast, use of groundwater is less in the Prairies (i.e., 23.1%, 42.4% and 30.2% of populations in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba respectively in the year 1996[4]). Only 3% of the water used In Alberta comes from groundwater supplies. Both the amount of groundwater available and the quality affect the usability of this water supply.

Prairie groundwater areas are often complex and heterogeneous, and have little or no relation to local surface watershed boundaries. Groundwater exists in the Prairies, but not in underground lakes or rivers. Instead, groundwater is found in the saturated pores and openings in sand, gravel, broken or permeable rocks that are porous and can allow water to move within the formation. Extensive layers of this type of formation are called aquifers*. This groundwater is located within shallow aquifers that are irregular sands and gravel areas within glacial drift* areas or deep and extensive aquifers that are found in bedrock formations. Groundwater can be found in sandstone, limestone, fractured coal, fractured tills and fractured shales.

Aquifers vary greatly in size. Some extend for many miles. Some of them cross the Alberta-Saskatchewan border or the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border. Where this happens, the water in the aquifer falls under the mandate of the Prairie Provinces Water Board (PPWB). None of them are, however, big enough to cross all three Prairie provinces. Thus, groundwater use near one border (eg., Alberta-Saskatchewan) can not affect groundwater conditions at the other border (eg., Saskatchewan-Manitoba) or vice versa.

The provincial governments have the primary responsibility to manage, protect and allocate water supplies within their provinces, including groundwater sources (Alberta; Saskatchewan; Manitoba). The PPWB's role is to facilitate and foster interjurisdictional cooperation when aquifers cross borders. Currently, the Master Agreement on Apportionment has a general statement that groundwater issues can be referred and reviewed by the Board that can make recommendations on how to address transboundary issues. The respective provincial agencies are still responsible for managing aquifer groundwater resources within their provinces. The board deals with interprovincial groundwater concerns through its Committee on Groundwater (COG) - a permanent committee of the PPWB. The COG's main area of responsibility is to advise and make recommendations on the management of interprovincial groundwater.

COG is evaluating the possibility of adding a Schedule F to the Master Agreement on Apportionment that will provide a framework on how jurisdictions can collectively manage interjurisdictional aquifers by sharing information and resolving potential disputes.

* Glossary:

Aquifer: a geologic formation that is permeable enough to yield useful amounts of water to supply wells.

Glacial drift: the near-surface deposits left by the continental glaciers that covered the prairie region several times.

Permeable: pervious, penetrable, and porous so water can move through the rock formation.

[1] Stefani Burchi and Kirsten Mechlem, 2005. Groundwater in International Law. Compilation of Treaties and other legal instruments. Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNSECO).


[2] 2009. The Sustainable Management of Groundwater in Canada. The Expert Panel on Groundwater. Council of Canadian Academics.


[3] François Côté, 6 February 2006. Freshwater Management in Canada IV. Groundwater. Library of the Parliament of Canada. Parliamentary Information and Research Services.


[4] Linda Nowlan, 2005. Groundwater Permitting and Pricing in Canada. The Walter and Gordon Duncan Foundation.

The most significant interjurisdictional water management arrangement in Canada is the Master Agreement on Apportionment.1986 Pearse Inquiry on Federal Water Policy