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Watershed Indicators: The challenge of consistency

Across Canada, different levels of government (federal, provincial, municipal, First Nations), non-governmental organizations, academics, citizen science groups and other stakeholders collect data related to watersheds and their health.

Not only are environmental data (e.g., water quality, biodiversity) relevant to watershed health, but so too are data on social and economic measurements (e.g., human health, economic activities).

While a significant amount of data exists, shaping it into indicator frameworks to help measure and guide watershed management poses particular challenges. Foremost among these challenges is the fact that watersheds often cross borders. Not only do many cross municipal, provincial or territorial boundaries, a large number are also international watersheds. With this fragmentation of jurisdictions and wide range of stakeholders collecting data, there are often differences in data types and collection methods. This variation poses a challenge in getting a coherent picture of the entire watershed. When using different indicator sets within the same watershed, how can watershed managers and decision-makers ensure they are getting an accurate picture and comparing “apples to apples”?

In 2014–2015, with support from Environment Canada, the Canadian Sustainability Indicators Network (CSIN) explored the question of watershed indicator consistency and coherency across Canada and between Canada and the United States.

The ultimate goal was to advance understanding of indicator consistency between and among regions of Canada and to create a strengthened umbrella forum for organizations working on sustainability indicators at the local, regional and national levels. It is anticipated that the lessons learned about consistency and coherency in indicators can be transposed to non-watershed topics, as fragmentation of jurisdictions and differences in data collection techniques are hardly unique to watersheds.