03/21/2014 11:39 EDT | Updated 05/21/2014 05:59 EDT

Caring for Canada's Waters: Understanding Water Health

Canada's waters are a national treasure; ensuring their health is a national responsibility.

One of my first and strongest connections to Canada was through its waters. Paddling a canoe in Algonquin Park in my youth, shortly after moving to Canada from the U.K., I was awed by the vastness and purity of Canada's lakes and rivers. I was amazed that I could dip my tin cup into the lake for a drink, with no fear or concern.

That's exactly the kind of experience that every Canadian should have -- but how can we have that kind of confidence when we have no clear picture of how healthy our waters are on a national scale?

Despite the best efforts of citizens and watershed groups actively caring for their local waters across the country, we have no consistent way to measure water health. That leaves us in the dark, unprepared to do what's necessary to care for our waters. It leaves us without the information we need to understand the impacts and trade-offs of development decisions, restoration projects and legal reforms.

Fortunately, citizens, organizations and companies are starting to recognize the need for a standard way to measure national water health to drive change in the rivers and lakes they care about, critical information to complement in-depth local insights and initiatives.

As a foundation for this national effort, WWF has launched: the Freshwater Health Assessment. Developed with the advice and support of experts across Canada and around the world, it allows us to understand water health on a national scale, and to identify where and how we must direct conservation efforts.

WWF's goal is to assess every Canadian watershed across the country by 2017 with a robust and consistent set of metrics. By June, we'll have assessed 25% of Canada's watershed areas, grading them on a scale that ranges from very good to very poor health based on the results of four metrics (water flow, water quality, fish and bugs).

Notably, nearly half of the watersheds assessed to date have received an overall score of 'data deficient', without enough credible information to meet our rigorous standards. In many cases, this is not because the data doesn't exist, it's because it is inaccessible. In other cases, there is not sufficient monitoring data for a meaningful assessment. Part of our work is to retrieve that raw data collected for environmental assessments from government-controlled databases and paper reports, and translate into an accessible format to be put to good use.

Being put to good use is what the Freshwater Health Assessment is really about: making critical information available to anyone who needs it, to help shape decisions and investments, and ensure that we're caring for one of our most valuable natural endowments. Already, it is shaping WWF's work, informing which on-the-ground conservation projects supported through the Loblaw Water Fund.

The success of the Freshwater Health Assessment will be measured in the health of the water that runs through your taps, in the rivers where you teach your kids to fish, and in the lakes that make Canada one of the richest freshwater nations in the world.

The only thing that Canadians deserve more than knowing if their water is healthy is that their water is healthy. As we celebrate World Water Day this March 22, let's commit ourselves to achieving exactly that goal.