Groundtruthing and filling water data gaps in Atlantic Canada

 In News

This blog has been updated from an Impact Story published by Our Living Waters in April 2021

It’s no secret that Canada has a water data scarcity problem. On the east coast, communities play a big role in filling critical data and information gaps.

Since Atlantic DataStream launched in 2018, over 3 million water monitoring observations collected by communities, governments and researchers are now available for use in watershed assessment and reporting. Still, WWF-Canada’s 2020 reassessment showed that 6 out of Atlantic Canada’s 13 sub-watersheds lack the data required to assign a water quality health score.

Equipped with the millions of water quality data points on Atlantic DataStream, Atlantic Water Network’s own Laura Chandler has been digging through the data to gain a better understanding of the locations where there is enough data and the locations where more data is needed to contribute to a broader understanding of watershed health.

How much data is “enough” data anyway? 

If you ask 50 organizations across Atlantic Canada, you may get 50 different answers. We organized meetings upon meetings with partners from across Atlantic Canada as well as the Canadian water community to dig into this further and  make sure the process was inclusive of the on-the-ground experiences of communities in the region. Ultimately, it was no surprise that the type, frequency, and location of data needed for a water quality health assessment varies from watershed to watershed, capacity to capacity, and motivation to motivation.  For instance, in relatively pristine watersheds with minimal impacts, temperature logging throughout the summer may be enough. For those concerned about a Water Quality Index, 4 different parameters at least 4 times per year is the absolute minimum requirement. For seasoned watershed organizations: physical, chemical, and biological parameters collected monthly is required for reporting.

Mapping Atlantic Canada’s water quality data

Since cookie-cutter data sufficiency was clearly not the answer, Laura designed watershed maps that could be changed based on varying data requirements, like frequency of data collection, number and type of locations within a watershed, and diversity of parameters collected. While the maps could be run on a sub-watershed scale like WWF-Canada’s watershed reports, they could also zoom in and determine if there’s enough data at a sub-sub-watershed level. Maps were created for a number of data sufficiency scenarios and shared with community partners in small Provincial meetings as well as at AWN’s regional network meeting.

What did the maps tell us? Watersheds with strong community-based water monitoring networks and consistent provincial monitoring offer more than enough data to support a holistic view of watershed health. On the other hand, higher concentrations of water data often coincide with areas where the most people live, leaving more remote water bodies and watersheds under-monitored. While AWN can’t solve the root of these issues, we can lend a hand with the big question: how can environmental organizations in these watersheds work together to ensure there is enough coordinated water quality data?



Communities can help fill data gaps. 

To spur collaboration and creativity in addressing regional data gaps, Atlantic Water Network is engaging in discussions with community-based monitoring groups and others to help chart a path towards data sufficiency at the sub-sub-watershed level. Our January network meeting with 75 community partners identified valuable considerations for targeting regional outreach in the coming year.

We are interested in developing collaborative projects regarding water quality analysis and research on the sub-watershed and watershed scales to improve understanding of baseline water quality conditions”


– Atlantic Water Network Community Partner

Since the results were presented, AWN has been meeting with community partners in data deficient regions to help identify and confront barriers that are keeping them from collecting water quality data or sharing data online. Through these discussions, AWN identified three categories of regions with various needs:

  1. Regions where organizations exist and are collecting data, but have limited capacity to share it online.
  2. Regions where organizations exist but do not have the tools or network to support data collection.
  3. Regions where organizations don’t exist.

To combat each of these barriers…

  1. With the help of Data Science intern Noah D’Ascanio, AWN is offering one-on-one data management support and direct upload support to Atlantic DataStream.
  2. AWN has purchased high-quality equipment to share within Cape Breton, where there is a high proportion of watershed organizations but limited available data and limited access to AWN’s Halifax equipment bank.
  3. AWN is helping 30 new citizen scientists across Nova Scotia start water quality monitoring initiatives, often in areas with no existing organizations.

As with virtually every organization in Atlantic Canada, our team had to adjust programming in order to help slow the spread of COVID-19. As soon as restrictions for inter-provincial travel are lifted and it is safe to do so, AWN plans to renew our efforts to support on-the-ground community-based water monitoring in data-deficient watersheds outside of Nova Scotia.

Knowing where the most pressing data gaps exist can shape strategies to engage individuals and communities in meaningful water quality monitoring. But Atlantic Canada won’t have sufficient data in the blink of an eye: a lengthy process of capacity building, long-term funding, and coordination is needed to ensure sufficient data is collected for the long-haul.


Our team got to visit the Portapique River in Nova Scotia to learn about the Maritime Aboriginal Peoples Council’s (MAPC) In-Situ Egg Incubation Project, which aims at understanding survivability of the endangered Inner Bay of Fundy Atlantic Salmon. MAPC shares water quality data collected through this project on Atlantic DataStream, contributing to a better understanding of habitat conditions for this culturally and environmentally significant species.

To learn more about this project please contact Atlantic Water Network.

Thanks to financial support from Environment and Climate Change Canada and the Our Living Waters 2030 Fund, AWN will continue supporting critical local monitoring efforts throughout Atlantic Canada to get accessible data in the hands of communities and decision makers.