Clean water under the bridge

Integrated land use planning and water management steadily improving, but gaps still exist

Grand River, Ontario: new research have analysed water security in Ontario, Canada and to what extent water management has been better integrated with land use planning. Much is positive but much still needs to be done, says the study. Photo: B. Strong/Flickr CC 2.0

In May 2000, the little community of Walkerton in the Canadian province of Ontario went through the collective nightmare of discovering that its water was contaminated. Runoff from a livestock farm entered the town's poorly managed water system and seven people lost their lives.

The tragedy sparked a range of new initiatives to protect drinking water sources in and around the province. Most importantly, the system for water source protection had the potential to be more effectively aligned with land use planning. 

Largely successful, the integrated water resources management approach (IWRM) has become a guiding principle for countries around the world. Conventional top-down approaches are often replaced with a multi-stakeholder/shared-authority approach between municipalities, business, industry, agriculture and the general public.

However, challenges still linger, even in Ontario.
Identifying the gaps
In an article recently published in Water Resources Research, centre senior research fellow Ryan Plummer analysed land use planning and watershed management for three watershed regions in Ontario (Grand River, Upper Thames and Lake Simcoe).

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Together with colleagues from Canada, Plummer attempted to identify the extent to which water protection was expressed in land use management and watershed-based planning documents.
More specifically, three questions guided the study:
How frequently and strongly source water protection is expressed in the documents? How are land use and water management approaching issues related to water protection? And to what extent are the two really collaborating?

Not a priority
What Plummer and his colleagues found was that water safety in Ontario has largely improved thanks to improved integration, but "proactive and ongoing efforts" are required to remove persistent barriers that slow down more effective collaboration.

"Fragmentation of responsibility is a long-standing problem and increasingly so between governments and non-government actors such as firms and landowners. And because all these actors are bogged down with a host of other responsibilities, protection of water drinking sources is sometimes far down the list," says Ryan Plummer.

Out of reach and out of date
One of the major bottlenecks for implementing new initiatives is the lack of guidelines.

As one municipal interviewee put it, "every day we are dodging a bullet because we don't want to move forward with potential policies to protect recharge areas until source protection plans are approved by the province."

Another problem is the limited attention given to the many private wells and septic systems. Despite the fact that four million Canadians depend on private domestic water wells and rural groundwater, cash-strapped municipalities and conservation authorities struggle to monitor these systems.

This adds to the problem of old and largely outdated documentation.

"Many watershed plans in Ontario are outdated, which is a considerable obstacle to better integration of water management. Up-to-date and accurate information is fundamental for the implementation of integrated water resources management," Plummer concludes.

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Plummer, R., D. de Grosbois, R. de Loë, and J. Velaniškis (2011), Probing the integration of land use and watershed planning in a shifting governance regime, Water Resour. Res., 47, W09502, doi:10.1029/2010WR010213.

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Dr. Ryan Plummer's research primarily concerns environmental governance and social-ecological systems. He studies the process of adaptive co-management and is striving to advance knowledge of collaboration, adaptation and adaptive capacity within complex systems.


Stockholm Resilience Centre is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

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