Changes in water quality in some waterbodies have been observed by Indigenous communities and through scientific studies in the Peace sub-basin. Some Indigenous communities have observed an increase in contaminants and changes in the colour and smell of the water, which they associate with increased mining, forestry, and intensive agriculture. Trends in water quality parameters varied spatially, including increases in dissolved metals observed in the Wapiti, Smoky and Peace Rivers and localized decreases in phosphorus in the lower Wapiti River from treatment improvements at a municipal wastewater treatment plant and a pulp and paper mill. Although there is a lack of historic baseline information for water quality in the sub-basin, recent analyses rank water quality as “good” or “excellent” in the Peace River. Human footprint has increased over time and there are significant concerns for how water contamination from land development and settlement will continue to affect water quality and ecosystem health.
The following table summarizes the availability of information for each Water Quality indicator.
Indigenous Knowledge Information and Data
Indigenous Knowledge Availability
Science Information and Data
Science Data Availability
Local observations and oral histories of good water, poor water, seasonal differences, land-based consumption practices
Many observations from several locations.
Ambient surface and ground water concentrations
Data available from Alberta Environment and Parks, BC Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change Strategy (EMS) and CABIN*. Analyses available in many reports.
Not assigned a Sign or Signal
Relative abundance of aquatic macroinvertebrates
Data available from CABIN* but no analysis conducted. Limited reports found.
Land Use Changes
Stories and oral histories of land use cover and practices
Many observations from several locations.
Map and statistics of current vs. past land cover and land use
Data and analyses available
Not assigned a Sign or Signal
Volume of effluent discharges
1 Qualifiers for the availability of local and Indigenous Knowledge observations in publicly available sources: Limited = 1-2 observations; Some = 3-4 observations; Many = 5 or more observations
2 Qualifiers for the availability of science data in publicly available sources: Low = Individual studies or locations; Many = Network of monitoring stations across the basin
*CABIN = Canadian aquatic biomonitoring network.
An increase in contaminants in many waterbodies in the Peace sub-basin has been documented by Indigenous communities and through scientific studies, in particular the smaller rivers and streams. Water quality in larger rivers is considered good and a reversal of some impacts has been achieved through improved wastewater treatment in the pulp and paper and municipal sectors.
In a study with Treaty 8 First Nations in BC, all communities noted an increase in contaminants in local waterbodies that were formerly reliable sources of drinking water, including Halfway River and Doig River. The contaminants are associated with herbicide and pesticide use by nearby mining, forestry and intensive agriculture operations as well as more frequent oil and gas spills. According to the Kelly Lake Métis, water quality in Kelly Lake has deteriorated in recent years due to contamination from nearby settlements and industrial activity along its banks. Water in the lake was formerly of high quality and is now considered unsafe for drinking or swimming.
A summary of scientific water quality data describes that agricultural streams in the Peace sub-basin are enriched with nutrients, an effect that increases in severity with increased agricultural intensity. Phosphorus in lakes in the watershed was considered ‘high’ (most lakes were “eutrophic”, which means high level of biological productivity, such as algae) and increased in some lakes from the 1980s to 2010. Typically, phosphorus was higher downstream of anthropogenic disturbances. One example is the increased abundance of green algae and cyanobacteria in Charlie Lake, B.C. in response to agricultural activity in the watershed, as indicated by anecdotal information and sediment core studies.
 These observations contrast the scoring of the Peace River as “Good” or “Excellent” using the Alberta Water Quality Index from 2003 to 2013, based on frequency and degree of guideline exceedances. Excellent rating indicates that guidelines are almost always met and a Good rating signifies that guidelines are occasionally exceeded but usually by small amounts and the threat to water quality is minimal.In the Peace River, many Indigenous communities have observed a decline in water quality in the past five decades, including changes in colour, smell, algal growth, and silty or muddy water, which are often linked to perceived contamination by industrial development.
In the Peace River Regional District in BC, there has been an increasing presence of sodium and sulfate in surface water (after 2000), in groundwater (after 2000), and in spring water (after 2011). There has also been an observed increasing presence of chloride in surface water after 2000. These trends were not observed in the Peace River above Alces River. Water Quality Objectives (WQOs) were established for the Peace and Beatton Rivers in B.C. in the 1980s to inform management of current and anticipated pressures on water quality in the Upper Peace River. The WQOs were met during a water quality survey in 2006, but an update of these WQOs may be warranted.
The lack of information on water, both on quality and quantity prior to the 1970s, has prevented the establishment of what baseline conditions were before human activities started having a footprint. Both at the surface and in the subsurface, the Alberta Water Quality Index signifies a general worsening of water quality over time.
Trend analysis conducted with two ECCC sites on the Peace River mainstem showed increasing trends in several dissolved metals, such as aluminum, chromium, selenium and uranium, for several months at Peace River at Peace Point from 2000 to 2018. For example, September dissolved selenium in the Slave River at Fitzgerald increased by 0.006 µg/L (2%) per year from 2001 to 2018 (this study). Most of these trends were observed in the open-water season and dissolved aluminum concentrations exceeded the Alberta surface water quality guideline on several occasions during spring and summer (this study). In the Smoky River, there were statistically significant increasing trends for dissolved and total selenium, dissolved uranium, dissolved boron, and dissolved lithium from 1989 to 2018. Dissolved nickel, boron and barium increased from 1989 to 2018 in the Wapiti River upstream of Grande Prairie. Most parameters with increasing trends did not exceed guidelines. An exception to that was total selenium, which exceeded the guideline for protection of aquatic life in 3% of the data points collected under ice. One known source of selenium in this sub-watershed is coal mining, but further study is required to evaluate if the trend is related to human activity in the watershed.
Some total metals have decreased in Wapiti and Smoky Rivers. Flow-corrected data identified significant decreasing trends in turbidity and some total metals in the Wapiti River from 1989 to 2018 and similar declines in some total metals in the Smoky River, which may be the result of trends in suspended materials and particle-associated metals.
There is evidence of local impacts to benthic invertebrate communities due to point source discharges in the lower Wapiti River, but analyzed data and reports are not readily available across the remainder of the sub-basin.
Contamination of aquatic ecosystems and the ongoing loss of land are leading to changes in Indigenous land use practices in the Peace sub-basin. The human footprint of forestry and oil and gas operations in the Peace sub-basin is widespread and significant land cover modification has occurred in the agricultural areas in the upper Peace.
% Land Cover
Land Cover Type
Area 1990 (km2)
Area 2010 (km2)
1990 % cover
2010 % cover
Forest/Trees + Forest/Treed wetland
The total area of human footprint in the Upper Peace Region increased by 7.1 percentage points, from 27.3% to 34.4%. This increase was driven by the expansion of forestry footprint, which more than doubled in size during this time from 4.7% to 10.2%. However, this increase in forestry footprint is lower (4.9%, from 2.8% to 7.7%) when recovery of regenerating forest is included. The remaining human footprint categories each had small increases, < 1.0 percentage point between 1999-2017, with energy footprint showing the next largest increase from 1.3% to 2.0%.
Water quality in tributaries of the Peace River and smaller streams in the sub-basin is locally and regionally impacted by effluent discharges, but there have been improvements in wastewater treatment.
There are 11 major sources of effluent in the Peace sub-basin. These include mill and municipal effluent into the Wapiti River, municipal and industrial surface runoff into the Smoky River, mill, municipal and oil and gas industrial process effluent into the Peace River and municipal effluent into the Notikewin River and North Wabasca Lake.
Habitat & Species