Water Contamination Threats – How Can Water Quality Be Protected?

In 2021 we were lucky enough to have Master of Water Security students work with us. For one project, a document was developed outlining main water contaminants in the South Saskatchewan River, and the identification of possible sources of that contamination.

In the Canadian Prairies, the South Saskatchewan River (SSR) is highly utilized. The river provides surface water for drinking water, irrigation, hydroelectricity generation, industrial use, and sustains aquatic ecosystems and fisheries. Both the quantity and quality of freshwater from this river are essential to sustaining the economies, societies, and environment in the South Saskatchewan River Watershed (SSRW). Therefore, it is important that citizens, water managers, and stewardship agencies are aware of water quality issues in the basin and their potential sources. This report focuses on (1) Identifying contaminants of concern affecting surface water quality in the South Saskatchewan River Watershed, (2) Identifying contaminant sources, and (3) Discussing pollution prevention strategies to reduce contamination risks.

Contaminants are a threat to water quality, both naturally occurring or created by anthropogenic activities. Pollution sources can be separated into two main categories: point sources and non-point sources. Point sources are from specific, identifiable places (ex: municipal wastewater treatment plants). Non-point sources come from many places over a large area (ex: runoff from city streets or agricultural fields). Runoff moves over these large areas, transporting contaminants into receiving surface water bodies. Non-point sources are usually harder to mitigate since they are more diffuse and related to the type of land use. The following are contaminants of concern affecting surface water quality in the SSRW.

Contaminant Impacts to Surface Water Sources
Microplastics -Ingested by fish and birds, causing intestinal blockages and death

-Chemicals in plastics cause endocrine-disrupting effects in fish

-Wastewater treatment plant effluent

-Primary and secondary microplastics in stormwater runoff

Pharmaceutically Active Compounds -Endocrine-disrupting effects in fish -Wastewater treatment plant effluent
Nutrients -Eutrophication: large algal blooms, depleted oxygen levels, fish kills

-Cyanobacteria blooms producing toxins

-Wastewater treatment plant effluent

-Fertilizer runoff from agricultural fields and urban areas

-Livestock access to watercourses

-Wetland drainage

Pathogens -Contamination of drinking water and recreational water

-Can cause illness and death in people exposed

-Livestock access to watercourses

-Runoff from manure stockpiles and fields treated with manure

-Leaky septic systems

Sediment -Increased turbidity in streams

-Covers gravel beds used for fish spawning

-Other contaminants can be bound to sediment

-Soil erosion from agricultural fields and urban areas

-Streambank erosion from livestock access and vegetation removal


Without beneficial management practices in place, our activities and land uses have the potential to adversely affect the watershed. Contaminants of emerging concern, nutrients, pathogens, and sediment can all reduce water quality and harm aquatic ecosystems.  This impairs our ability to use watercourses for drinking water, irrigation, and recreation. Residents can take action at home, in the yard, on the farm, and in the community to help reduce pollution in our lakes and rivers.

If you want to read more, you can download the full report: Water Quality Threats – SSRWSI Website.