Federal budget 2024 misses the mark on water-related investments

Across the country, Canadians are worried as they look ahead to summer. Forest fires in British Columbia are expected to begin earlier and last longer this year and severe multi-year droughts are forecast for the Prairies.

Other Canadians are also bracing themselves for — or are already experiencing — extreme flood conditions.

In the lead-up to the federal government’s 2024 budget, there was hope for investments in water management and water-related infrastructure to help address some of these issues. However, as we examine the 2024 budget — with a particular focus on the key issues of drought, floods and water supply — we found that, unfortunately, most of these hopes have been misplaced.

Fires and droughts

The budget is light on details — and critical infrastructure investments — regarding the management of fires and droughts.

Some provinces are attempting to address the issues. But there’s a lack of consensus on the validity of their approaches.

Alberta, for example, wants to consider the transfer of water from one basin to another, though there is uncertainty about the implications, especially the impact on aquatic ecosystem health.

There are also discussions in Alberta about building new large-scale water storage systems that would build storage capacity and could help address water access during low-flow conditions. But they are often politically contentious and have many social and environmental impacts that need to be weighed during the decision-making process.

While such infrastructure is vitally important in western Canada, there is no commitment to evaluating or building any of these types of systems found within the 2024 budget. Given the recurring jurisdictional spats between Ottawa and the provinces over water management issues, this lack of commitment to large-scale infrastructure is perhaps unsurprising. That doesn’t make it any less disappointing.

Fire crews watch a water plane spray a wildfire near Biggar, Sask., in April 2019.

Focus on emergency management

In contrast to Ottawa’s actions, Alberta recently dedicated funds in its provincial budget to address the urgent threat of a looming drought. This included $125 million over five years to help communities handle drought and flooding impacts, though how such a small pot of funds will be equitably distributed remains to be seen.

On the topic of fires, while the federal government acknowledged in early April the looming destructive wildfire season, the budget is focused exclusively on emergency management and firefighter training. While it’s important to prepare, such a focus ignores an arguably more pressing problem — the lack of infrastructure required to provide the water for firefighting.

Read more:
Why Canada needs to dramatically update how it prepares for and manages emergencies

Significant potable water is needed for domestic firefighting purposes, but untreated water sources are even more critical to battling forest fires. Without sufficient water levels, firefighting becomes even more challenging.

Regardless, the 2024 budget looks unlikely to drastically improve the situation, and droughts and fires are probably going to keep getting worse in the years to come.


Unfortunately, the 2024 budget also failed to invest in critical flood control and resiliency infrastructure for communities that are frequently exposed to seasonal flooding.

It did, however, propose almost $7 million over five years for the Meteorological Service of Canada’s early warning system for extreme weather events, with a focus on floods and storm surges.

These are important investments since the costs of weather and climate-related damage are increasing significantly. It’s estimated that insured losses in Canada exceeded $3.1 billion in 2023.

Additionally, the initiation of a national flood insurance program to the tune of $15 million is a welcome investment. However, this type of policy approach doesn’t address the root causes that result in the occurrence of floods; rather, it focuses on paying out for damages after the floods have happened.

Ultimately, what is perhaps most striking about the issue of floods in the 2024 budget is how little attention they received and how much of it may be buried under housing-related budget measures.

A car sits almost submerged in brownish floodwater.
An abandoned car in a mall parking lot is seen in floodwater following a major rain event in Halifax in July 2023.

Housing and wastewater

The third major water-related aspect we examined in the 2024 budget concerned housing and water management in the built environment.

There were many welcome references in the budget about the need to invest in urban storm water and wastewater infrastructure.

This is definitely an important component in dealing with rapid growth and housing affordability issues in Canadian cities, but it will be critical for infrastructure investments to go beyond the status quo and incorporate novel storm-water systems and green infrastructure. Hopefully this funding can be used to improve aging storm water infrastructure across the country as cities increase in density.

There have been investments in water in recent budgets.

A year ago, during a visit by U.S. President Joe Biden and tied to the 2023 budget, Canada committed $650 million over 10 years to protect the Fraser River, the Mackenzie River, Lake Winnipeg, the Lake of the Woods, Lake Simcoe, the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. Previous budgets have invested in water management through green infrastructure investments that have included the rehabilitation of storm-water systems and the restoration of wetlands.

But sustained investments are needed to both protect and preserve water systems and adequately prepare cities and communities for extreme weather events through improved resiliency.

A rainbow over a river with mountains on either side.
A rainbow over where the Fraser and Thompson Rivers meet in Lytton, B.C., in October 2023.

What still needs to be done

In the end, this budget did little to address the concerns many Canadians have about climate-related impacts and water security.

To keep communities across the country safe, more investments into water-related infrastructure and — more importantly — ambitious policy development are critical to ensure the health and well-being of all Canadians.

There must be investments in sustainable water-use programs and timely water measurements. Canada also urgently requires a registry of water rights and standards for water accounting that inform transparent decision-making — similar to the National Water Initiative in Australia.

Read more:
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These investments are an essential step in allowing us to begin triaging the most important climate-related impacts to infrastructure before it’s too late the most important climate-related impacts to infrastructure over the coming decades.

The above being said, infrastructure alone won’t solve the complex issues of climate-related water management. Long-term water sustainability requires innovative policy approaches aimed at addressing inequity.

This includes a shift in how we approach water governance from a system of individual water ownership and licensing, as is the case in some provinces, to a more collective approach.

Substantial investments, alongside innovative policy discussions — perhaps guided by the new Canada Water Agency — are extremely important but noticeably absent from the federal budget. This must change if we are to get serious about Canada’s long-term water security.

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