Comparative analysis of regional water quality in Canada using the Water Quality Index
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The Canadian Council of Ministers for the Environment (CCME) has developed a Water Quality Index (WQI) to simplify the reporting of complex water quality data. This science-based communication tool tests multi-variable water data against numeric water quality guidelines and/or objectives to produce a single unit-less number that represents overall water quality. The CCME WQI has been used to rate overall water quality in spatial and temporal comparisons of site(s). However, it has not been used in a comparative-analysis of exposure sites to reference sites downstream of point source discharges. This study evaluated the ability of the CCME WQI to differentiate water quality from metal mines across Canada at exposure sites from reference sites using two different types of numeric water quality objectives: (1) the water quality guidelines (WQG) for the protection of freshwater aquatic life and (2) water quality objectives determined using regional reference data termed Region-Specific Objectives (RSO). The application of WQG to the CCME WQI was found to be a good tool to assess absolute water quality as it relates to national water quality guidelines for the protection of aquatic life, but had more limited use when evaluating spatial changes in water quality downstream of point source discharges. The application of the RSO to the CCME WQI resulted in assessment of spatial changes in water quality downstream of point source discharges relative to upstream reference conditions.