Connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, the St. Lawrence is the third largest river in North America, after the Mississippi and the Mackenzie. Fed by a number of tributaries, this huge fresh water body  is composed of two parts in the Québec City region: the fluvial estuary, beginning in Trois-Rivières and ending at the eastern tip of Île d'Orléans, where the salt water begins, and the upper estuary, becoming a maritime waterway at the mouth of the Saguenay River.    
Shaped by capricious topography and influenced by the seasons, the river's water flow and levels vary enormously. 

In Québec City, the average volume of the river is around 12,000 cubic metres per second, 60% of which comes from the Great Lakes.


For a number of years, Québec has favoured integrated management of water resources within the framework of sustainable development. Integrated management, an approach increasingly privileged in many places around the world, is able to take into account the multiple needs associated with water resources, the vast number and complexity of related issues, and the many stakeholders involved. As such, integrated management can respect the prerogatives of sustainable water use, i.e. suitable protection of natural environments as well as economic and social development of the territory. It therefore takes into account physical, biological, chemical, economic, and social aspects in the process of planning and monitoring the actions defined.

Integrated management involves a cooperative approach to reconciling various water-resource-related interests and needs and to harmonizing different related uses. This is embodied in a governance method enabling interested stakeholders, on a voluntary basis, to get involved in the planning, choice, and application of concerted actions aiming to protect and enhance water resources.

New governance of Québec’s water resources was initiated with the adoption of the Québec Water Policy in 2002 and confirmed by the adoption in 2009 of the Act to affirm the collective nature of water resources and provide for increased water resource protection. This legislation confirms Québec’s interest in the implementation of integrated management of the St. Lawrence. As such, it enables the Minister of the Environment and the Fight against Climate Change (MEFACC) to establish governance mechanisms for ensuring the consultation of users and various interested parties and for planning and harmonizing protection and usage measures pertaining to water resources and other natural resources depending on them.

The St. Lawrence Action Plan 2011-2026 received funding to the tune of $70M for the 2011-2016 period.


The 2011-2016 St. Lawrence Action Plan calls for the establishment of integrated management of the St. Lawrence (IMSL) covering a dozen areas situated along the St. Lawrence River, including the Québec City area. The IMSL extends the water resource integrated management approach (WRIM), already applied to a number of areas under the water resource management by river basin developed by the Québec government, to all of southern Québec. The IMSL leads to the gradual establishment of Regional Round Tables, each of which is connected with a St. Lawrence water resource integrated management area. 

In January 2013, the Ministère du Développement durable, de l’Environnement, de la Faune et des Parcs (MDDEFP) and the la Communauté métropolitaine de Québec (CMQ) signed an agreement to have the CMQ put in place, coordinate, and preside the Table de concertation régionale de la zone Québec  (TCRQ) (Québec City area regional round table). The mission assigned to the TCRQ,  officially created on March 4, 2014, is to identify priority actions in collaboration with regional water resource stakeholders with a view to planning and harmonizing protection measures and use of water and other water-dependent natural resources, for the purpose of sustainable development. The TCRQ has 17 members representing the area’s water resource stakeholders.

The TCRQ brings together members from the municipal, financial, community, and environmental sectors.


The St. Lawrence River’s water quality depends on all the waters that feed it, i.e. those of the Great Lakes and the rivers upstream from it. Generally speaking, despite some traces of contaminants, the water quality is relatively good, but it may vary depending on time and location. It can be affected by a number of factors, including wastewater disposal and nonpoint source agricultural pollution.

Over the last 30 years, Québec has invested money and effort into reducing the amount of industrial, agricultural, and urban pollutants by building hundreds of wastewater treatment plants and introducing agricultural and industrial measures to this end, among other things.

However, some threats persist, namely excess of phosphorus in certain rivers, wastewater spills, pharmaceuticals, and endocrine disruptors contained in plastic, textile, and electronic equipment.

Between 1987 and 2012, a total of 21 water treatment plants were built in the Québec City area, thereby significantly improving the river’s water quality.


Urban waters
Wastewater is polluted water transiting through sanitary pipes; the water may contain solid debris, pathogens, organic waste, and  up to 200 chemicals. It is treated before being discharged into the river, but part of it can end up in the receiving environment, during overflow, for example.

Storm water comes from rain running over paved surfaces in urban areas. Loaded with suspended matter, de-icing salts, pesticides, metals, and hydrocarbons, it can contaminate ecosystems. A number of measures can improve storm water management , reducing runoff and hence its impact on the environment.

In the 1980s, faced with rapid water quality deterioration, governments implemented corrective measures to reduce pollution sources. 

Industrial waters
Industries take up a surface area of 23 million square metres in Québec City and 22 million square metres in Lévis. In total, this territory contains approximately 40 parks and areas where most industrial activities are concentrated.

These include concrete plants, oil refineries, sand quarries, and snow dumps. Depending on their nature, industrial discharge or effluents pose complex water pollution problems. For this reason, the Environment Quality Act requires the issuance of authorization certificates and imposes stringent standards.

Although industries often use polluting processes, they comply with government standards by treating the wastewater produced.

Farm runoff
Over the decades, agricultural modernization has occurred at a rapid pace. In order to improve productivity, piping systems have been built, altering the natural hydrography. The soil has also been stripped and injected with fertilizers. Consequently, nitrogen and phosphorus runoff can enter rivers and eventually the St. Lawrence waterway. 

More recently, good agricultural practices have been established with government support and the involvement of a range of organizations and businesses from the area. These measures have made it possible to cut point sources of pollution, optimize the use of certain fertilizers, and reduce contaminated water runoff. However, agricultural pollution remains problematic in a number of sectors and control efforts  continue.

Agricultural nonpoint source pollution remains problematic in a number of sectors affecting waterways flowing into the St. Lawrence. 


Outdoor recreation sites promote social interaction, health, heritage, the economy, and the environment. In our region, an abundance of such sites contributes to the quality of life and facilitates ground and  boating activities. 

Quality natural and built environments, green spaces, diversified and safe areas, where different uses coexist harmoniously and with a concern for sustainable development. . .this is our definition of an attractive living environment that supports the population’s well-being and general health.

The St. Lawrence is essential to this vision. Over the years, we have benefited from its resources to live, travel, and play. 

Today, 80% of Quebecers live on the shores of the St. Lawrence River or one of its tributaries. Nearly 60% are involved in river-related activities.


Resulting from a unique geomorphology, the territory’s landscapes are oriented toward the river, which widens eastward, bounded by terraced shorelines and rugged cliffs topped with plateaus. There are spectacular views all around. The St. Lawrence is highlighted by four different types of landscapes: the freshwater estuary, the Middle St. Lawrence Estuary Area, the north shore terraces, and the south shore plains.

The freshwater estuary landscapes are the most contrasting: the shoreline, narrow in places, skirts steep cliffs such as Cap Diamant, the surroundings of Montmorency Falls, and the Passage-to-Lévis portion of the coast. Road links are limited and extensive stairs are required in order to cross this terrain.  The middle estuary landscapes open up east of Cap-Tourmente at the foot of sparsely inhabited wooded slopes. 

Terraced landscapes stretch through the north shore and along the rolling slopes of the Laurentian Mountains. The Québec City hill, shaped like a donkey’s back, is dominated by the parliament hill buildings and the shopping centres near the bridges. They include the historic neighbourhoods of Old Québec and Sillery, the dense neighbourhoods along the Saint-Charles and Duverger rivers, and the village centres and farming land of Côte de Beaupré. On the south shore, the plains of Lotbinière and Bellechasse form landscapes that extend as far as the Appalachians, sometimes urban with the districts of Lévis, rustic along the Bellechasse coast, or agricultural in other areas.

Unique panoramas and the important values associated with the St. Lawrence contribute to the region’s attractiveness.

We travel for love of landscapes. Each year, thousands of cruise liner passengers admire the majestic river and surrounding landscapes. 
The Québec City area offers four types of panoramas. Some are emblematic, such as the river estuary, the distinctive building silhouettes of Québec City and Lévis, and the hills of the Laurentian range. Others are more visible from the river, from a cruise ship for example, including the east end of Île d’Orléans and the Ruau and Madame islands. A number of panoramas have primarily an aesthetic value: water bodies, falls, marinas, and at least seven of Québec’s prettiest villages. Finally,  there are visual cues such as the two bridges, Château Frontenac, the Valero buildings at night, and village bell towers.

Some 70% of tourists choose thematic itineraries and tourist routes. Most of them stop in Québec City, a UNESCO heritage site.


A major transportation corridor and gateway to North America, the St. Lawrence River has shaped the history, culture, and human use of the shoreline. In fact, in 2010, the Québec National Assembly recognized the St. Lawrence as “national heritage to be protected, developed, and enhanced.”

For centuries, First Nations settled on its shores. The seigneurial system of New France introduced land division into long lots perpendicular to the river. The Citadelle and the Lévis forts were built during English rule, while the shores were in large part occupied by the harbour and shipyards.

This powerful past has left many traces. Declared heritage sites such as Île d’Orléans, Old Québec City, Sillery, Beauport, and Charlesbourg, as well as a number of historic sites, including the A.C. Davie Shipyard National Historic Site of Canada, are testimony to the Québec City area’s long history. Whether religious, institutional, residential, rural, maritime, harbour, industrial, or archeological, built heritage includes a range of buildings, structures, gardens, and remnants. In addition, documents, artefacts, know-how, and traditional practices, such as ice canoeing, as well as a rich toponymy, reveal the area’s history and its strong connection to the St. Lawrence River.

Almost 90% of protected heritage assets are located on the plains along the river.


Despite all the pressures exerted on it over the centuries, the St. Lawrence has conserved an ecological integrity that other major rivers have lost. The river’s ecosystem maintains its essential ecological functions and continues to be home to healthy populations.
The evolution of wildlife provides good signs in this regard. A number of bird species are undergoing rapid growth, including the greater snow goose, Canada goose, black duck, and great blue heron. Having disappeared for some 40 years, the striped bass has reappeared in the waters of the St. Lawrence River, along with the lake sturgeon.

Pressures remain, however. Sometimes anthropic in nature, such as activities provoking water contamination, they can also be natural, namely erosion, flooding, disease, and weather hazards. 

Natural shoreline areas play a number of roles; in addition to being a fauna and flora habitat, they act as a shield against erosion.


An aquatic ecosystem is home to hundreds of organisms, providing them with nutrition and shelter. In the ecosystem of the St. Lawrence River, the freshwater turns brackish going downstream, affecting both fauna and flora. 

Although the north and south shores of the river have been disturbed by development, the Québec City area still has some of the world’s most productive freshwater intertidal marshes (flooded at high tide). Their plant biomass feeds the fish and waterfowl food chain. 

One of the serious challenges facing the international community is preventing the loss of thousands of animal and plant species, endangered by habitat transformation, pollution, and climate change. 

In the greater Québec City region, there are four vulnerable fish species, namely the American shad, rainbow smelt, channel darter, and bridle shiner; the American eel and lake sturgeon are  verging on vulnerability as well.


Wetlands are water-saturated or flooded areas with distinct vegetation and soil. They are classified into seven categories: shallow water, marsh, wet meadow, swamp, and three types of bog. These ecosystems contain tremendous biodiversity, including a number of vulnerable species.

They are very helpful to humans by contributing to water and environmental quality. For example, they reduce greenhouse gases by sequestering carbon, supply the water table, and reduce the erosive action of the wind, while offering possibilities for hiking and bird watching.

The north shore is characterized by the rich tidal flats of Saint-Augustin-de-Desmaures, Beauport, and Cap-Tourmente, where bulrushes attract thousands of migratory birds, as is the case in the swamps and marshes of Île-d’Orléans.

On the south shore, the Grande Plée Bleue bogs are one of eastern Québec’s largest wetlands. 


Wildlife habitat, marine park, biodiversity refuge – designations vary. Some are under federal jurisdiction, others within the scope of Québec responsibility. As regards management, it can be assumed by conservation groups.

In the Québec City area, 9% of the territory is protected, mainly the river and its one-kilometre bank between Île-d'Orléans and Côte-de-Beaupré. The north shore is home to five wildlife reserves located on privately owned property, including the Battures-de-Saint-Augustin-de-Desmaures. On the south shore, waterfowl areas, five exceptional forests, and two threatened flora areas are protected.

The Cap Tourmente National Wildlife Area, where thousands of geese stop each year, and the Saint-Vallier Migratory Bird Sanctuary, located on the south shore, have been designated protected areas by the federal government. 

The protected land and water area networks cover approximately 9% of Québec’s surface area. 


Although crucial to fauna and flora, other natural areas have been granted more limited protection, including managed conservation areas, wildlife areas of interest, Important Bird Areas (IBA), and natural parks in urban areas. 

A number of properties, many adjoining the river, are private and deprived of protection. In general, river sandbars and shores, except in the urban areas of Québec City and Lévis, include protected areas and vulnerable or endangered species.

According to some analysts, the ecological value of the coastline is deemed to be good to very good.


At the beginning of 2017, the Ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs confirmed the presence of grass carp in the St. Lawrence River system. No evidence of silver carp, bighead carp, or black carp has been detected as yet.  

Grass carp feed on aquatic vegetation. Given their rapid growth, voracious appetite, and feeding method, they can severely damage fish habitat, disturb the functioning of aquatic ecosystems, and adversely affect water quality. This species can live up to 20 years and can quickly reach a size that deters most aquatic predators. Furthermore, the history of Asian carp species colonization reveals that the introduction of grass carp facilitates the establishment of three other species. 

After the destruction of natural habitats, it is the arrival of exotic species that compromises ecosystems the most. These plant, animal, or micro-organism invaders arrive from the four corners of the globe via imported plants or large ships. It is often impossible to eliminate them and very costly to control their progression. 

While tides and water salinity curb the introduction of exotic plants, climate change could cause fragile surfaces to expand by reducing the water level. This can already be observed upstream from Québec City with the Asian common reed, one of eight problematic species in the area, along with Japanese knotweed and purple loosestrife.

Wildlife species are equally threatening, especially the zebra mussel, found from the Great Lakes to Montmagny; the virtually indestructible Chinese mitten crab; the bloody red shrimp; and the round goby, abundant on the north shore.

To learn the five steps of boat cleaning to prevent the introduction and propagation of alien invasive species in different waterways, click here.


The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River Maritime Transportation System stretches across 3,700 kilometres, from the Atlantic to Lake Superior, and serves the industrial and agricultural heartland of North America, with its population of about 100 million. Its fluvial segment, a navigable channel of 1,600 kilometres, stops in Montréal, where the Seaway and its 15 locks begin.

More than 250 million tons of merchandise travel through the system each and every year. The efficiency of such a system depends on such factors as port network capacity, road and rail connections, workforce, legislation, costs, and services. Its environmental benefits are considerable: a ship uses less fuel than other modes of transportation for the same volume of goods transported.

Featuring a major transportation corridor like the St. Lawrence and high-quality port facilities, the Québec City region is ideally equipped to serve different industrial sectors, including the mining, metallurgy, and energy sectors.

A ship with 30,000 tons of cargo transports the equivalent of 300 railway cars or 960 trucks.


The Port of Québec is the deep-sea port located closest to the Great Lakes. It can accommodate 15-metre draught ships at low tide. Domestic ships arrive from the Great Lakes loaded with merchandise such as grain or ore. Their load is transferred to large cargo ships leaving for Europe or Asia. The port serves a number of importers and exporters from Québec and the rest of Canada, for example in the mining, agricultural, and energy sectors.  

The Québec Port Authority has jurisdiction over 35 square kilometres of water, 220 hectares of port territory, and nearly 30 docks. Its industrial activities are concentrated in Beauport (solid and liquid bulk cargo); in the Estuary (grain silos, port services, etc.); and at Anse au Foulon (grain, fertilizer, de-icing salt, wood pellets). For their part, the Valero private docks receive oil from overseas and from the western part of the continent via Montréal.

Nearly 70% of merchandise transshipped through Québec City is foreign bound.


A major port requires specialized services. Terminal operators look after cargo handling and hire dockers. Towage services help ships berth. The port also accommodates barges, service vessels, and environment response equipment.

An entire body of professional expertise has been built around operations, including maritime agencies and brokers for contracts and insurance, naval architects, and sectoral associations. Pilotage is mandatory on the river, and one of the two pilot corporations serving the waterway is based in Québec City. 

A number of maritime-activity-related firms are located in the Québec City region, including a shipowner, port services companies, and tourism operators. The Canadian Coast Guard and the Société des traversiers du Québec (provincial ferry operators) are also based here. 

Maritime activity generates nearly 5,000 direct and indirect jobs in the greater Québec City region.

More and more international cruises are plying the St. Lawrence River , mainly along the Canada–New England corridor. Québec City is the leading destination among the nine stops in the province and it is in full expansion mode. Sharply rising from 56,000 passengers in 2000, the port received 180,000 mostly American visitors in 2014. 

Croisières AML is the main cruise excursion service provider. Ferries, used first and foremost for utility transport, also serve numerous tourists, and therefore represent a significant development asset, enabling tourists and residents of the greater Québec City area to access bike paths, public transit networks, and downtown Québec City and Lévis. 

International cruises provide estimated annual spinoffs of nearly $25M for the Québec City region.