Innovative research to improve drinking water
With possible shorter and milder winters due to climate change, the vexing issue of algae blooms in lakes and reservoirs and their impact on drinking water quality is under study by a USask research team.
“We expect lakes to become more vulnerable to nutrient pollution simply as a result of warming water temperatures,” says Helen Baulch, a scientist with USask’s Global Institute for Water Security who leads one of GWF’s 33 research projects. “This means we expect to see more frequent and more severe blooms.”
Baulch’s PhD student Emily Cavaliere has found that a naturally occurring cleansing chemical process called “denitrification”, in which bacteria in lake sediment take up nitrogen, helps maintain water quality of Prairie lakes during winter – a previous scientific unknown. Scientists had previously assumed that cold temperatures would slow down this process.
“My work has debunked scientists’ assumption that ice-covered lakes are dormant until spring comes,” said Cavaliere. “Where there is water, there is life.”
The next step is to study how water nutrient cycling rates will change in the future as winters grow shorter, said Baulch.
Over the past decade, the world has seen record-breaking numbers of extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, storms and forest fires – and Canada is no exception.
In 2018, there was unprecedented flooding in New Brunswick and British Columbia, unrivalled dry conditions and forest fires in British Columbia and the Rocky Mountains, and record drought and heat followed by exceptional fall snow over the southern Prairies. These extreme weather conditions followed on the heels of five years of similar conditions that left millions of Canadians reeling from either insufficient or excessive water.
“We are experiencing chronic water disasters in Canada,” said John Pomeroy, Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change at the University of Saskatchewan (USask). “We live in a time when climate change and development are threatening the Earth’s water security and environmental health.”
Pomeroy is director of the $177-million Global Water Futures (GWF) program, the world’s largest university-led water research program. Launched with $77.8 million from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund in 2016, the seven-year research program is led by USask and its three key partners – University of Waterloo, McMaster University and Wilfrid Laurier University.
Photo by Mark Ferguson
Researchers John Pomeroy, Phani Adapa and Joe Shea with the Global Water Futures program visit a research station on the Athabasca Glacier.
GWF’s mission is to prepare Canada and other cold regions to manage risks associated with water-related threats from climate change and increasing development to ensure continued water sustainability and economic prosperity.
“We are providing solutions for avoiding the catastrophic impacts of climate change on Canada’s water and are showing a path towards global water security,” he said. “This program is making significant scientific contributions nationally and globally.”
In its 2018 report, the Inter- governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that even with one more degree Celsius of global warming, the world is headed for serious climate change impacts. The panel found that Western Canada is experiencing some of the world’s greatest rates of warming, and this is melting the mountain snow and ice that supply freshwater to several provinces and the United States.
Pomeroy says that across Canada, climate warming from human actions is altering precipitation patterns, reducing snowpacks, accelerating glacier melt, thawing permafrost, degrading water quality, intensifying floods, and increasing droughts.
“The public needs to understand that the water flows we had in the past are no longer guides to the future,” he said. “We need better ways to measure, predict and manage water risks, as well as to improve disaster warning. We’re the only G7 country without a national flood-forecasting program, for instance.”
With 60 water observation sites across Canada, cutting-edge drone, sensor and modelling technology, and an army of more than 650 researchers, GWF is already addressing some key issues by:
• Developing the first snowpack forecasting in Canada over the Canadian Rockies, available to the public at: www.snowcast.ca,
• Implementing the first flood forecasting system for the Yukon Territory,
• Predicting water flows for the Great Lakes, Saskatchewan and Mackenzie River basins to assess climate change impacts on future water availability,
• Calculating reliable, high- resolution future climate conditions for Canada, and
• Determining, through analysis of DNA gleaned from just a few drops of water, which invasive fish species and contaminants have entered bodies of water and how this affects fish.
Photo by Dave Stobbe for the University of Saskatchewan
Emily Cavaliere, a GWF researcher, studies water cleansing process that keeps lakes “alive” in winter.
With many First Nations communities under long-term boil-water advisories, GWF is engaging with Indigenous communities to co-develop water research strategies that recognize traditional Indigenous knowledge and western science in developing water management solutions.
In April, 60 researchers and Indigenous community partners met at Wanuskewin Heritage Park in Saskatoon to build and enhance existing partnerships. And in June, in what is believed to be the first scientific meeting ever held on a First Nation, 400 GWF researchers were invited by the Six Nations of the Grand River to listen, learn and share on their territory.
“Our goal is to work with communities, Indigenous Nations, governments and industries to transform how they prepare for and manage water challenges,” said Pomeroy.
As one of the top universities in the world for water resources research, USask is attracting top international talent. For example, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Senior Water Scientist Jay Famiglietti was recruited this year from the California Institute of Technology to lead the university’s Global Institute for Water Security as Canada 150 Research Chair in Hydrology and Remote Sensing.
A Nature article co-authored by Famiglietti this year reveals the dramatic impact of climate change and human activities on the availability of freshwater around the globe.
Using GRACE satellites to identify and quantify groundwater depletion from the globe’s major aquifers, Famiglietti’s team found that wet river basins – both in high latitudes and the tropics – are getting wetter, while the dry regions are getting dryer. For instance, an issue for Western Canada will be decreasing replenishment of water supplies in aquifers and reservoirs as glaciers in British Columbia disappear, he said.
“The world’s freshwater resources are under a level of stress unseen before,” Famiglietti said, noting that to avoid future conflicts over declining water supplies, groundwater sharing will need to be included in transboundary agreements.
“The need for water-saving technologies and improved management and governance of water will become increasingly clear, and without these, I see a future in which we will be very challenged to produce the food that we need for our growing world population.”