Canada, land of cold, is not immune to rising temperatures. Yet what happens when global warming depletes snow and ice – iconic resources that not only define our nation but also play major roles in our ecosystems – is of increasing concern.
“Think of glaciers, snowpacks, frozen lakes, ice roads and the game of hockey,” says John Pomeroy, Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change, and director of the Centre for Hydrology at the University of Saskatchewan (USask). “What is Canada without them?”
These features are hallmarks of key ecosystems and bear relevance for the quality of life within the country and beyond, yet they are at risk due to droughts, wildfires, melting glaciers, declining snowpacks and thawing permafrost. Add in increasing algae blooms and degrading water quality, and it becomes clear that Dr. James Bruce, the Canadian co-founder of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was right when he said, “If climate change is a shark, then water are its teeth,” says Dr. Pomeroy, for whom climate change and the water crisis are intricately connected.
“We’re facing a century of extreme water events and water supply challenges,” Dr. Pomeroy notes. “The Prairies have had unprecedented summer flooding and droughts in the last decade. Lake-ice formation is changing, and glaciers have disappeared or retreated by kilometres. These are big changes that will require large societal shifts.”
The recognition that urgent action is required to ensure the supply of fresh water inspires the work of the Global Water Futures Program, led by Dr. Pomeroy. The largest university-led freshwater research project in the world brings together 213 professors at 23 universities plus graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, technicians and others.
“The program focuses on finding ways to navigate an uncertain water future and identifying adaptation measures to address the impacts of climate change and other stressors on our water,” he explains. “To come up with solutions, we have to start with better understanding our water systems and the risks they face.”
Dr. John Pomeroy
Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change, and Director of the Centre for Hydrology at the University of Saskatchewan
The world is looking to Canada for help to meet increasing demands for food and energy, and Dr. Pomeroy believes this requires a heightened focus on water security. “In the past, we were able to get by with fairly moderate water management practices,” he says. “Now, we have to be much more careful and informed by science to avoid the kind of severe water challenges that are affecting regions like the southwestern United States, for example, where farming operations had to shut down.”
Addressing nutrient pollution through technology adoption and social change
Like many Canadians, Helen Baulch grew up with “the narrative that we are a water-rich nation, that we are water-secure.
“Yet it’s becoming clear that this is not the case. My work is focused on understanding some of the threats to water quality, such as algae blooms due to nutrient pollution,” says Dr. Baulch, who is a water and sustainability researcher in the USask School of Environment and Sustainability, Centennial Enhancement Chair in Aquatic Ecosystem Biogeochemistry, and member of the Global Institute for Water Security.
While algal scum on Canadian lakes is an increasingly familiar sight for many, there can be long-term consequences beyond the unpleasant appearance, including impacts on drinking water quality.
A water treatment facility Dr. Baulch is working with recently invested in sensor technology that documents changing conditions. The impetus for addressing upstream issues came when a problem in 2015 affected the organization’s water treatment capacity. “The water quality was still good, but moving enough water through the system became challenging,” she says. “These types of circumstances have become more common in recent years.”
The technology alerts operators to certain threshold levels, who can then adapt processes to prevent a recurrence of issues, Dr. Baulch notes.
“Monitoring lakes with sensors is amazing as they collect data day and night, helping to open our eyes to what is happening on ecologically relevant timescales, where previously our methods meant going to collect samples every couple of weeks,” she says, adding that such long-term perspectives are essential. “The problems our ecosystems face, such as an accumulation of nutrients, weren’t created quickly – and they won’t be resolved quickly.”
Nutrient pollution is an issue across Canada. “We even see algae blooms in some areas in the north,” says Dr. Baulch. “Elevated nutrient levels most commonly come from sewage or agricultural runoff. Warmer waters also contribute to a higher risk.”
Since urbanization and agricultural land use can take a toll on bodies of water, the question becomes “what interventions can help to gain maximum benefits for improving water quality while we continue to support cities and sustain agricultural production.”
Solutions that leverage advances in technology and understanding are especially impactful when they make sense from both an economic and an environmental perspective, believes Dr. Baulch, who suggests a combination of “technology adoption and social willingness to take the actions we need to sustain improved water quality.”
Most large cities are already spending significant amounts of money on wastewater treatment, yet more awareness and increased engagement with industry can contribute to further reducing the “nutrient input into our ecosystems,” she says. “When we work with agricultural producers to reduce runoff, for example, it helps to show agronomic benefits.”
Better on-farm nutrient management could potentially lead to reduced costs for agricultural inputs, such as phosphorus fertilizer, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and showing “rapid benefits for downstream water quality.”
A collaborative approach to solving water challenges
Due to the urgency of addressing climate change and the degraded condition of water bodies, Dr. Baulch advocates for bringing together people from academia, industry, government and the public to collaboratively explore and implement solutions.
Dr. Pomeroy agrees that a course correction is needed – and that it has to be embraced by leaders across the country and accepted by society. “We also have to include Indigenous people in water management plans,” he says. “Not only do they have inherent rights, but we can learn from their approach to living in the environment in a more sustainable way.”
Partnerships with Indigenous communities could lead to the co-development of solutions that are informed by western science and Indigenous knowledge. “We need everyone at the table for water management decisions, especially since many First Nations communities have fared poorly in the past,” states Dr. Pomeroy. “There have been long-term boil water advisories in what should be pristine communities in northern Canada because they’re located downstream from major sources of pollution.”
Dr. Helen Baulch
Water and sustainability researcher in the USask School of Environment and Sustainability
Growing awareness about the importance of responsible use of resources, including water, has inspired people to “want to do things differently,” he adds. “We’ve reached agreements with 530 user groups across the country, and this shows a high level of interest in managing water co-operatively and sustainably.”
Industry partners are keen to be part of the solution, and Dr. Pomeroy attributes this, in part, to direct experiences with adverse impacts of weather events. Manitoba Hydro, for example, has seen its capacity to generate hydroelectricity impacted by drought conditions, and utilities service provider EPCOR has faced challenges in ensuring its water treatment plants and infrastructure are safe from flooding.
In addition to sensors for monitoring water quality, other technological tools include drones (UAVs) for measuring things like snowpack depths, soil moisture, algae blooms and crop health. Technology can also empower “citizen scientists to make a contribution,” says Dr. Pomeroy. “The Nutrient App, for example, enables people to measure water quality in wells, streams, wetlands and lakes. Combining a test kit with image analysis allows an accurate reading of nitrate and phosphate concentrations. People can then share the data with other users and with our data base.”
Beyond enabling wide participation in rural as well as urban environments, such engagement can help to raise awareness about water issues and inspire action in individuals.
Dr. Baulch has already seen a change in the value people assign to water. “When drinking water is affected, this obviously hits headline news,” she says. “But we also find that having clean, swimmable lakes is important for Canadians. The work of one of our PhD students shows that people are willing to pay for water quality improvements.”
This shift bodes well for efforts to catalyze collective action, from scientific research and technology development to policy change and transdisciplinary collaboration, and Dr. Pomeroy expects the work conducted at the University of Saskatchewan – and in Canada – to contribute to advancing climate resilience and water security both at home and globally.
Advertising feature produced by Randall Anthony Communications with University of Saskatchewan. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.