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Fresh water for 2050, a watchful eye on the prize

By Leland J. Jackson       
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CALGARY, ALTA.—As we grow, and we sure are growing— with a United Nations forecast of 9.6 billion people by 2050, up from today’s 7.3 billion—our natural ecosystems are being pushed so far out of balance that we don’t fully understand what the changes mean today, much less for 2050.

What is clear is that more people mean more competition for water and more chemical and pharmaceutical contamination. Wildlife studies are also starting to tell the story of how contaminants can take some species out of the game. Science has demonstrated the consequences of widespread exposure to a stunning array of biologically active compounds (many of which mimic oestrogen), including eggs in the testes of male fish downstream of wastewater treatment plants and agriculture and Florida alligators with shrivelled penises. 

 

What does this mean for us?

We take high-quality water for granted, but securing access to safe water requires our environment, infrastructure and processes work together in a repeating series of steps—the magic that happens before the tap and after the toilet. A weak link in the chain can lead to serious consequences that range from diarrhea to death, as we have witnessed in our own back yards in Walkerton, Ont., and North Battleford, Sask. 

As of today, we have a poor understanding of the consequences of long-term exposure to low contaminant concentrations, much less the real risk to aquatic organisms or people who drink the water. If we hope to understand and address water security today and tomorrow, diagnosing the problem is the start of the solution. Getting everyone on the same page about what needs to be addressed, and what’s coming our way, will give us a clearer picture of where we need to direct our efforts and investments. 

And the good news is national standards to measure water contaminants in watersheds are within reach. The standards should diagnose key processes and include complex interactions that are a hallmark of natural ecosystems, be accurately measured and reported and focus on contaminants suspected in disease etiology or that pose health risks.  

In reality, causes and effects are difficult to understand due to the variable and very noisy world in which organisms live. While decades of research into single chemical dose and organism response relationships have taken place in the laboratory with model organisms such as Daphnia or minnows—they only hint at relationships in the natural world where chemicals number hundreds to potentially thousands in a single water sample. 

What if we could engineer naturalized systems that provide the benefits of experimental replication, the foundation of modern biology, yet also factor in nature’s noise in the form of temperature, light, and other variables? We can, and it has recently been done at Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets (ACWA), a partnership between the City of Calgary and the University of Calgary, where 12 experimental streams allow controlled experiments to measure the environmental benefit of wastewater treatment technologies to remove emerging contaminants from municipal wastewater. The concept is related to the powerful whole-ecosystem experiments conducted at the Experimental Lakes Area that identified phosphorus as the nutrient most responsible for the algal-greening of lakes and rivers, among others. 

Establishing common biological frameworks would provide consistent measurements to allow watershed comparisons and scientifically defendable data to formulate guidelines that link concentrations in effluent to responses in organisms that are indicative of ecosystem functions and services upon which we depend.  

Ensuring the health of the ecosystems and our own health by definition will depend on evidence to guide the critical decisions we will continue to face for allocating our resources in meaningful ways. As well as standards, and strong collaborative efforts—new sensor technologies will also play a role. Sensor networks will soon provide data acquisition from remote sites, in near real time. This wiring of watersheds to provide risk assessments for clean water throughout basins is already underway. Both ACWA and the Southern Ontario Water Consortium are pursuing complementary initiatives in this area and illustrate how academics, municipalities and industry can work together to solve critical issues that impact water quality from source to sink.  

Leland J. Jackson is a professor and scientific director at the Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Calgary.

The Hill Times

 

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