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Researchers prepare to set artificial substrates out in Saint John Harbour, New Brunswick deployed to capture settling invertebrates to get an indication of the health of the area. The technique was evaluated for inclusion in the Canada Watershed Consortium projects. Credit: Marie-Josée Maltais

The Home Advantage

Canadian scientific excellence is changing the waterscape here and around the world.

Posted on January 30, 2011
Written by Kerry Freek and Tina Chu

While we’re not facing a national water crisis, it’s no secret that this country is rife with water challenges.

The Canadian Water Network (CWN) plays a vital role in solving them. Created by the Networks of Centres of Excellence Program, the CWN has a mandate to connect Canadian and international water researchers with decision makers engaged in priority water management issues.

“We’re evolving from our academically focused roots. We want to be a broker between the scientific community and decision makers,” says CWN’s scientific director, Mark Servos. “We want to increase the ability of decision makers to get the science they need, and increase opportunities for scientists.”

How do these potential partners come together? University of Waterloo’s (UW’s) Rob de Loë has found that partnerships have been quite organic. When Wildsight (a British Columbia-based organization that helps protect biodiversity) discovered his project on watershed governance, organizers contacted him and asked the team to explore challenges in the East Kootenays. Since then, the team has used some of its CWN funds to help the area move toward collaborative governance. “We’ve helped connect the dots,” says de Loë.

Connecting the groups is one challenge—the next is delivering the data in a way that makes sense to people outside of the scientific community. “CWN is keen on knowledge translation, and that doesn’t work by just sending somebody a report. We’re translating this research into our partners’ situations,” says de Loë.

UW’s David Rudolph, lead on a project on water management in agriculture (see “Thought for food” below), sees the value in presenting his findings outside of the regular academic settings. In order to ensure the project results have impact, he’s taken a digestible version of his findings on the road to non-technical conferences and agricultural association workshops.

While CWN aims to fill the communication niche, scientific excellence remains an elemental part of its mandate. Water Canada spoke with CWN project leaders focusing on water research touching health, distribution, contaminants, watershed management, governance, and agriculture to learn how these teams are making a real difference in Canada and beyond.

Building better data partnerships

Project: Assessing waterborne health 
risks through quantitative risk 
assessment models

Timeline: 2008 – 2012

Team: Pierre Payment, l’Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS)-Institut Armand-Frappier; Benoit Barbeau, École Polytechnique de Montréal; Michèle Prévost, École Polytechnique de Montréal; Judy Isaac-Renton, BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) Laboratories; Monica Emelko, University of Waterloo; Nathalie Tufenkji, McGill University; Norm Neumann, Alberta Public Health Lab; Patrick Levallois, Institut national de santé publique du Québec; Xing-Fang Li, University of Alberta; Charles P. Gerba, University of Arizona; Graham Gagnon, Dalhousie University; Mark W. Lechevallier, American Water; Rebecca Guy, Laboratory for Foodborne Zoonoses; Gertjan Medema, KIWA Water Research; Jennifer Clancy, Clancy Environmental

Partners: Canadian Water Network; EPCOR Utilities Inc.; Alberta Provincial Laboratory for Public Health; BCCDC Laboratories; Ontario Ministry of the Environment; City of Laval Water Treatment Division; City of Repentigny Water Treatment Division; City of Rosemere Water Treatment Division; City of Ottawa Water Treatment Division; City of Montreal Water Treatment Division; City of Victoriaville Water Treatment Division; Health Canada, Water, Air & Climate Change Bureau (Ottawa); Public Health Agency of Canada (C-EnterNet); Public Health Agency of Canada; INRS-Institut Armand-Frappier; B.C. Water and Wastewater Association

Cities with sophisticated treatment plants promise quality water to their constituents. But Pierre Payment wants to know if there is still some disease in water that hasn’t been detected because levels are too low to notice.

The difficulty with microbes is that they are neither homogenous nor are they evenly distributed in a body of water at consistent concentrations. “Quite often, looking for pathogenic microbes in water is analogous to looking for a needle in a haystack,” says Monica Emelko. “When I sample, sometimes I’ll get a bunch of empty handfuls of hay, but one time, I might get the needle. Just because I don’t always find a needle doesn’t mean that one or more aren’t there.” Although sampling and analysis methods are not perfect, public health must still be protected.

Quantitative Microbial Risk Assessment (QMRA) is a mathematical, logic-based modeling approach that uses statistics to integrate data from source water quality and the various processes of treatment, to predict risks posed by pathogenic micro-organisms in drinking water.

With origins in the United States, QMRA has recently been adopted into Canadian water treatment guidelines. Payment and his team are building a knowledge base for QMRA to facilitate its use in Canada’s water industry.

Given the difficulty of detecting many pathogenic micro-organisms by routine sampling, QMRA seeks to utilize all available probability information about measurement errors (including those associated with looking for proverbial needles in the haystack), dose-response relationships, such as how many microbes it takes to cause an infection, and exposure assessment, such as how many will fall ill. It then further enables the evaluation of potentially necessary measures to counter microbial contaminants and conversely, the evaluation of a treatment facility’s efficacy.

“One of the major issues is that people hear QMRA, but what does it mean?” says Payment. “Just because it’s simple on paper doesn’t mean people understand what they’re doing.”

One of the team’s major concerns is the need to meet with stakeholders and transfer results to the water industry. Says team member Benoit Barbeau: “We usually have no commitment to organize conferences to discuss QMRA. The traditional way is for us to publish papers and go to scientific conferences. The water industry is not necessarily present.”

“We recognize that QMRA is not just something you pick up and become an expert in,” says Emelko. “The worst thing we can do to ourselves is assume it’s a magic black box, because how that black box crunches numbers can have a huge impact on the outcome and we shouldn’t be taking the process lightly. We need to go into it understanding the limitations.”

“For us, working with QMRA is really to make sure the parameters that we use in the equations are correct and understood,” says Payment, “The teaching part is as important as having scientists dwell on the equation itself. We want to understand the whole picture and use our expertise to make others understand it as well.”

“It’s not the kind of project that gives you breakthroughs,” he adds. “It’s more like progress—having more and more people being interested in QMRA, asking questions, and getting answers.”

Credit: INRS

Out of harm’s way?

Project: Determining the efficacy of emerging contaminant removal within existing treatment trains relevant to Canadian conditions through chemical and toxicological assessments

Timeline: 2010 – 2012

Team: Wayne Parker, UW; Mark Servos, UW; Chris Metcalfe, Trent University; Hongde Zhou, University of Guelph; Glen Van Der Kraak, University of Guelph; Peter Vanrolleghem, Université Laval; Eric Hall, University of British Columbia; Caren Helbing, University of Victoria; Joanne Parrott, Environment Canada

Partners: Canadian Water Network; Environment Canada; The Ontario Ministry of the Environment; Ministère du Développment durable, de l’Environnement et des Parcs

Wayne Parker’s research project tackles the unknowns of emerging contaminants in municipal wastewater. “The questions that exist,” explains Parker, “are whether the presence of these compounds is likely to cause harm when they enter the environment, and we are really evaluating and comparing the ability of wastewater treatment processes to remove these chemicals and the biological responses that we might expect to see with these chemicals.”

“It’s not possible to remove everything of everything,” says Eric Hall. “We know, of the many contaminants included in this category of emerging contaminants, that most of them will be removed quite effectively, but there’s so many of these contaminants, even if we’ve removed most of them in low levels, because there are so many of them there, they may constitute a significant source of environmental effect.”

To understand the efficacy of existing wastewater treatment configurations, Parker and his team are conducting tests from initial receptor assays to a range of increasingly complex gene expression and whole-organism responses. From these tests, they hope to understand the benefits conventional activated sludge treatments to advanced membrane bioreactor treatments, from an aquatic species standpoint.

Joanne Parrott at Environment Canada is conducting one such study. Her project investigates the six-month life cycle of fathead minnows. This research, which exposes fathead minnows to effluent from wastewater pilot plants in Burlington, Ontario from early development to adulthood, collects data on the growth and reproduction of the fish.

Concurrently, in Victoria, British Columbia, Caren Helbing is conducting C-fin assays to observe the effects of the same effluent on tadpole tail-pin biopsies. In these tests,  Helbing is examining perturbations in thyroid hormone signalling and hopes that, as different species indicate different sensitivities, a comparison of her data to that of her colleagues will produce an extensive analysis of what effluents look like from a chemical standpoint as well as from a toxicological standpoint.

These studies are not without challenges. As Parker states, there are possibilities for upset when conducting long-term exposure studies with wastewater. “Effluent changes with time and composition,” he explains. “Ensuring the effluent of these pilot plants is of good enough quality and is not killing the fish from an acute toxicity standpoint has been a constant challenge. So has maintaining the pilot plant mechanically and making sure that every single piece is running consistently.”

Presently, though the study is still premature for speculations,  Parker hopes that this study, regardless of its outcome, will provide good scientific basis for policy-related to the treatment of wastewater in Canada.

“Any upgrade in technology comes with an associated cost both from a capital standpoint and an operating standpoint.  What we really want to know is whether these costs are justified. This study will contribute to existing knowledge and improve decision making.”

Building better data partners

Project: Canadian Watershed Consortium

Timeline: The Canadian Watershed Consortium will run predominantly from 2011-2015.The Saint John River Harbour Pilot project emerged out of studies from 2001-2008 completed on the fresh water portions of the Saint John River.

Team: Kelly Munkittrick, University of New Brunswick; Tim Arciszewski, University of New Brunswick; Susan Farquharson, Canadian Rivers Institute

Partners: Canadian Water Network; seed money for the Saint John River Project from 2001-2008; Saint John Harbour Environmental Monitoring Partnership (SJH-EMP); ACAP Saint John; Aquila Tours; Bay Ferries Ltd.; Canadian Coast Guard; CanaportLNG (Repsol); Emera, Brunswick Pipeline; Emera, BaysidePower; Enterprise Saint John; Environment Canada (Environmental Stewardship Branch); Fisheries and Oceans Canada; Fundy North Fishermen Association; Irving Oil; JD Irving; NB Environment; Port Authority; Potash Corp N. B. Division; Saint John Board of Trade; City of Saint John (Water); Saint John Waterfront Development

Developed as a result of the success of a seven-year study on the assimilative capacity of the Saint John River in New Brunswick, the Canadian Watershed Consortium will be a network coordinated at the national level with regional nodes across the country. Kelly Munkittrick is running the inaugural regional node of the Canadian Watershed Consortium in Saint John Harbour.

Munkittrick says, “What we’re trying to do in the consortium project is harmonize monitoring and tie it together with enough consistency that we can use the data to look at cumulative effects.”

“The mouth of the Saint John River had been put forward as an East Coast energy hub, with a lot of potential for future development,” says Munkittrick, explaining why the Atlantic node was chosen. Currently, there are proposals for the expansion of an oil refinery, the development of a liquid natural gas plant and talks of expanding nuclear power in the area. In light of these potential developments, Munkittrick’s task for the development of a Regional Monitoring Framework for Saint John Harbour is to tie together the existing monitoring programs found in the harbour.

“We’ve identified about 19 different types of monitoring programs that exist just in Saint John Harbour,” says Munkittrick. His team’s objective is to ensure these monitoring programs are completed with consistent methodologies and rationales so that the programs can start to talk to one another.

With consistent data collection in monitoring, or a community of practice, collected data can be utilized more seamlessly and regional context will not be lost in project specific assessments.

“Traditionally, the focus of ecosystem health assessment has been on trying to define what’s normal and trying to define when something is outside of normal,” explains Munkittrick. “It doesn’t help people decide whether they should build this new facility or not.”

“To make predictions, what we need is data collected over time in a consistent condition. What we’re trying to do in the consortia is develop the methodology for different areas that would provide consistency in that monitoring so we’ll be able to use it to make predictions.”

From an increasingly consistent practice, Munkittrick believes stronger regional partnerships will arise, as well as increased clarity on what data is required and why that research is necessary.

“We are all working in silos: agriculture in agriculture, forestry in forestry, mining in mining and no water ministry anywhere,” says Hans Schreier, one of the team members. “The big challenge is getting all the agencies to collaborate.”

“In science, another challenge is to take what we’ve done and turn it into tools that will help people make decisions about future development,” says Munkittrick. “The way that academics collect and analyze information isn’t easily transferred into the way decision makers look for and use information.”

With the national consortium, Munkittrick believes scientific inquiry will become more of an end-user driven process. “We’re letting the stakeholders define what’s important by asking, ‘what decisions do you need to make and what science gap is preventing you from making that decision?’ What we’re hoping is that we can provide models for how groups in a watershed can work together to develop the data necessary to make decisions. We’re trying to change the expectations around the role science can play in contributing to those decisions.”

Researchers at one the agricultural projects. Credit: University of Waterloo

Thought for food

Project: Toward economic and environmental sustainability in agriculture through the implementation of combined beneficial management practices and remedial approaches designed to minimize impacts to water quality

Timeline: 2000 – 2012

Team: David Rudolph, UW; Brewster Conant, UW; Rob de Loë, UW; James Hendry, University of Saskatchewan; Theodore Horbulyk, University of Calgary; Gary Parkin, University of Guelph; Pierre Payment, INRS; William Robertson, UW; Cathy Ryan, University of Calgary; Neil Thomson, University of Waterloo; Allan Woodbury, University of Manitoba; and  Leonard Wassenaar, National Hydrology Research Institute, Environment Canada, Saskatoon

Partners: Canadian Water Network; AGCare; Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada; Alberta Research Council; British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture and Lands; British Columbia Ministry of Environment; British Columbia Raspberry Industry Development; City of Abbotsford; County of Oxford; Drought Research Initiative; Environment Canada; Ontario Ministry of Agriculture; Ontario Ministry of the Environment; Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement; Solinst Canada Ltd., Waterloo Hydrogeologic Inc.

Agriculture is the largest land-use activity in Canada and a major contributor to the economy, but agricultural activities also have the potential to affect drinking water quality by elevating the concentration of nutrients and pathogens. For over ten years, David Rudolph and his team have studied and developed best management practices (BMPs) designed to lower the risk to water quality from land-use practices such as farming. Research is conducted on farm sites in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

Rudolph’s project is one of CWN’s longest lasting. “This project has survived because the market has pushed it,” he says, noting that the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, as well as the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association, and the Ontario Farm Association had lamented the idea that tables and books provided information without substantial evidence that these suggested BMPs actually worked.

“They didn’t know whether the BMPs would economically shut down agriculture if they were forced, or whether BMPs should be a volunteer or legislative approach—but they did know that they’d be requested to improve their operations environmentally at some point,” says Rudolph. “They asked for this research because they’re very proactive (and have been for decades). They’re ahead of the curve.”

Rudolph places quality scientific data on par with evaluating the costs of making these changes in agricultural practices at farms and the social issues of convincing farmers to adopt the practices. When it came time to share the results, reports and datasets wouldn’t do. The interdisciplinary team, comprised of economists, physical hydrogeologists, agronomists and high-level quantitative modellers, decided that results must be delivered to the people who could actually use them.

In January alone, Rudolph will attend the Southwest Agricultural Conference, a drainage and tile installers’ meeting, the Conference on Sustainable Agriculture, and University of Guelph’s FarmSmart Conference. “The results from this research only make sense if we can deliver them at these [non-technical] meetings,” he explains. “If the farmers buy into it, they’ll do the right thing. That’s the goal.”

Taking the lead out

Project: Developing a comprehensive strategy to reduce lead at the tap in Canada

Timeline: 2008 – 2012

Team: Michèle Prévost, École Polytechnique de Montréal; Robert Andrews, University of Toronto; Graham Gagnon, Dalhousie University; Dr. Patrick Levallois, Institut national de santé publique du Québec; Monique D’Amour, Health Canada; France Lemieux, Health Canada; Dr. Pat Rasmussen, Health Canada; Dr. Mohammed Dore, Brock University

Partners: Health Canada, Ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux, Municipality of Halton, Municipality of Halifax, Municipality of Montréal, Municipality of Laval, Municipality of Ottawa, Municipality of Welland, Municipality of Victoria, Municipality of Toronto (no funding up front, but are involved/invited as steering committee), Quebec Ministry of the Environment (MOE), Quebec Ministry of Health

According to current health guidelines, lead in the blood, while undesirable, does not lead to a public health intervention below 10 milligrams per deciliter. However, studies within the last decade suggest blood lead levels lower than 10 milligrams per deciliter is detrimental in young children and may have harmful health effects on the intellectual and behavioral development of infants and young children.

Michèle Prévost and her team are interested in tap water’s role in lead exposure. “We don’t know what blood lead levels in our young children are,” says Prévost. “The last data we have dates back 10 years. We expect that blood lead levels have gone down because we’ve taken out important environmental sources such as leaded gasoline, but we don’t know how much is left and how much is caused by water. We need to quantify the contribution of water to guide utilities in their corrective actions.”

To effectively address the issue of reducing lead at the tap, the team is assessing the significance of lead exposure to environmental sources of lead in the home. The first phase of the study compares the blood lead levels (BLL) of a select population of young children ages one through five, residing in homes served by a lead service line to those of children in the same age range, residing in homes without lead service lines in the City of Montreal. Though results are still being analyzed, Prévost confirms that the average lead levels found in the blood of those children living in homes with lead service lines were well below the 10 milligrams per deciliter current guideline. On the other hand, the study does confirm water and dust are significant remaining contributors to the lower levels.

The second objective for Prévost and her team is to identify the most effective and efficient sampling protocol to detect the various sources of lead contamination. In a distribution system, lead  at the tap originates mainly from lead containing plumbing internal plumbing fixtures and solders and lead piping. Lead leaches from these sources when the water stagnates in the plumbing, even for a short period of less than 30 minutes.

The ideal protocol, according to Prévost, would provide typical levels to which the consumer is exposed. It should account for the minimum stagnation time required for lead to reach a typical concentration in water from all sources and be efficient enough for utilities to conduct effectively. Currently, after extensive comparison of various protocols in several Canadian cities, the protocol to fit this description in her opinion is the random daytime sampling protocol, by which water can be sampled at the tap at minimal cost.

Finally, Prévost and her colleagues examined treatment options for reducing lead at the tap, where the challenge of galvanic corrosion was encountered.  Utilities across Canada have launched expensive programs to remove all lead pipes. The ownership of the service piping connecting the residence to the main city pipe is shared between the owner and the municipality.  Arising from the partial replacement of service pipes, galvanic corrosion can be acute when the city replaces their section by copper piping, but the lead pipe on the owners side remains in place. More recently, galvanic corrosion of brass components such as valves and faucets has also been shown to cause elevated levels of lead at the tap.

“Everyone hopes for the best,” says Prévost. “Managers hope that if you remove half the lead service pipes, half the lead will go away in the tap. In some instances, that’s what happens, but in others, an increase up to a thousand fold can occur at short term and long term release is not known.”

Thus, for the last two years and the next 18 months, Prévost and her team are establishing the conditions leading to galvanic corrosion over time and the efficacy of treatment to remediate its effects.

“The greatest challenge will be to decide how far we need to go in terms of removing all lead in our water systems,” says Prévost. “Ideally, we would like to remove all of it, but at the end of the day, we need to, as a society, figure out how far we need to go and to what cost. Removing all lead services line in Montreal for example, will cost about $350 million. We need to consider the health benefits of this reduction and the value of alternative solutions such as treatment.’’ WC

Kerry Freek is the editor of Water Canada.
Tina Chu is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

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