The Bog: The Alberta WaterPortal Blog

The Bog is where thoughts, opinions, discussion pieces, and action converge. Influential thinkers from the water community are invited to share their insights on current or controversial water topics. Please note that the views expressed herein are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Alberta WaterPortal.

Water & headwaters as cultural identity

By Amy Spark

Welcome to our inaugural post for Conversations around the Water Table, a six-part interview series led by the Project Blue Thumb Lab.

Project Blue Thumb is a multi-stakeholder social lab co-convened by the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance and Alberta Ecotrust Foundation that takes a whole system approach to protecting water quality in the Red Deer River watershed. Building on the work of our current members, the PBT organizing team reached out to 13 multi-sector practitioners to hear their thoughts about the future of water in Alberta and potential directions. This post provides a snapshot from a few of our interviews relating to water and cultural identity.

 

Our identity is often defined by a photograph or official document. We are known by our drivers’ licenses, passports, birthdays, eye colour, or height. We’re identified by our fingerprints, our retinas, and our social media profile. We’re acknowledged as non-robots by Captcha tests on websites.  But how does water relate to our identity? Specifically, our cultural identity? What does it mean to be ‘Albertan’, while still recognizing our inherent diversity? 

By Laura Corbeil, Steve Herman and Alexander J.B. Zehnder

All over the world, people are asking questions about climate change. When will it affect us, how will it change our everyday activities, and what can we do about it? How do we prepare for the economic, social and environmental (triple bottom line) risks and opportunities?

These questions have complex responses that vary between communities and continents, but with the conversation started people are already creating answers for Alberta.

The reality is climate change is already underway; in Alberta, we have witnessed increasingly warmer temperatures, a trend that is predicted to continue and even intensify. It is expected climate change will produce more heat waves, floods and droughts as well as earlier snowmelt and the disappearance of glaciers.

ResilienceBlog HydrologicalCycle

Figure 1: The hydrologic cycle. Temperature driven transpiration, evaporation and melting will increase with higher ambient temperatures, influencing the entire cycle. Source: Environment and Climate Change Canada

It is no coincidence all of these impacts are connected to water, as climate change has pronounced effects on global, regional, and local water systems. These systems directly influence our way of life because they control water flow, availability, and quality.

Water is critical to our lives. We drink it, use it to grow our food, play in it and so much more. We are also impacted by water’s natural cycle (Figure 1) for instance the timing of precipitation and impacts on crops. Higher temperatures are predicted to impact the hydrologic cycle in many other ways, including:

  • Water quality,
  • Climate variability,
  • Extreme weather condition frequency and/or severity, and
  • Earlier snowpack melt.

All these impacts increase risks relating to water quality, quantity, and reliability; a direct result of the interconnectedness of the hydrological cycle. As we become more familiar with the possible impacts of changes to the hydrologic cycle, the question becomes: are we ready for them as best we can be?

Increasing urban resiliency

Resiliency is one of today’s hottest buzzwords in the climate change discussion, and for good reason. In the context of climate change, being resilient means being ready for the negative impacts of a changing climate; it means answering, “Are we ready as best we can be?” with a firm, “Yes!”

Increasingly, cities and communities are working to develop urban resiliency, which means the natural and built infrastructure and systems where we live can survive or endure disastrous events (like flood), as well as adjust to more gradual changes over time (like shorter winter seasons).

Due to unique local characteristics that can increase or decrease a community’s vulnerability to risks, challenges from extreme events and gradual climatic changes will be different everywhere.

Although many agree it is important for communities to build resiliency, the costs associated with building urban resiliency are often a barrier to action. However, long term costs of inaction are expected to be much higher.

One way to consider the possible costs of future climate change related events is to reflect on events which have already occurred and are expected to become more frequent and/or severe.

 ResilienceBlog Riverfront Ave Calgary Flood 2013

Figure 2: Flooding is an example of climate change related risks, which could become more common throughout Alberta. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons 

For example, the 2013 flooding in Alberta was estimated to cost the province $5-7 billion, while our most recent drought cost the Canadian economy $5.8 billion. These figures represent the potential cost of inaction, price tags we could expect to see again and again if we change nothing.

The United Nations estimates the global cost of building resiliency to be $65-226 billion; the costs to fix destruction from climate related disasters can reach at least fifty to a hundred times higher sums let alone the loss of human lives.

Building urban resiliency could also make money

Building resiliency is expected to reduce the cost of damage by orders of magnitude and, although up-front costs may seem high, these actions will save money in the future. This alone should be enough encouragement for taking action. But what if building urban resiliency could be a money generator rather than only reducing potential costs? 

Resiliency challenges us to create solutions for a world we have not seen yet, benefiting communities beyond reducing the cost and damage of extreme events. Answering the question, “How do we plan and build inherently resilient places to live?” will be, and already is, a driving force for innovation.

Because climate change is a global problem it provides global economic opportunities—ideas that reduce risk in our communities can also be turned into a successful business model at home and abroad.

Alberta examples of urban resiliency planning

Here are a few, brief case studies highlighting what local participation, government leadership, and human innovation can accomplish.

In recognition of environmental, economic and social costs of inaction, Albertan municipalities are taking a lead on urban resiliency planning. For example, Calgary, Canmore[1], Edmonton, Red Deer, and some First Nation groups are in the process of developing climate change adaptation plans.

In addition to municipality planning, there are ongoing research projects with implications for regional urban resilience.

For example, Canadian government funding enables research initiatives such as Global Water Futures: Solutions to Water Threats in an Era of Global Change (GWF) [2]. This research focuses on the impacts of climate change on water, snow, and ice in Canada’s mountainous regions, which has implications for the water-related resilience of urban areas throughout Alberta.

Additionally, Alberta Innovates provides funding through its Water Innovation Program [3] for projects furthering the goals of Alberta’s Water for Life Strategy. The projects range in scope and size, though they can all be classified according to the following focus areas:

  1. Future water supply and watershed management
  2. Healthy aquatic ecosystems
  3. Water use conservation, efficiency, and productivity, and
  4. Water quality protection.

These projects aim to improve the safety and security of drinking water, aquatic ecosystem health, and reliability of water supply for industrial uses throughout Alberta, even as the climate changes.

Some research and assessments are undertaken at a desktop level, such as the Public Infrastructure Environmental Vulnerability Committee (PIEVC) engineering assessments, which analyze the vulnerability of infrastructure to climate change across Canada.

In 2011, a case study of Calgary’s water supply infrastructure was performed using the PIEVC Protocol [4]. Components of Calgary’s water supply infrastructure included dams and reservoirs, raw water intakes, pumping stations, storage facilities, treatment plants, power sources and buildings. The watershed as a whole was also considered a component of water supply infrastructure, since it encompasses precipitation quantity and type (rain versus snow), as well as stream flow timing and quantity, which are at risk of alteration under a changing climate. Access the full report here.

Alberta is ripe for the opportunity

Climate change is having a profound effect on our hydrologic system, and is expected to increase water related risks such as flooding, drought, and long term shifts like loss of glaciers and earlier snowmelt. Costs associated with building urban resiliency are often a barrier to action; however we now know the cost of inaction will be far greater.

Adaptation to climate change risk through urban resilience is imperative for maintaining Alberta's health and prosperity. Building resilience through adaptation can reduce future damage costs from extreme weather events like floods and droughts by orders of magnitude. At the same time, focused planning and support on preparedness initiatives creates opportunities for economic and technology developments for Alberta on a local, regional, and global scale.

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Authors

Laura Corbeil is an environmental scientist and avid urban cyclist living, working, and playing in Calgary, Alberta. She currently works with Alberta WaterSMART on a variety of projects promoting collaborative water management.

Steve Herman is a chemical engineer with Alberta WaterSMART, and is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in Chemical and Petroleum Engineering with a specialization in Energy and Environmental Engineering at the University of Calgary. His passion and interest in conserving our water resources stems from fond memories of floating down Calgary’s rivers and longs days at the beach at his grandparents’ cabin.

Alexander J.B. Zehnder is an advisor to Alberta Innovates for water and environmental issues. He is the founder and director of Triple Z Ltd, Visiting Professor at NTU, Singapore and Professor emeritus of ETH Zurich. His major knowledge areas comprise qualitative and quantitative aspects of water, water policy, relation between food and water security, virtual water trade, water infrastructures; scientific and economic fundamentals for sustainable development; developing capital market instruments; managing small and medium enterprises and large public institutions and universities.

Sources

[1] “Climate change adaptation background report and resilience plan” Town of Canmore, September 2016

By Brie Nelson

This World Water Day, let’s admit the term ‘wastewater’ is a bit of a misnomer for at least two reasons: first, wastewater can contain real gold and second, it plays a valuable role in our lives.

When it comes to municipal wastewater, in addition to the natural amounts of metals found in water, metals come from a variety of sources including clothing with odor-deterrent metal microfibers, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Industrial processes also use water for operations including manufacturing, extraction and cooling, which, among other activities, can result in the transportation of metal particles in wastewater.

It is fascinating to note that a wastewater treatment plant in Nagano Japan has adapted processing to extract gold from waste sludge. The plant recovers over 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of gold from 1 metric ton of ash produced by incinerating dried sludge. The region this treatment plant serves has a particularly high mineral content in the water and hosts a large number of metal manufacturing facilities and mines, including a gold mine, which results in the particularly rich wastewater. 

 Water reflects gold at sunset

“IMGP6516.JPG” by Christina Xu is licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0

Even in less metal-prevalent areas of the world, municipal wastewater contains high amounts of precious metals. In 2015 Scientists at Arizona State University published a study measuring the amounts of heavy metals found in wastewater solids from across the US and calculating how much they would be worth [1]. The study identified the 13 most lucrative elements, not all metals, which they calculated would offer a combined value of $280 per ton of sludge. This may not sound like much, but for a city of one million people that’s $13 million every year, with the additional benefit of making biosolids a less toxic, more versatile resource. 

The value of wastewater should not only be measured in the number of ounces of silver or gold that can be extracted, but also in the wealth of its potential as a resource. 

In areas where freshwater is scarce, wastewater is a highly valuable resource, providing functions which freshwater typically provides. In many parts of the world human wastewater, even completely untreated, is highly valued for crop irrigation eliminating the need for more expensive fertilizers. 

Singapore has limited freshwater availability and is densely populated with the population increasing steadily. This has led to water scarcity challenges that are projected to intensify. In 2000 the first NEWater wastewater treatment plant was completed to supplement Singapore’s drinking water supply. Today Singapore’s water management system is considered one of the most sustainable in the world including five NEWater plants, two desalination plants, four water reclamation plants and eight potable water treatment plants. With increasing demand, NEWater is expected to meet 55% of Singapore’s water demand by 2060.

 Water fountain at treatment facility in Singapore

“NEWater Visitor Centre” a NEWater treatment facility in Singapore by AshStorm is licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0

Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia, has been a global leader in wastewater reuse for decades. The city faced serious water shortages in the first half of the 20th century and built a wastewater treatment and reclamation plant in 1968 that continues to produce potable water. Along with the investment in the actual facility, the city invested in public education and engagement for residents to accept recycled water for drinking. Today the residents have no qualms and the city is proud to be a global leader in wastewater recycling. 

Namibia is one of the driest inhabited areas on earth, but in outer space there’s no water at all—this means creating an artificial water cycle with wastewater the key to life.

 Astronauts on space walk with ocean in background

There’s no water in space, except what you take with you [NASA - Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1465324]  

While hurtling around the earth, the International Space Station recycles water to keep astronauts alive. All the wastewater from washing and showers is reclaimed, water is extracted from urine, and even water exhaled by the astronauts is captured from the air! 

After treatment all the reclaimed water becomes potable quality and is reused by the astronauts. Water reclamation technology for space is continually being developed with the end goal of life support systems that will allow humans to travel to deep space. 

Here on our small planet, wastewater is a guaranteed renewable resource. For many regions, including Alberta, we need to change our perspective on wastewater to recognize and appreciate the benefits wastewater brings. Let’s lose the ‘yuck’ factor! As long as there are people there will be wastewater and, today and into the future, we should treat it like gold.

 

Brie works as an environmental scientist for Alberta WaterSMART and is passionate about ways people can use water better.

 

[1] Westerhoff, P., Lee, S., Yang, Y., Gordon, G., Hristovski, K., Halden, R. and Herckes, P. (2015). Characterization, Recovery Opportunities, and Valuation of Metals in Municipal Sludges from U.S. Wastewater Treatment Plants Nationwide. Environmental Science & Technology, 49(16), pp.9479-9488.

 

By Denise Di Santo

Traditionally, stormwater has been regarded as a wastewater product – conveyed off land to receiving waters through grey infrastructure via pipes, pumps and ponds. The approach is not serving us well, nor is this sustainable for ecosystems that rely on healthy, integrative systems to exist. This is because in the context of the built urban system, we are creating evermore-impervious surfaces that serve to further degrade water quality and watershed function.

Stormwater management is evolving as a more holistic undertaking, where stormwater is being treated, literally, as a vital component of water resources and our natural resource base.

Low Impact Development (LID) is an innovative stormwater management approach that follows a basic principle modeled after nature: manage rainfall and snowmelt where it meets with land, allowing it to be intercepted, infiltrated, and treated before it is introduced to receiving waters. These processes also provide flow control, and work to balance water quantity as water cycles through the system. The idea is to mimic natural processes and maintain or restore hydrologic function through the use of retained landscape features, and integrating green infrastructure, which includes raingardens, green roofs, permeable pavement, and biofiltration facilities. These are regarded as LID best management practices and are sometimes referred to as green stormwater infrastructure (GSI).

Working in tandem with grey infrastructure, green infrastructure decentralizes and supplements the treatment train, resulting in improved stormwater quality and reduced runoff throughout the drainage area. These enhancements in the stormwater management system are key to creating resilience at the site, catchment and watershed scales.

Although considered innovative, LID is not a new concept. As an example, I encourage you to explore Ian McHarg’s book, Design with Nature, first published in 1969. To conceptualize human impositions on natural environments and the need to reverse our impacts, McHarg, who had a central role in the development of environmental planning, is quoted: “Let us green the earth, restore the earth, heal the earth....” 

In a sense, LID is part of the landscape architect paradigm integrating natural features and function with built form.

 2017Blog LIDNevada

Vegetated strips in parking area for interception, infiltration and treatment (note cuts for inflow). Image: University of Nevada Cooperative Extension    

Throughout North America, the shift back to nature-based solutions is becoming more commonplace. Although regulatory requirements associate the use of green infrastructure with water quality improvement and flow control, a long list of benefits are also realized.

These benefits are identified through life cycle benefit-cost analyses and include:

  • improved air quality and reduced ambient temperatures
  • landscape aesthetics and increased property values
  • reduced stream erosion in receiving waters
  • aquatic ecosystem health for fish and other species
  • mental well-being and physical health, and
  • providing critical terrestrial habitat.

In addition, natural and green infrastructure accrue value over time, whereas built grey infrastructure depreciates in value and requires costly lifecycle operations and maintenance and, ultimately, decommissioning.

Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, Vancouver and Toronto are among the leaders in establishing green infrastructure programs. In many cases, cost effectiveness and efficiency has been greater than anticipated. Programs and public-private partnerships exist to fund stormwater infrastructure retrofits, including integration of green infrastructure in the built environment, new and redeveloping. The positive return on investment has been well documented for more than a decade and it is time to take note. That said, implementation of stormwater best management practices continues to provide lessons for improvement.

 2017Blog SwaleonYale KPG
My favorite “Swale on Yale” project in Seattle aka “Capital Hill Water Quality Improvement Project” (pictured Fall 2014).
Image: KPG Interdisciplinary Design

In Alberta, and in some North American cities, innovation in stormwater management practices is largely being approached with caution by policymakers. The Alberta Low Impact Development Partnership (ALIDP), a non-profit organization, has been at the forefront of the needed engagement and training of multi-disciplinary stormwater practitioners.

A shift in thinking is required to ensure the adoption of green infrastructure and supportive policy; traditional engineer and land planning disciplines tend to look for predictable, quantifiable outcomes with cookie cutter approaches in the process of developing the land base. These certainties don’t come easy with designs that yield results not immediately assessed with numbers.

Green infrastructure technologies also need to be adapted to local conditions and soils. Local research has been limited but efforts are underway to identify the best suited technologies for Alberta. As one innovative stormwater practitioner in Seattle puts it: the approach is of: “right site, right team, right design.” The choice of LID best management practices must be suited to sites, using multidisciplinary teams, including water resource planners, landscape architects, urban designers, and engineers. To add to the challenge of thinking outside the box, water resources management requires a precautionary approach—stepping into the future of risk management, particularly in the context of climate adaptation, is no longer optional.

 2017Blog RainGarden
Rain garden - by Rogersoh (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)] via Wikimedia Commons

Stormwater management innovation cannot come soon enough for places like Alberta. Uncertainties and constraints of limited water supply, and associated risks with flood and drought, are now a universal driver for building adaptation capacity and watershed resilience. Consider life cycle return on investment and trade-offs of our actions.

Water reuse has become part of this equation, to ensure water quality is matched to use while at the same time, providing a form of source control at the site scale. We can no longer afford to contaminate and convey stormwater, a critical component of water supply, to ground and surface waters. Cities and counties would do well to designate and protect natural infrastructure such as wetlands that provide ecosystem services to benefit ecosystems, rather than adopting policies and practices that for the most part, remove these assets from the landscape.

It is time to also invest in stormwater best practices research, learn from other places, and monitor and adaptively manage green infrastructure, as has been done with any innovation ever adopted successfully.

Denise is a watershed planner with a passion for connecting water and people through collaboration and inclusive planning for nature-based solutions. With broad water resources management experience, Denise takes a systems approach to innovative stormwater management, ecosystem protection and recovery, and creating conditions for resilient communities.

Further reading

Links from Denise for further reading on green infrastructure include:

Washington State University’s LID Research Program

Impervious cover effects

Return on Investment - US EPA

Return on Investment - North Carolina State University

Return on Investment - ECO Northwest

Credit Valley Conservation Authority (Ontario) LID monitoring

Chicago’s intensive GI monitoring program

By Joshua Day Chief

We’ve all seen it—excessive nutrient loading making lakes and ponds look and smell horrible. But, did you know these bodies of water typically have low dissolved oxygen, excessive algae blooms, unpleasant odours, plant growth, and stressful conditions for fish and wildlife?

Lakes and ponds stressed by unnatural water cycling, nutrient spikes (e.g. nitrogen and phosphorus), and altered shoreline and riparian habitat have a reduced capacity to decompose organic matter, cycle nutrients or maintain the water quality required for a healthy aquatic ecosystem.

However, we have a natural friend to help fight the algae foe!

Biotechnology products using a super-concentrated source of bacteria, which are naturally occurring in healthy aquatic systems and functions, effectively cycle and sequester nutrients in aquatic ecosystems. Further, by boosting populations of naturally occurring bacteria, the cycling of nutrients and organic decomposition can return, which can be critical to buy time for operators and others to pursue remediation of the root causes of stress on the impacted aquatic system.

When water comes from a surface runoff supply, it also brings high chemical and nutrient content. This is the perfect environment for algae to grow.

With more attention on environmental water treatment options the effectiveness of bacteria presents a naturally occurring alternative that can also be cost efficient.

 AWT Blog Evergreen Calgary Before  AWT Blog Evergreen Calgary After

Evergreen, Calgary, June 2014 (before)

Evergreen, Calgary, August 2014 (after)

What many people may not know is that specific consortiums of bacteria are used around the world to help treat wastewater as well. They address challenges including:

  • Enhanced nitrification (see Figure 1)
  • Biological oxygen demand (BOD) improvement - by taking care of this you make sure natural levels of oxygen in rivers or ocean / discharge outlets are preserved
  • Odours (H2S)
  • Sludge reduction - through using the right bacteria you can reduce biosolids, which are the organic matter recycled from sewage.
 nitrogen cycle

Figure 1: the nitrogen cycle

Later in the treatment process, bacteria make enzymes, which digest sludge; however, enzymes are made primarily when the bacteria are starved. The bottom of a sewage lagoon is not an ideal environment for bacteria to make sludge-digesting enzymes.

In a lagoon where bacteria are not producing enzymes quickly enough, the sludge will build up. This is why bacteria that are safe, naturally occurring, and not genetically altered are ideal for sludge and grease digestion. It is also possible to produce huge quantities of nitrifying and sludge digesting bacteria.

Bacteria have a significant role to play in water treatment. In Raymond, Alberta, Advanced Water Technologies cultures super concentrated bacteria, which are used in a simple treatment plan and applied to optimize both anaerobic and aerobic processes to address effluent qualities.

It’s impressive how these little bugs can reduce capital expenditure by possibly avoiding plant expansion or upgrades, and contributes to the efficiency of wastewater treatment plants by up to 40%. Combined with their work on algae, you have a formidable ally in addressing some of our most prevalent water treatment challenges.

Click here to watch a new video stepping you through the Advanced Water Technologies process.

Joshua Day Chief is the President at Advanced Water Technologies (AWT), an Alberta-based, family operated, biotechnology company developing and producing bacterial formulations that enhance the recycling process of nutrients and waste for application in lakes/ponds, agriculture, aquaculture, wastewater treatment and environmental remediation.