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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.

New water paradigms

By Amy Spark and Josée Méthot

This post is part two of a six-part interview series conducted and written by Project Blue Thumb. 

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 reimagining water and the paradigms that guide us. 

“Culture is like gravity: you do not experience it until you jump six feet into the air” – Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner

Conversations often veer off into unexpected and rewarding places. The latest round of Project Blue Thumb interviews found our team grappling with the fundamental patterns of thought that guide our water systems and management. These paradigms operate imperceptibly in the background of our day-to-day lives, guiding our thinking about how something should be done, made, or even thought about.

Here we present a few highlights from these interviews, with each person hinting or overtly calling for a type of paradigm shift. Dr. Nick Ashbolt is a municipal water researcher and professor at the University of Alberta School of Public Health. He is also working on an innovative Resource Recovery Centre northwest of Edmonton focusing on the next generation of community water services.

Shannon Frank is the Executive Director of the Oldman Watershed Council, currently working on a campaign to effectively engage recreationists in restoration projects in southern Alberta headwaters.

Water and 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?

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. 

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