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.
From Latrine to Otohime: A blog worth reading on the toilet!
By Hana Mason
This Saturday November 19th is World Toilet Day. A day dedicated to education and waste management, initiated by the World Toilet Organization, World Toilet Day seeks a world in which everyone has access to clean, safe waste management and disposal systems .
Sometimes the forgotten sibling of water treatment, wastewater disposal and management has been an issue for humankind throughout history. So let’s take a trip back in time to see where we’ve come from and where we’re going with this critical piece of water management infrastructure!
In Ancient Egypt, in-home latrines filled with sand (much like a human litter-box) provided a private area for Egyptians to do their business. The Indus Valley civilization of c.2600-1900BC had an advanced network of sewers. The Romans used sewer systems to collect rainwater and sewage, and even had a sewer goddess, Cloacina .
The Roman sewer goddess Cloacina (no image copyright information available)
During the middle ages in Europe, hole-in-the-ground latrines made way for monasteries with complicated stone and wood lavatories over rivers and oceans, letting waste fall straight into the water. Furthermore, during the castle-building boom, chamber pots and latrines turned to garderobes - vertical shafts in castles which emptied into cesspools and moats. Garderobes were some of the first waste-disposal methods integrated into architecture in Europe.
Throughout this time, though particularly in the Middle Ages, poor waste disposal methods led to widespread illness such as the plague, typhus and cholera. Problems similar to this, mostly regarding waste contaminating drinking water, still affect a third of the world's population .
Stepped garderobe shafts at Langley Castle, by Viollet-le-Duc
The move towards modern-day toilets began in the 1500s. Sir John Harrington invented the flushing lavatory and cistern in 1596. Up until then, the use of chamber pots, cesspits and earth closets were popular. In fact, they continued to be popular until 1775, when Alexander Cumming received a patent for the flush toilet, and 1778, when Joseph Brahman created a better design.
"Thomas Crapper" is often cited as the inventor of the flush toilet, but that has be proven a myth.
It's easy to say, of course, that we are much better off in the way of toilets today, but we are missing out on one thing – many chamber pots and porcelain toilet bowls in the early days were lavishly decorated. The fuzzy toilet-seat covers of the 1970s and beyond don't really measure up to the artful works of the 1500-1700s .
That's not to say toilets and waste management haven't inspired art. Artist Wim Delvoye has created a series of pieces titled Cloaca. The complicated and artfully designed machines have one unique, seemingly useless purpose – create excrement. Replicating the human digestive system, the machines take in food and pump out waste. 100% real waste, created artificially. The meaning and reason behind these creations are not always clear, but could certainly be a talking point for your Toilet Day conversations! 
Modern toilets range from your every-day bowls, to dual-flush, energy efficient toilets, and advanced Japanese "smart toilets".
In Japan and other areas in Asia, squat toilets—essentially horizontal urinals—have been popular for most of history. Historically the same as European latrines but lacking seats, modern-day squat toilets have similar internal plumbing set-ups to western flush toilets. However, western-style toilets have gained some popularity, particularly in areas with heavy western influence.
High-tech "smart toilets", which are called Washlets by Japanese locals, include such features as heated seats, bidet functions, and blow dryers. Tourists may be intimidated, but locals love them so much, they even include them in their homes.
Smart toilet with seat-side and wall-mounted control panels (bestofremodeling.com)
One considerable innovation in Japanese toilet-tech is the Otohime, which plays flushing noises while the toilets are in use. This seemingly bizarre item became necessary when the popular habit of continually flushing to gain privacy began to waste too much water. In Japan, use of the Otohime and similar music-playing toilet devices has helped save an estimated 20L of water each use .
In modern-day Europe, you'll find coin-operated toilet booths in the street and public toilets requiring a fee to use.
Here in Alberta, self-cleaning public toilets rooms pepper our downtown landscapes, for instance you can find some along the river in downtown Calgary, near the Simmons building.
A pay-per-use public toilet in London, England
("2010-10-15-09-33-35" by "zmtomako" is licensed under CC by 2.0)
Some more modern innovations in waste management are on their way to helping create healthy, clean and safe waste disposal globally. Mobile Toilets are cheap, portable toilets, often biodegradable bags which can be sealed. Composting Toilets and outhouses create fertilizer from human waste, providing a key ingredient for agriculture. Used not just in the developing world composting toilets are feasible options for everyone. Bio-energy Toilets turn sewage into clean water, electrical power and fertilizer. Solar Toilets are solar powered and break down waste for re-use as energy .
To encourage water conservation Alberta has used toilet rebate programs. Up until August 2016, the City of Calgary offered a rebate program for switching to dual-flush toilets, and municipalities such as Airdrie and Athabasca continue to do so. It’s worth checking out if your local municipality offers rebates on dual-flush toilets .
Toilet designs past, present and future aside; World Toilet Day helps us appreciate the role of sanitation and wastewater management around the world. Not a bad thing considering, on average, we spend three years of our life on a toilet...
Hana was a summer student with the Alberta WaterPortal Society in 2016. In her spare time she enjoys reading, writing, and spending time with friends. She is currently in Victoria, B.C, studying Writing at the University of Victoria.
When wildfires threaten our drinking water
By François-Nicolas Robinne
In May 2016, the Horse River fire in Fort McMurray burned approximately 600,000 ha and reminded us, with its many acres of boreal forest, Alberta can be a fire-prone region (Figure 1). The boreal forest ecosystem, due to its vegetation characteristics, is conducive to fire. If one feels a bit nerdy on a snowy Canadian weekend and wants to spent some time looking at satellite images provided by NASA, you would rapidly see there is always a fire burning somewhere in the world.
What is important to bear in mind is that, for better or for worse, vegetation fires are an essential part of landscape function and development. However, fire also impacts some ecosystem services (the benefits human communities can get from nature) which often translates into a myriad of issues.
Figure 1: The Athasbasca River valley after the Horse River fire, near Fort McMurray (Credit: X. Cai, University of Alberta, Sept. 2016)
Known impacts to ecosystem services
Two ecosystem services provided by healthy forests are filtration of precipitation water and erosion control, both of which are important to human communities.
The way a wildfire usually impacts surface freshwater supplies follows a general course. The combustion of above-ground vegetation and litter produces ash and can release heavy metals and nutrients previously tied up in the vegetation and soil (Figure 2).
Figure 2: A creek after the Lost Creek fire, Alberta, 2003 (Credit U. Silins, University of Alberta, 2004)
Heat from combustion also alters soil structure decreasing soil stability and soil water-infiltration capacities. When rain falls the absence of vegetative cover allows water to wash over the ground surface as excess runoff. This runoff exerts a great erosive power on unprotected soils, carrying sediments, chemicals, debris, and ashes to the stream network (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Burned hillslope that has been eroded down to bedrock near Sula, Montana.
All that sediment was moved off the hillslope and into the stream (Credit: Istituto di Ricerca per la Protezione Idrogeologica, 2016)
An increase in run-off, coupled with release of debris and nutrients, can alter water quantity and quality.
The degree to which fire affects water and soil is also a function of fire severity, the timing and intensity of post-fire rainfalls, and topography. As such, a severe wildfire in a steep terrain followed by a rainstorm would be the worst scenario in terms of post-fire hydrologic hazards.
Emerging research in post-fire hydrological hazards
The science of post-fire hydrology has been around for decades, mostly led by researchers from USA, Australia, South-Africa, Portugal, and Canada. Hundreds of publications have focused on the complexity and diversity of responses of small-to-large watersheds to flames in different environments. In some cases, results show changes in pollutant loads can reach more than a thousand times the pre-fire values, sometimes for several years after the blaze.
Nevertheless, the number of studies specifically dealing with post-fire hydrologic hazards and downstream risks to communities remains fairly low. Attention to this specific topic has only been growing for a decade or so: the notion of watershed-wildfire risk was further explored in 2013. This was followed in 2016 by a general definition of the wildfire-water risk: the potential harmful effects of wildfire activity on water quality, quantity and seasonality; in proportions that can impair the freshwater supply to downstream human and natural communities.
It is usually assumed that the volume of water provided by tributaries and runoff is enough to dilute pollutants, limiting any harmful health or environmental effect. However, the actual vulnerability of the drinking-water supply after a wildfire will partly depend on the distance to the closest drinking-water treatment plant.
Figure 4: Wood accumulation following the wildfire at Sobral Magro, in the Pomares basin, Portugal, 2005 (Credit: L. Lourenço, Universidade de Coimbra, 2012)
A 2014 report lists potential water-related hazards a community might have to face after a wildfire, which may include the following hazards.
One concern is water turbidity, which refers to the load of solid particulates in the water, is a major concern for water-treatment plant filtering capacities. In addition, the amount of debris combined with unusually high water flow may damage water intakes and water-treatment infrastructures (Figure 4). The sediment load is also problematic as it gets deposited in human-made reservoirs in higher quantities than initially planned, which may reduce their life expectancy (Figure 5).
Another concern is higher-than-normal concentrations of dissolved nutrients such as organic carbon, phosphorus, or nitrogen. Increased concentrations of those compounds increase the use of disinfectants that keep drinking water safe. This may temporarily raise treatment costs and concentrations of disinfection by-products (such as trihalomethanes) until the organics have been flushed from the watershed.
Figure 5: Rampart Reservoir during the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado (Credit: John Wark, Reuters, 2012)
Several tools and methods exist to tackle post-fire hydrologic hazards; the best of which can be preventing wildfire from burning a watershed too often and/or too severely. When such a fire happens, the strategy usually consists of two main parts: identifying the most-likely upstream sources of post-fire pollutants using the capabilities offered by computer-assisted modeling and mapping, and intervening in burned areas with the deployment of post-fire treatments on the designated watershed hillslopes.
Different families of treatment exist including the application of a protective cover using mulch or helping vegetation recovery, the construction of erosion barriers (Figure 6), and the stabilization of river channels and roads.
Figure 6: A silt fence on a burned slope (Credit: New Mexico State Forestry, 2016)
The Alberta context
Generally, Alberta burns frequently and severely. In the period 2005-2014 almost 170,000 ha burned, on average, every year. In this context, learning to live with wildfires consequences is a reality and Alberta is leading the national effort to raise awareness about wildfire-induced risks to the water supply.
After the Lost Creek fire in 2003, many studies demonstrated changes in water chemistry potentially harmful for human health. In 2012, a four year project funded by the Canadian Water Network enabled a team of researchers and managers to achieve a provincial scale study of the wildfire risk to the water supply. Since the Horse River fire in 2016, several research teams are gathering efforts to understand and limit the risk to the Fort McMurray water supply, which comes exclusively from the Athabasca River (Figure 7). This work includes using state-of-the-art technologies, with the hope new knowledge will help prevent further disturbances to a community in a high wildfire risk zone.
Figure 7: The mouth of the Horse River where it empties into the Athabasca River on June 10 after the first big rainfall event near Fort McMurray (Credit: The Globe And Mail, 2016)
Although this post is focused on the surface drinking-water supply, post-fire hydrological hazards also affect other aspects of everyday life (e.g. recreation). Wildfire can affect vulnerable aquatic ecosystems by increasing turbidity, heavy metal and nutrient concentrations. Whenever water resources are threatened, the functioning of all living ecosystems can be disturbed.
In an era of global changes and climate extremes, humans are playing an ever-increasing role in wildfire occurrence and freshwater resource availability. Therefore, the nexus between wildfires, water, and societies — human and natural — deserves a better understanding and future wildfire risks to the water supply in densely populated water basins need to be identified and properly managed.
Francois is currently a Ph.D Candidate, Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Science, at the University of Alberta. He kindly offered to author this blog following the release of How wildfires impact a watershed.
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2. USDA. Wildland Fire in Ecosystems, Effects of Fire on Soil and Water. 4, (2005).
3. Shakesby, R. a. & Doerr, S. H. Wildfire as a hydrological and geomorphological agent. Earth-Science Rev. 74, 269–307 (2006).
4. Thompson, M. P. et al. Assessing Watershed-Wildfire Risks on National Forest System Lands in the Rocky Mountain Region of the United States. Water 5, 945–971 (2013).
5. Robinne, F. et al. A Global Index for Mapping the Exposure of Water Resources to Wildfire. Forests 7, 22 (2016).
6. Emelko, M. B. & Ho Sham, C. Wildfire Impacts on Water Supplies and the Potential for Mitigation : Workshop Report. (2014).
7. Lourenço, L., Nunes, A., Bento-Gonçalves, A. & Vieira, A. Soil Erosion After Wildfires in Portugal : What Happens When Heavy Rainfall Events Occur ? Res. Soil Eros. 1–24 (2012). doi:DOI: 10.5772/50447
8. Moody, J. a. & Martin, D. a. Wildfire impacts on reservoir sedimentation in the western United States. Proc. Ninth Int. Symp. River Sediment. 1095–1102 (2004).
9. New Mexico State Forestry. After Wildfires - a guide for New-Mexico communities. (2016). at <http://afterwildfirenm.org/post-fire-treatments>
10. Emelko, M. B., Silins, U., Bladon, K. D. & Stone, M. Implications of land disturbance on drinking water treatability in a changing climate: Demonstrating the need for ‘source water supply and protection’ strategies. Water Res. 45, 461–472 (2011).
11. Cecco, L. Fire and water. The Globe and Mail (2016). at <http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/alberta/wildfires-have-major-impact-on-waterquality/article30512613/>
12. Martin, D. A. At the Nexus of Fire, Water and Society. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B. Biol. Sci. this issue (2016).
13. Bladon, K. D., Emelko, M. B., Silins, U. & Stone, M. Wildfire and the Future of Water Supply. Environ. Sci. Technol. 48, 8936–8943 (2014).
Challenges and Solutions in Acquiring Water for Housing Development
By Lorraine Nicol, Ph.D
A facet of water management which greatly interests me as a researcher is the challenges involved in satisfying competing demands for water, especially given the province’s fixed licensed water allocation framework. To some extent, my research has become more and more finely focused on one singular question: how effectively are users navigating the water market in water basins that are closed to new licensed water allocation applications?
My most recent project focused on housing developers in the Calgary region. It was funded by the Alberta Real Estate Foundation. The research was prompted by an earlier, 2015, study of water management within Rocky View County. In that study (entitled ‘Challenges and Potential Adaptation Strategies of Rural Water Co-ops: An Alberta Case Study’) I found preliminary evidence that housing developers in Rocky View were very pessimistic about the future of their industry, given the challenges they face in acquiring licensed water allocations for their developments.
By Rishichhibber (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The more recent study explored water challenges in more depth by expanding the number of municipalities to include Rocky View County, M.D. Foothills, and the Town of Okotoks. The study involved interviews with 15 developers working in these municipalities.
The study considered four main lines of inquiry:
(a) developers’ views of water challenges;
(b) the nature and source of the problem;
(c) the consequence of water challenges; and
An additional dimension of the study involved a preliminary assessment of the potential impact a decline in housing construction could have on the real estate sector.
The study’s finding confirmed my earlier suspicion that challenges for developers are prevalent. In addition this study found that, for many developers: acquiring water is their main issue; housing development is now, or will be in the future, negatively affected; water has become politicized; and housing prices are absorbing the top dollar developers are paying for water licenses.
The study specifically found:
- 100% of the developers interviewed believe there are challenges in acquiring licensed water allocations for housing development in the three municipalities under study;
- 73% stated acquiring a licensed water allocation is the ‘primary issue’ for developers;
- 60% of interviewees believe water management in the region is political, to the detriment of the housing industry;
- Another 53% believe the source of the problem also relates to government processes;
- 87% of developers believe water challenges are having a negative effect on the industry, either now or in the future;
- Two-thirds of developers say the cost of acquiring water licenses increases the price of homes.
Photo: che at Czech Wikipedia Adjustment: Li-sung at Czech Wikipedia (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
The solution to water challenges in the region is easy to identify but difficult to implement. All developers believe a solution lies in working together as a region under an umbrella organization. However, in studying regionalism for my Ph.D dissertation (the Calgary Regional Partnership in particular), history and experience tell us that some regional models work better than others, depending on the dynamics in the region.
Developers believe a regional framework would not only help re-allocate water but also alleviate the high cost of water and wastewater treatment facilities if the cost of such facilities could be shared. However, developers are also aware of the confrontational environment amongst some municipalities in the Calgary region and are therefore also cognizant of how difficult a workable regional model is to craft.
Dr. Lorraine Nicol is a Research Associate in the Economics Department, University of Lethbridge. Her expertise is in water and city-regionalism, participatory processes in water management, Alberta water issues and policy, and water markets. To see a list of her publications click here.
Finding resonance: Alberta's youth and water literacy in the age of technology
By Hana Mason
I am part of the 'tech generation' - born and bred at the turning point of computer technology. I remember the changes—from playing reading games on my parent's huge Microsoft computer to getting my first iPod Nano, from flip phones to larger-than-life smartphones. There seems to be a belief that because my generation grew up with technology, we are tied eternally and unconditionally to our phones. If you ask any of us, we'll most likely deny such allegations, but I wonder what the real answer is. Have we abandoned our exploratory roots of our surrounding environment? Or have our relationships with our environment changed with the development of technology?
I will be the first to admit many of my day-to-day choices revolve around whether or not it’ll make a good Instagram! But I also believe that even if some part of me is drawn to a hike just for the photo of the view, some other, deeper part of me is drawn to it for the view itself—for the experience. You see, my peers and I still experience a strong connection to nature. From camping and visiting family cabins to summer camps and visits to community lakes, we're never so tied to the world of the internet that we don't have a call to the wild.
Image courtesy of myself (my favourite place to ride my bike!)
In considering my time on and off the internet, I realize—despite my avid belief that my generation's obsession isn't entirely encompassing—I haven't had many discussions with my peers about water-related, or even simply environment-related, issues.
The last time I learned anything new about water conservation was my last field trip to a wetland, which was probably six or seven years ago. So, I decided to ask my friends about water.
What are your connections to water? What do you know about water issues? What does water mean to you? Before I reached out to my friends, I asked myself these questions. I'm going to be completely honest – I know almost nothing about water issues. But I do have a connection to my environment. My personal water story has been mainly to do with summer camp. I learned to canoe at camp. I learned teamwork, determination, and an appreciation for natural rivers and lakes. Besides that, spending endless summer hours by the lake have kept me always looking from my screen back to nature, whether it is in search of the perfect profile picture or a way to satisfy my nostalgia.
As for my friends and peers' responses to my water questions, I received varied, but passionate, results.
Emily F. grew up on the east coast, but once she moved west, she found a love of kayaking and canoeing. Exploring the Alberta wilderness, whether it be paddling or hiking, has become a huge part of her life. "It’s a really nice break," she tells me, "I'm not really thinking about the things I'm supposed to be worrying about here."
Image courtesy of Emily F. (from one of her many adventures)
The stress of school, work and social life can be overwhelming, particularly in our constantly connected world. That being said, Emily finds the social media platforms she's a part of let her connect with other hiking and paddling enthusiasts. This makes it easier to find trails and rivers to visit. Despite this however, she finds herself uninformed about water and environmental issues and literacy. "I'm not oblivious, but I feel like there's information missing" she says, rating her water literacy a six out of ten.
Kate S. also grew up around water. She spent most of her early life in Toronto, and the vast difference between the concrete jungle and the spread-out landscape of Calgary, where her backyard is a community lake, has come to be very important to her.
"We've been so blessed, not everywhere is like this," she tells me. However, Kate has mixed feelings towards the affects of social media on her experience with the environment. She tells me she finds people to be too connected and that certain technologies allow people to never leave their houses. On the other hand, she finds the Instagram trends of fun hikes and great views create an environment where we are socially rewarded for going outside.
I ask her what she knows about water-related issues. In a similar response to Emily and myself, the answer is very little. It seems my generation knows the basics for water conservation – don't let the water run when you're brushing your teeth, take shorter showers – but we don't really comprehend the scope.
"Because I don't really see the first hand affects," Kate explains, "it doesn't really resonate." This seems to be a popular explanation for our relative apathy – we have such easy, thoughtless access to clean water here in Alberta that we can't even imagine what life would be like if it became unavailable. We view water scarcity as a far-away thing for developing countries, not for ourselves. Why would it resonate?
Much like my other two interviewees, Drew R. grew up loving water and hanging out in nature. He loves swimming and boasts, "I could swim before I could walk!" But after a traumatic experience last year and a growing love for social media, Drew spends considerably less time outdoors, and much less time swimming. Despite this, he explains that technology has allowed him to learn a lot more about bodies of water far away from where he lives. He has entertained the thought, "Since I don't live anywhere near an ocean it's not really the kind of thing I need to worry about", but he rates his water literacy a seven out of ten, and he wants to learn about pollution, water filtration, and how to "help and do my part to keep our water safe and clean."
Image courtesy of Drew R. ("my favourite" he calls it)
I set out to prove something with this blog—that my generation isn't entirely tied to our phones, and that we have a deep rooted connection to our environments. With so many different perspectives and views, the only thing I could really prove was my generation has opinions. Like other generations, everyone I talked to had something to say.
At the end of it all, I think I can sincerely say my generation still cares about our environment, and we're trying our best to use the advanced technology we've been given to our advantage. With the evolution of technology, our relationships with our environment, and the issues pertaining to it, will change too. The challenge is finding a way to make the pressing issues matter to us. We already care, now we must find that deeper resonance.
Hana is a summer student with the Alberta WaterPortal Society. In her spare time she enjoys reading, writing, and spending time with friends. She will be moving to Victoria, B.C. to study Writing at the University of Victoria in September 2016.
World Water Day – Sharing the Nexus
By: Lindsay Kline and Victoria Pleavin
Every year on March 22nd, citizens from all over the globe celebrate World Water Day to recognize the importance of this vital resource. Established in 1993 and led by the United Nations (UN), World Water Day continues to shed light on water issues and opportunities for taking action to advocate for sustainable water management.
In Alberta, we celebrate the pristine rivers whose headwaters begin in the Rocky Mountains and travel through the Province; sustaining people, communities, industry, and the environment. We also celebrate the lakes that provide citizens with a place to reflect and recreate. With these water resources, we are able to enjoy our natural surroundings while benefiting from a high standard of living.
On this World Water Day, however, we pause to consider the future health of local, national, and global water resources. As populations continue to grow, demands for energy, food, and community development also increase. The Nexus Concept is becoming an increasingly used phrase for describing the interconnectedness and interdependency of our global resources; including water, food and energy. On World Water Day, it makes sense to think about how the Nexus Concept specifically relates to water, as the convergence of different water demands result in the need for planned sharing of finite local -- and ultimately global -- water resources.
Within the borders of our own province of Alberta, we can see that competing water demands have already begun to converge and overlap. Since the closure of the South Saskatchewan River Basin to new water licenses in 2006, several communities have started to push the limits of their water allocations and some businesses (such as the CrossIron Mills shopping outlet to the north of Calgary) almost failed to get off the ground due to a lack of water. With increasing demands for water to support growing communities, industrial activities, agricultural production and recreation, it becomes clear that the demands will inevitably converge in basins throughout the Province, resulting in less water to go around.
To address this convergence – or nexus -- of demands, a different way of thinking about water management will be required. Specifically, trade-off decision making would enable water managers at all levels to address the entire system of water uses, rather than looking at the individual parts in isolation. To add to the complexity, Albertans are increasingly concerned with issues like extreme weather, flooding and drought – symptoms of a changing climate. A systems way of thinking, based on the Nexus Concept, would enhance collaboration throughout Alberta’s basins and help to address the complex nature of how to ensure a sustainable water supply for people, food, energy, and the environment.
World Water Day provides citizens with the opportunity to not only celebrate the water we have and the life it supports, but also to step back and consider the changing issues facing our water resources and how the Nexus Concept can be applied when seeking solutions for those issues. In Alberta, we are fortunate that we are still in a position where we can study, discuss, and plan for addressing competing water demands in the face of a changing climate. While the future is uncertain and the challenges seem daunting, there is considerable work and thoughtful effort being put into water, which leads us to believe our glass is still half full.
For more information about the Nexus Concept, click here. We thank the following project funders for their generous support of this work