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Prof. Lee Jackson, University of Calgary; Scientific Director, Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets

Prof. Lee Jackson, University of Calgary; Scientific Director, Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets

By Lee Jackson

As water travels through and across a watershed, its quantity and quality changes dramatically based on human activities and the things – usually chemicals – that we add to it.

Understanding the increasing pressures on watersheds has been the work of the Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets (ACWA) and IBM Alberta Centre for Advanced Studies (CAS). The partnership, which just celebrated its 10 anniversary, brings together the latest data tools to tackle one of the biggest challenges in managing water – ensuring that people across the watershed have a fuller understanding of what is taking place.

Together, ACWA and Alberta CAS have developed the conceptual framework to integrate existing and future data (such as streaming data from sensors) to provide scholars and practitioners a way to view watersheds differently – a way that is spatially explicit and near real time.

This approach parallels coarse and fine focus on a microscope – we can ‘focus’ on fine detail in key locations or on processes that warrant attention to detail – yet step back for a broad view when we need to evaluate large scale patterns.

For example, ACWA’s initial research with the IBM Alberta CAS revealed that the distribution and number of precipitation gauging stations was insufficient to allow simple empirical prediction of river flow as a function of rain and snowpack. As a result, ACWA will broaden its collaborative networks by developing a simple water app that will plug into its Intelligent Operations for Water framework to crowd-source precipitation data to fill data gaps, and engage the public to improve water literacy and knowledge.

Ensuring the health of ecosystems, and by definition our own health, will depend on the evidence the IBM tools are helping manage, to guide the critical decisions we will continue to face to allocate our resources in meaningful ways.

By partnering with the IBM Alberta CAS on sensor networks, which provide data from remote sites in near immediately, we have the opportunity to monitor water activity and quality remotely. This is an outcome that has implications for the wiring of watersheds and systems to provide data to inform risk assessments throughout basins.

These advances also have deep implications for the energy industry, for example, where ACWA’s engineered technologies could be applied to test and treat wastewater at remote extraction or processing sites and for “smart sewers” that live-monitor effluent before it reaches the treatment plant, to track toxins at the source.

Of course the direct and future benefits of students interacting directly with IBM’s technology experts and municipal operators and planners provides a unique experience and an application literacy that allows them to contribute to big societal problems, like clean water.

As safe as our water is in Canada, many unknowns still exist regarding what controls the rates of processes in treatment plants. We need to learn more so we can optimize engineered and biological processes – this alone could save millions of dollars in delayed infrastructure upgrades and reduce downtime following ‘surprises’ that sometimes arrive unannounced at the treatment plant.

One person’s wastewater is another person’s drinking water. We need to know what’s going into it, the impact it’s having, and the best technologies to remove contaminants so everyone can have safe water.

Lee Jackson is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Calgary. A major focus of his research program is to understand the effects of pharmaceuticals and personal care products on natural ecosystems.

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