John Pomeroy, Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change (photo by David Stobbe)

A thirst for solutions

Federal funding gives major boost to U of S-led water research.

Bolstered by a major federal research grant, the University or Saskatchewan (U of S) and its more than 140 partners around the world are setting out to solve a major global research problem: the future of water.

On Sept. 6, the Government of Canada announced that U of S researchers were successful in their bid for funding through the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) to the tune of $77.8 million—the largest federal research grant ever awarded to the university.

Further contributions from international partners, industry, the U of S, and its three partner universities—the University of Waterloo, McMaster University and Wilfrid Laurier University—bring the project budget to $143.7 million, making it the largest university-led water research program in the world.

“This unprecedented investment will take our water research to new levels of national and global leadership, while providing exciting opportunities for our faculty and students in a wide range of disciplines,” said Karen Chad, vice-president research. “It is a tremendous testament to the outstanding talent in our research community that we have won two CFREFs—the only university in the country to achieve this.”

The U of S-led water research network will bring together more than 380 Canadian university researchers at 18 universities, 19 federal and provincial agencies, seven Indigenous communities and governments, 39 industrial collaborators, 15 non-governmental agencies, and 45 international research institutes. It will engage international institutions such as UNESCO, the World Climate Research Program and Future Earth, to develop the tools, computer simulations and governance models to mitigate water disasters, protect the environment and take advantage of economic opportunities.

“No institution nationally or internationally has assembled such a large-scale and multi-disciplinary water research initiative of this kind,” said Howard Wheater, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Water Security and director of the U of S Global Institute for Water Security (GIWS), who will lead the CFREF-funded “Global Water Futures” program.

John Pomeroy, Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change and associate director of the new program, noted the U of S has long been a leader in water research.

The science of hydrology in Canada was largely developed at the U of S in the 1960s, with further strides made following the establishment of Environment Canada’s National Hydrology Research Centre on campus in the 1980s, and the subsequent development of the U of S Toxicology Centre, Centre for Hydrology and GIWS, he said.

“Canada is seen as the water country, with great fresh water resources,” said Pomeroy. “There is a great economic, environmental and cultural dependence on water. We have high standards—we want and expect water to be plentiful, safe and clean.”

But meeting those expectations is becoming more difficult every year due to changing climate and an expanding economy ever-more reliant on water. Half the world’s population and all of Canada depend on water from cold regions.

“Think areas that are covered by snow and ice for part or all of the year,” explained Pomeroy. “These areas are under more stress than ever before.”

Canada is witnessing unprecedented flood, drought and poor water quality incidents. “From Confederation (1867) to 2000, flood damages cost about $1 billion in total, and since 2000, they are costing about $1 billion annually,” he said.

“Drought, forest fires and floods in Western Canada are increasingly frequent and severe,” he said, pointing to exceptionally severe forest fires, low river flows and high temperatures in the Prairie provinces that made rivers “so warm and low in 2015 that trout were dying.”

But Canadian water challenges go beyond floods, fires and droughts.

“Problems of excessive nutrients and algae growth in Lake Erie have returned and have spread to Lake Winnipeg and other large water bodies that supply our drinking water, industry and fisheries,” Pomeroy said. “The oil spill on the North Saskatchewan River this summer, poor water reservoir quality in Ontario due to exceptional heat, and endemic boil water advisories and toxicity problems in many First Nations drinking waters show how vulnerable our water supplies are.

“We are measuring record melting of glaciers this year,” he said. “Glaciers in the Rockies are losing two metres of ice per month compared to last year when it was five metres all summer, or 40 years ago when many glaciers were not in rapid retreat.”

He said the research will be critical for Canada and in global cold regions such as the Himalayas, Andes and Alps.

“We are developing the science, technology and policy tools for measuring, forecasting, managing and protecting water in cold regions,” he said.

“Already we are developing new scientific instruments to measure snow, ice and water and deploying these on watershed observatories. And we are showing how water equity can be implemented between rich upstream jurisdictions and less powerful downstream water users, and how communities can be empowered by water knowledge—these concepts and devices can be exported to the world.”

The research will help nations, communities and industries make informed decisions in a changing climate to better safeguard the environment.

“New simulation models and policy tools will enable communities to predict the timing, extent and severity of extreme events and suggest how they can reduce their risks,” he said. 

“When this project is done in seven years, we will have designed and helped to implement a national water system to measure and forecast floods, droughts, water quality and water-related health problems and we will have shown how water governance can be improved and informed by a new comprehensive understanding of water,” said Pomeroy.

“This program will help to vastly improve Canada’s source water protection and will better predict where water will be, how much will be there and how safe it is,” he said, adding the program will build on relationships with Aboriginal communities in Canada’s North and along the major rivers and lakes to help solve the exceptional water challenges in those areas.

“Canada has long been known as the water country, and now we will be known as the water solutions country. That’s exactly what we want to be.”

For more information, visit usask.ca/gwf

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