North American forest fires have achieved unprecedented scale in 2018. New research funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s (NSERC) Strategic Partnership Grant for Networks will aim to provide water security solutions amidst catastrophic fires and other climatic disasters.

As reported last week, a research team led by University of Waterloo Engineering professor and Water Institute member Monica Emelko, will receive $5.5 million in funding to provide new knowledge on the impacts of different forest management strategies on drinking water source quality and treatability.

“High-quality water supplies, such as those in many parts of North America, are at greatest risk from the threats of natural disturbances such as wildfires and floods,” said Emelko. “These disturbances, exacerbated by climate change, are increasing in severity and are likely to result in a long-lasting legacy of water quality deterioration in several parts of Canada.”

The network is co-led by professor Uldis Silins, a forest hydrologist from the University of Alberta, with whom Emelko co-leads the Southern Rockies Watershed Project. They were the first group cited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in identifying climate change-associated threats to global drinking water security through water quality.

In Ontario alone, there have been over 120 fires this summer, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. Disturbances like forest fires are having an increasingly negative effect on source water and are posing a challenge to the design and operational response capacities of water quality treatment plants. In some cases, such disturbances have caused service disruptions.

“Canada is neither unique nor exempt from climate change threats. Increasing swings in weather—rainy periods followed by long, dry hot periods—enhance the growth of vegetation that fuels wildfires in many regions,” said Emelko. “Fire danger increases with the right combination of temperature, humidity, winds, and rainfall. More days of higher fire danger means more risk of wildfires—it’s not ‘if,’ but ‘when’. And our water supplies are often especially vulnerable.”

Monica Emelko conducts field research on water quality after a wildfire. Image Credit: University of Waterloo.

While forest management impacts on water have been well studied, little if any of that work has focused specifically on impacts to drinking water treatability. Emelko’s network, forWater, brings together researchers, government agencies, and industry professionals from different disciplines across Canada who are focused on understanding and developing response strategies to climate change threats.

The 2016 wildfire that devastated the community of Fort McMurray, Alberta, also created a significant challenge for experts in restoring functionality to the town’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, with water quality being a major concern. Emelko was involved in the study of the Fort McMurray wildfire’s impacts on water quality in the region.

Speaking with the Toronto Star, Emelko noted that a long-term effect of forest fires is that they can concentrates nutrients, which are then found downstream of fire locations for years thereafter. “They can sit there in riverbeds and reservoirs and can create a legacy of effects,” she said.

“The water used by the majority of Canadians, Americans, and many others globally originates in forests. Traditional approaches for protecting these critical water supplies cannot protect them from the potentially devastating effects of mother nature,” said Emelko. “The forWater Network is leveraging diverse expertise in water quality and treatment, hydrology, forest management, and resource economics to provide the critical new knowledge and technologies needed to build resilient, adaptive communities. This starts by ensuring water security in Canada and globally.”


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