For two decades, Dr. Beth Parker, a professor in the School of Engineering and director of the Morwick G360 Groundwater Research Institute (MG360), has collaborated with the City of Guelph and two environmental engineering firms — Matrix Solutions and WSP Global — to enhance the City’s groundwater monitoring network with state-of-the-science methods to manage risks to the City’s water supply, safeguarding the community’s access to clean uncontaminated water into the future.

The National Sciences and Engineering Research Council recently honoured this ongoing collaboration with a prestigious Synergy Award for Innovation, which celebrates impactful partnerships between post-secondary institutions and Canadian public, not-for-profit and industry organizations.

“It’s so gratifying to have our longstanding partnership recognized, to know that a project we’ve worked away at year after year is making a difference,” said Parker. “Implementing novel ideas from research into practice takes guts, energy and vision. The reward has been a new level of insight into tackling complex problems, the synergies that come from partnerships with distinct areas of expertise across community sectors and training the next generation of professionals.”

“As a groundwater community, the City of Guelph is thrilled to partner with the University to ensure we are using leading-edge best practices to keep our groundwater safe and available for Guelphites, now and in the future,” said Mayor Cam Guthrie.

The city as field laboratory

Guelph is the largest Canadian city to draw all its water supply from an underground reservoir known as a bedrock aquifer. Bedrock aquifers are some of the most complex systems to characterize and monitor, said Parker.

To understand this complex system, Parker and a team of research scientists, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students have carried out an ongoing series of projects, transforming Guelph into a real-world field laboratory. Before this partnership, the very few effective methods for studying contaminant behaviour in fractured bedrock were used sparingly, she said.

Through continual innovation, the team has developed industry-leading tools and methods to measure water flow rates and contaminant concentrations at sufficiently small scales with precision beyond what is used in conventional practice. This improved resolution increases the accuracy and reliability of the data the team collects, which leads to better informed decision-making for the City.

Modelling water supply

Their field data have been used to build a detailed numerical model of Guelph’s groundwater system that better represents how aquitards — thin, dense zones of material within or overlaying the bedrock — influence water flow and contaminant migration. It also helps determine the best places to put wells for the highest quality of water. The model is adapted regularly to respond to the most recent field data obtained by both the research team and the City.

Dr. Beth Parker

The result is an advanced 3D monitoring network across the City and neighbouring townships used to inform the flow system and its response to climate, pumping and contamination threats.

“Working with two consulting firms has been invaluable for pushing these new methods and style of data into practice, ensuring data is applied for real-world solutions in a timely manner,” Parker said. “My students and staff have worked hard to collect field data in an efficient manner that facilitates its use in the modelling process by our consulting colleagues.”

The model guides the City’s policy framework for urban planning and sustainable governance and the multi-level monitoring network that ensures their wells operate safely.

Guelph has also inspired monitoring practices for other groundwater-reliant communities to protect their groundwater. Nearby, Centre Wellington, Halton Hills and Erin, among others, are using MG360 methods and update the Guelph flow model with their own data.

“The Synergy Award is a tremendous and well-deserved recognition for Dr. Parker, the City of Guelph and their industry partners,” said Dr. Rene Van Acker, interim vice-president (research). “Their long-term commitment to understanding our local water sources has led to crucial innovations in groundwater protection, improving lives locally and around the globe now and for future generations.”

Parker will receive a $200,000 grant from NSERC to further the research. Each partner organization will receive a $50,000 voucher to help fund their future NSERC-funded research partnerships.

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