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Researchers will learn more about river health through organisms

CAMBRIDGE - What can fish, mussels and other organisms tell us about the health of water in the Grand River system?

That is the question that a team of researchers hopes to answer in a three-year study financed by a $600,000 grant from the Canadian Water Network.

The research team is led by Mark Servos, the Canada research chairman in water quality protection at the University of Waterloo. The team includes nine other researchers at six universities and government agencies.

They will study the impact that pollutants have on organisms that live in the waters of the Grand River and its tributaries. Some species are more sensitive than others to the presence of pollutants so studying them provides an insight into the overall health of the river system.

That information is important to the Grand River Conservation Authority, municipalities, provincial ministries and others who manage water resources in the Grand River watershed. They will work with the research team to develop a framework that can be used in the future to evaluate the impact on water quality caused by changes in land use practices, sewage treatment plant upgrades and other activities.

The GRCA and those other agencies will also support the project by providing access to data and technical support and advice.

The researchers will study several selected species – often called “sentinel” or “indicator” species – and consider a number of things that could be affected by the presence of pollutants: the number of organisms, their ability to reproduce, sex ratio, genetics and other factors.

The pollutants come from three primary sources – runoff from farmland, urban storm water and the treated effluent from sewage treatment plants. The pollutants include chemicals such as phosphorous and nitrogen that are found in animal and human waste (such as manure and treated sewage) as well as chemical fertilizers. Excessive nutrients can result in lower water quality, making the river a poor habitat.

Sometimes called “biotic monitoring,” the process of examining living creatures as a way of assessing water quality is fairly common. However, it has not been done consistently or on a watershed-wide basis in the Grand River basin. The research team will build a framework to ensure that future biotic monitoring is done in a complementary manner to produce the best information.

Biotic monitoring is one of several ways to measure water quality. The GRCA and the province also team up to do regular chemical analysis of water samples from throughout the watershed.

Servos is a leader in environmental toxicology and chemistry and has been conducting research for many years on the impacts of contaminants in the Grand River as well as other watersheds.

Other members of the team are Sherry Schiff, William Taylor and Ken Oakes of the University of Waterloo; Deborah MacLatchy of Wilfrid Laurier University; Adam Yates of the University of Western Ontario; Glen Van Der Kraak of the University of Guelph; Joseph Culp of the University of New Brunswick; and Patricia Chambers and Mark McMaster of Environment Canada.

The grant to the Grand River team is one of four recently announced by the Canadian Water Network, which is based in Waterloo. It also awarded grants to research teams looking at the Muskoka River in Ontario, the Northumberland Strait in Prince Edward Island and the Tobacco Creek in Saskatchewan. The grants total $2.1 million.

Established in 2001, the Canadian Water Network was created by the Networks of Centres of Excellence program to connect Canadian and international water researchers with decision-makers engaged in priority water management issues.

The centres are a federal government program to bring together partners from academia, industry, government and not-for-profit organizations to carry out research in a variety of fields including natural resource management, diseases prevention and industrial information technology.

January 6, 2012


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