U of G researchers lead multimillion-dollar research project on sustainable drinking water

GUELPH – University of Guelph researchers will help to ensure safe, sustainable drinking water for Wellington County’s growing population through groundwater studies to be funded by almost $11 million from the federal government and local government and industry partners.

The university’s Alumni Affairs and its G360 Institute for Groundwater Research made the announcements last month.

The funding will enable university investigators to monitor local bedrock aquifer wells to learn more about groundwater and its interaction with surface water – information that will ultimately help municipalities manage resources more sustainably, said engineering professor Beth Parker.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) granting agency will provide $3.125 million for renewal of an NSERC Industrial Research Chair held by Parker since 2007, supported by matching industry funding.

A separate NSERC grant worth just over $2 million was also announced for the groundwater monitoring project. That funding will also be matched by industry and municipal support, including $400,000 from the City of Guelph and $460,000 from Nestlé Waters Canada.

“Water sustainability is Nestlé’s number one priority and we are proud to support this research program that will contribute to the protection of this vital resource,” stated Nestlé’s  natural resource manager Andreanne Simard.

“Both the City and Nestlé maintain their own well networks for permitting requirements, but the University project provides more detailed and integrated information.

“The more data we have, the better able we will be to understand the resource and address any future issues. This project shows industry and the university and municipalities working together on the same goal to protect and understand groundwater resources.”

University of Guelph vice president (research) Malcolm Campbell said,  “This generous funding in support of a research superstar and her team will fuel important discoveries and catalyze impactful innovations aimed at underpinning the safety of our local drinking water supply.”

Fractured bedrock aquifers provide drinking water for more than one million people living in some of southern Ontario’s fastest-growing communities, including Guelph, which is projected to grow to almost 170,000 people by 2031.

Over the past decade, a team led by Parker has installed high-resolution monitoring systems in bedrock aquifer wells around Guelph and southern Wellington County.

Parker directs the University of Guelph’s G360 Institute for Groundwater Research, which studies complex local aquifers, including how natural features protect this water resource and how wells affect groundwater.

“The sustainability of groundwater as source water for communities ultimately depends on the quality and quantity of local groundwater,” Parker said, adding, “Municipalities need more and better-resolution information to understand the status and vulnerability of our water resources so that good science can underpin water protection and management.”

Under provincial law, Ontario communities are required to develop source water protection plans to protect and sustain municipal sources of drinking water from potential threats.

Dave Belanger, Guelph’s water supply program manager, said working with G360 provides “a more comprehensive understanding of our water supply and a better monitoring program.”        

The institute has worked with site owners and the City of Guelph on groundwater system characterization and monitoring of contaminated sites since 2003.

Besides helping to improve local decision-making for sustainable water management, the project has involved many students training for careers in consulting, industry and government agencies.

Groundwater is replenished by water that may be intercepted or contaminated by underground infrastructure and by land uses, including road salt and runoff from farms, industry and homes.

Under the project, U of G researchers will study effects on groundwater of changing rainfall frequency and intensity as well as soil freeze-thaw cycles, all connected to climate change.

Engineering professor Bahram Gharabaghi plans to study “smart” winter road salting practices. He hopes to help improve information systems to ensure road salt is applied where and when it’s needed to ensure traffic safety and protect the environment.

“Unless we proactively take measures to protect our precious and vital groundwater resource, it will not be available for future generations to enjoy,” Gharabaghi said.

Environmental sciences professor Emmanuelle Arnaud will study groundwater geology.

“While contaminants come from specific sources, understanding of the subsurface geology will inform how and when those contaminants might reach specific receptors and how best to mitigate those impacts,” said Arnaud.

Project funding will also come from the Town of Erin and local company Paterson Grant and Watson.

Nestlé Waters director of corporate affairs Jennifer Kerr explained Nestlé committed initial seed money of $460,000  to the G360 Institute for Groundwater Research, which was a record breaking donation for the company.

“For Nestlé Waters Canada it isn’t just about one donation, it is about how we can contribute to the communities where we live and work,” said Kerr.

She noted the company is also a major supporter of Friends of Mill Creek, donating $10,000 annually for over 16 years.