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Canada Water Act Annual Report for April 2010 to March 2011

Comprehensive water resource management (Part I of the Canada Water Act)

2 Water research

This section describes research activities conducted by Environment Canada's Water Science and Technology Directorate in support of Canada Water Act activities. Environment Canada water scientists conduct an array of research across Canada, including on wastewater and wastewater technologies, pathogens and parasites, algal blooms, and the health of the aquatic ecosystem; the impacts of agricultural and industrial runoff; oil sands related water research; water issues specific to the North; and hydro-meteorological modelling and prediction.

2.1 Wastewater

Activities related to the research of wastewater included treatment technologies and the effects of wastewater effluent on aquatic organisms. A collaborative study with the French Le Centre d'étude du Machinisme Agricole du Génie Rural des Eaux et Forêts provided evidence that chloride had an effect on organisms living on the bottom of water bodies (i.e., benthic communities) during winter and spring, and that benthic communities recovered during summer and fall. This work and the development of a modified benthic invertebrate index provides an indicator of water quality, and may determine the health and recovery potential of shallow urban pond systems important in urban stormwater and wastewater systems. Over 16 000 samples have been identified for this project. The results span a wide range of ecosystem conditions, and work continued in partnership with Trent University on identifying the watershed and pond features that determine water quality conditions in stormwater ponds.

The performance of stormwater ponds in the removal of contaminated solids from urban stormwater was studied, as solids removal efficiency is one of the parameters that provides the best indication of a pond's effectiveness at controlling pollution and improving water quality. Designers of stormwater ponds face a number of challenges, including short settling times, which result from small pond sizes and which can limit the removal of solids; and re-suspension and washout of bottom sediments, which cause downstream pollution when high flows pass through shallow ponds. During 2010–2011, a new concept consisting of placing a porous bed structure (lattice) on the bottom of the pond to overcome the aforementioned challenges was proposed and studied in the laboratory. Preliminary results indicate that, for various flows and under the conditions tested, the particle removal rates increased by 14–35%, and the sediment retention rate improved from 20% to 80%.

An ongoing study of urban groundwater in Canada focused on assessing the occurrence and distribution of groundwater contaminants discharging to streams, and the effects of the seepage of contaminated groundwater on aquatic ecosystems. Analysis of data compiled and interpreted in 2010–2011 demonstrated that, based on the results of field investigations, artificial sweeteners (such as those used in foods) are useful as indicators of groundwater contaminated by urban wastewater sources.

2.1.1 Wastewater treatment technologies

Research continued into methods for removing antibiotics from wastewater, and focused on the development of new filtration treatment technologies such as micellar-enhanced ultrafiltration techniques. It was shown that partitioning the antibiotics into aggregates (micelles) enhanced the removal of contaminants from wastewater streams. In 2010, the research was extended to improve understanding of the binding process with micelles and sediments.

Environment Canada entered into a multi-year grant and contribution agreement with Queen's University to further research micellar-enhanced ultrafiltration wastewater treatment technologies.

Ultraviolet (UV) disinfection of wastewater is widely used for reducing the risk of waterborne diseases. However, biological aggregates found in wastewater protect pathogens from UV light, thus increasing the required UV dose. This increases the size of the UV system, its energy usage, and greenhouse gas emissions. Biological aggregates can be removed by filtration or membrane separation, but these technologies require significant capital investments. Research has confirmed that suspended aggregates can be effectively disrupted by liquids in motion (i.e., hydrodynamic stress), rendering them less resistant to UV disinfection. A key outcome of this research is the development of a novel treatment system in which hydrodynamic particle disruption is integrated with existing UV technology. In 2010–2011, research was also carried out to investigate the application of ultrasound techniques as an alternative for disrupting biological aggregates in wastewater. Although it is generally recognized that ultrasound techniques can be used for particle disruption, the focus of this research is to assess various means of reducing the energy consumption, such as through the use of additives.

Pilot-scale research was conducted to develop a new technology to treat municipal wastewater using an anaerobic (i.e., without oxygen) membrane bioreactor. The objective of this research is to investigate the performance of a pilot-scale anaerobic membrane bioreactor treating municipal wastewater under various reactor and membrane operating conditions. Preliminary results have indicated that the bioreactor's efficiency at removing organic contaminants was comparable to that of conventional wastewater treatment technologies. Furthermore, valuable nutrients such as ammonium and phosphorus can be recovered from the system.

Research was also conducted on novel gas-permeable membrane bioreactor technology that holds the promise of being one of the next-generation sustainable wastewater treatment technologies that are energy efficient and have superior contaminant removal capability, particularly for the removal of ammonia (a toxic substance under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999). Modelling was carried out to assist future, larger-scale application of this technology.

Research was conducted to integrate external hollow-fibre and tubular membranes with anaerobic digesters in order to concurrently thicken and efficiently digest sludge. The use of membranes allowed the reactor size to be decreased by up to 75% while maintaining treatment efficiency. This research was expanded in 2010–2011 to determine the effect of longer solids-retention times and temperature on the removal of emerging contaminants.

Several pilot-scale wastewater treatment trains have been set up to assess how various types of treatment processes alter the adverse effects (i.e., toxicology) of the effluent. A unique strength of this pilot study is the use, for biological testing, of Canadian aquatic species that are directly relevant to the country's diverse environments. In 2010–2011, a model was developed and populated with the study results for prediction of effects under various treatment scenarios.

Environment Canada scientists partnered on several research studies to assess the effects of municipal wastewater effluents in wild fish and mussels and in laboratory fish. Chemical characterization of the effluents was researched to assess levels of pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and conventional toxicants such as ammonia, metals and hydrocarbons. One such study, in partnership with the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, assessed the measurement of pharmaceuticals and personal care products in municipal wastewater effluents. Results of this research will assist in the development of models that aim to better predict environmental exposure and provide information to enable environmental risk assessment activities.

2.2 Pathogens and parasites

Environment Canada scientists researched a variety of water-borne pathogens and parasites that have a detrimental impact on Canadians' quality of life and economic well-being. For example, partnering with the Niagara Region municipal government and McMaster University, Environment Canada conducted research on microbial source tracking. Over 2000 water samples were analyzed across 15 Lake Ontario and Lake Erie beaches to investigate the sources of fecal pollution responsible for beach closures. Results of this research will guide future beach cleanup efforts.

Additionally, collaboration and partnering with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency resulted in development of a new DNA marker for seagulls, which will assist in understanding the prevalence of impacts from seagull fecal droppings in major Canadian urban beaches and stormwater outfalls.

2.3 Algal blooms and health of the aquatic ecosystem

Environment Canada has an extensive history of partnering on research into algal blooms, and is engaged in highly targeted work to characterize the key mechanisms that control the severity, toxicity and harmful impacts of algae in freshwaters. The work is aimed at the development of sustainable risk management and long-term mitigation and management in partnership with local, municipal, provincial, national and international governments, and private and academic sectors. Studies of selected lakes (Great Lakes, Lake of the Woods, Lake Winnipeg) using satellite imagery have enabled frequent, large-scale views of these lake processes, allowing analysis of the evolution of water quality issues over time, the detection of lakewide changes over time, and the identification of areas of persistent or recurring water quality concern. Research conducted in 2010–2011 aimed to further unravel the remote sensing signal in order to provide additional information on the composition of algal blooms, with an emphasis on distinguishing potentially harmful cyanobacteria.

During 2010–2011, Environment Canada partnered with the multi-disciplinary Microbial Ecology of the Lake Erie Ecosystem (MELEE) research group, which has been studying various aspects of this ecosystem's microbial ecology. This important work will help to further the understanding of chemical, biological and physical controls that influence the cycling of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and trace metals in the Lake Erie water column, which, in turn, affect aquatic ecosystem health.

A modelling study during 2010–2011 estimated source contributions of nitrogen and phosphorus to the Saint John River and Bay of Fundy. Results suggested that dispersed pollution (often from runoff from fields) was three times higher than that of point sources (often from cities and towns). This study has led to further partnering and engagement on watershed research with the International Joint Commission and GOMC.

Environment Canada scientists continue their efforts to research the health of the aquatic ecosystem, including the biological effects of contaminated groundwater, impacts of and recovery from acid rain, and the impact of pollution on the proliferation of invasive species.

2.4 Agricultural and industrial runoff

Environment Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and academic research partners from the University of Calgary and University of Waterloo continued, through a four-year study, to collaboratively research agricultural impacts on groundwater quality in the transboundary Abbotsford–Sumas aquifer (the study area is located on the Canadian side of the aquifer, in British Columbia's Lower Fraser Valley). This study, initiated in 2009, evaluates factors that bring about rapid nitrate leaching from the soil zone to the aquifer. Ongoing Environment Canada groundwater monitoring shows long-term nitrate contamination of groundwater in the study area. The study includes soil-water and groundwater sampling, and assessment of groundwater quality data in relation to seasonal factors, fertilizer and manure application practices, and other agricultural management practices. The Department also collected groundwater samples bi-monthly to study potential influences of and seasonal variations in different sources of nitrate contamination that could be affecting groundwater quality in the aquifer.

In another groundwater study, Environment Canada has partnered with the Canada–Manitoba Crop Diversification Centre and the University of Manitoba to evaluate the vulnerability of the Assiniboine Delta aquifer to contamination by pesticides, and to develop a risk assessment model. The Assiniboine Delta aquifer, which underlies an area of approximately 4000 km2 near Carberry, Manitoba, is a valuable source of high-quality water for drinking, industrial uses and irrigation. Pesticide usage data analyzed in 2009–2010 were used to design a program for monitoring key active ingredients in strategically located groundwater wells. In 2010–2011, the only detections were of three herbicides, two herbicide metabolites and a fungicide, all at levels below CCME Canadian Water Quality Guidelines.

Environment Canada continued to partner on studies assessing the impacts of agricultural management practices on water resources. In collaboration with researchers from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the University of Saskatchewan and University of Manitoba, and provincial agencies, the effectiveness of several agricultural best management practices are being evaluated at the edge-of-field and small-watershed scales. Conservation tillage, small water-retention ponds, conversion of cropland to forage, and use of extensive beef cattle overwintering sites were among the practices studied in 2010–2011. Although conservation tillage was effective in reducing particulate nutrient loading in runoff, it led to accumulation of phosphorus and increased the transport of dissolved phosphorus in snowmelt runoff. Positive results were obtained for small dams, which were shown to be effective in reducing peak flows and the transport of total and dissolved nutrients. Evaluation of the other practices is ongoing.

Surface waters located in agricultural watersheds may be subject to surface runoff, the deposition of spray drift, and occasional over-spray of herbicides. A surveillance research project of sulfonylurea herbicides has been under way since 2009 in the watershed of the Saint-François Bay (Lake St-Pierre), at the outflow of the Yamaska River, which drains a large agricultural watershed. The project aims to improve knowledge about the presence, sources, transfer and fate of sulfonylurea herbicides in air, precipitation and water. The results will identify agricultural practices that can minimize the environmental risks associated with the use of new pesticides. Preliminary results indicate the presence of a short life cycle (< 5 days) of these herbicides in surface waters, but not in air or precipitation, which suggests a quick transfer between the field and river.

In partnership with industry and academia, Environment Canada is investigating the causes of and solutions to pulp and paper effluent's impact on aquatic life and water quality. One such study is assessing the reproductive effects in fish downstream of pulp and paper mill effluents at the L'Etang estuary of the Bay of Fundy at St. George.

In the aquaculture industry, antibiotics (including oxytetracycline and florfenicol) are used to control and prevent disease. Drugs such as emamectin benzoate and teflubenzuron are used for the prevention of sea lice in salmon. There is evidence that use of such antibiotics may create localized antibiotic resistance. An ongoing study on the possible environmental impacts of land-based aquaculture facilities (hatcheries and land-based grow-out sites) continued in 2010–2011. Twelve water samples and five sediment samples were collected at six facilities in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. This study will continue in 2011–2012 with the addition of new sites for water quality testing.

2.5 Oil sands–related research

In 2010–2011, work focused on responding to recommendations made by the Federal Oil Sands Advisory Panel in its report to the Minister in December of 2010. The panel identified a need for independent scientific oversight to ensure adaptability and continuous improvement of monitoring activities, better integration between environmental media, a robust science-based approach that has rigour and statistical power, and improved transparency regarding reporting, data access and quality control. The panel also noted that Environment Canada has a trusted and recognized scientific capacity that could be applied to oil sands monitoring.

In response to the Government acceptance of the panel's recommendations, Environment Canada coordinated, with Alberta, other federal, provincial and territorial departments and agencies, and academia, the development of a Preliminary Water Quality Monitoring Plan for the Lower Athabasca River and its tributaries. Released in March 2011, the first phase of the plan covers surface water quality and quantity, groundwater quality (riverine interactions and seepage from tailings ponds), and local atmospheric deposition as it relates to direct and indirect stack emission impacts on water quality. Plans are being developed for a second phase in which monitoring of aquatic biota (including fish), terrestrial biota, acid-sensitive lakes and regional air quality / atmospheric deposition are being added, and the geographic extent is being expanded to include areas upstream and/or outside of oil sands development (primarily for reference information) and downstream of oil sands developments (potential contaminant-receiving environments), including the Peace–Athabasca Delta, Slave River and Slave River Delta.

The Department's primary 2010–2011 research and monitoring activities in the oil sands region continued in eight key areas:

  1. Chemical profiling – fingerprinting
  2. Toxicity and effects
  3. Groundwater surveillance
  4. Atmospheric deposition
  5. Water quantity monitoring (hydrometric and ecological flow needs)
  6. Water quality monitoring
  7. Biodiversity
  8. Environmental effects monitoring

2.6 Northern Canada

A study to assess the performance of wastewater treatment systems in Canada's Arctic began in 2009. Field research is being conducted to develop an inventory of wastewater system facilities and their current treatment capabilities. The majority of Arctic communities use lagoons for wastewater treatment, and in some of these communities the lagoon effluent is discharged into a wetland for further treatment. In 2010–2011, work was initiated on developing a computer model for simulating wastewater treatment in northern lagoons and to provide a tool for theoretical optimization of these systems. Results from the field research and model, coupled with associated risk assessment input, will be used to formulate discharge standards for the Arctic Component of the Canada-Wide Strategy for the Management of Municipal Wastewater Effluent, which, in turn, will be incorporated as an amendment in the Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations, currently under development by Environment Canada. Preliminary data suggest that lagoon effluent in the Arctic has consistently exceeded the CCME's proposed standards for carbonaceous biochemical oxygen demand and total suspended solids. Partial results show seasonal variation in effluent quality. Other factors that affect wastewater treatment, such as retention time, loading, dissolved oxygen concentrations and sludge volume in the lagoon, will continue to be identified and evaluated. In addition, parallel fieldwork has been conducted on northern wetlands. Preliminary work has also shown that wetlands can provide additional wastewater treatment, though their role needs to be better understood from scientific and regulatory perspectives.

During 2010–2011, a team of international authors led by a Canadian produced a chapter of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program's report Changing Lake and River Ice Regimes: trends, effects, and implications. Results of the chapter were presented at an international meeting in Copenhagen in June 2011, and the final report is scheduled for publication in late 2011.

Field research on stream-flow generation in the discontinuous drainage systems of the Subarctic Canadian Shield continued in partnership with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. Research conducted during 2010–2011 on relationships between frozen ground, surface soil moisture and runoff led to the development of a new runoff routing parameterization for Environment Canada's land surface scheme. Changing precipitation patterns in northern Canada are producing larger winter stream-flow across much of the region. In 2010–2011, scientists investigating the magnitude of these changes at sites near Yellowknife found that longer periods of ground freeze-back in the fall due to wetter conditions are changing water pathways through the soil and, in turn, changing water chemistry in headwater basins. Growing uncertainty in aquatic chemistry regimes may have implications for regulating sustainable economic development in the North.

2.7 Hydro-meteorological modelling and prediction

For several years, researchers and scientists at Environment Canada and many partner agencies have used atmospheric and weather data as input for day-to-day operational forecasting models, and hydrologic data collected under the hydrometric agreements as input for hydrologic models. These models demonstrate how regional hydro-meteorological modelling can help improve water resources management.

Environment Canada scientists and regional hydrologists completed their involvement in programs funded by the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences (CFCAS), including the Improved Processes and Parameterization for Prediction in Cold Regions program and the Drought Research Initiative. In particular, they made significant contributions toward the main objective of the Drought Research Initiative, which was to better understand the causes and impacts of major hydro-climatologic extremes over Canada, with a focus on the severe 1999–2005 drought that affected the Canadian Prairies. Specific contributions from Department scientists include research toward acquiring a better understanding of past variability and projected future occurrences of extreme droughts on the Prairies, and of groundwater variability associated with extreme Prairie drought events. Work is under way to establish a permanent archive of the data and findings for these CFCAS studies.

Throughout 2010–2011, the WSC contributed internationally through its leadership as the Canadian hydrological advisor to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). This entails providing input and advice to the WMO on all matters related to hydrometric monitoring and hydro-meteorology. Specifically, it included the contribution of departmental expertise toward the development of a new WMO publication on stream-flow monitoring, published last year. As well, the Department continued its engagement in the Arctic Hydrological Cycle Observing System (HYCOS) initiative, which focuses on stream-flow assessment in the Arctic Ocean. Canada co-leads the Arctic HYCOS program with the Russian Federation.

Environment Canada scientists initiated a research study in 2009 to improve understanding of water availability and sustainability of stream-flow in the Athabasca River Basin, which is experiencing multiple stressors from climate change/variability and various water uses (e.g., water extraction for oil sands processing). Historical stream flow trends and variability for 33 hydro-ecologically relevant indicators of alteration on the Athabasca River main stem and tributaries continued in 2010–2011.

In 2010–2011, Environment Canada's atmospheric researchers continued to improve methods for coupled hydro-meteorological modelling and prediction under an expanded environmental prediction framework. The model enables an improved understanding of interactions between the atmosphere and land surface, and supports improved water management using the Modélisation environnementale de surface et hydrologie (MESH) system and the international Hydrologic Ensemble Prediction Experiment. Partnering with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Environment Canada operationalized the MESH modelling system for historical analysis of the water balance in the upper Great lakes. The model will also help with understanding the water levels of the Great Lakes, which are of significant economic importance to Canada and the United States.

Ongoing studies have focused on improving our understanding of water availability in Canada through the development of new methods for modelling the hydrological cycle at a variety of scales, from small basins to large rivers. In 2010–2011, research continued on developing physically based models for frozen soils parameterization and large-scale simulation of the Saskatchewan River Basin.

The development and implementation of Environment Canada's eco-hydraulic modelling system for major portions of the St. Lawrence River continued during 2010–2011, including work toward the operationalization of hydrodynamic models.

The Department continued to develop water supply indicators in support of the National Water Atlas project, and contributed to ecosystem trends studies that focused on the availability of water resources.

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