Grad students take the opportunity to learn about challenges facing the country’s water resources, including the Okanagan Valley.
You turn on the tap and—voila!—there’s clean water. But this life force doesn’t come easy or free. Most of us simply don’t understand the value and origin of our water.
That is just one of the many takeaways School of Engineering graduate students Nilufar Islam and Tim Hurley took from the recent Canadian Water Network (CWN) workshop in Northern Alberta. They were among 27 select attendees from across the country.
The engineering students study under Dr. Rehan Sadiq, who encouraged their participation in CWN, a government-sponsored non-profit organization that concentrates on investing in the future of water and water governance in Canada. The rigorous application process—including videos of intent, and discussion of research topics and themes—was worth it.
“CWN is friendly, supportive, welcoming, and encourages curious minds,” Hurley says of the network’s biologists, forest management experts, social scientists, and engineers. “It’s about engaging people. There are fantastic learning opportunities.”
Islam and Hurley attended the Sept. 1-6, 2014 CWN Navigating Resource Development and Water in Northern Alberta Student and Young Professional Workshop in Edmonton, Lac la Biche, and Fort McMurray, Alta. The network holds at least two workshops every year.
All participants were placed into groups and asked to present on specific topics; the engineering students both presented on “Sustainable Forestry Practices.” (The other themes were Terrestrial Regional Impacts of Land Use; Opportunities and Challenges in Hydraulic fracturing Water Management; the Future Development of Oil and Gas; and Municipal Water Management.)
Of special interest to the students from UBC’s Okanagan campus is the fact this region is the most water-stressed region in Canada and yet, per capita, Okanagan residents use almost twice as much water as the rest of Canada.
Islam’s research is on water quality management at distribution networks for small, rural, and First Nations communities. She says she tried to connect with multiple perspectives, keying in on situational realities: “As researchers you’re always thinking about creating a number—but now it’s about how this number will be applicable to the real world.”
Hurley says we’re looking at “an unpredictable water world here in the Okanagan.”
“The past can no longer be used to predict the future. We have to take steps now to ensure that we have a safe and sustainable supply of water.”
Hurley researches the connection between water and energy, and looks at assessing and managing risks posed to water by oil-and-gas development. At the workshop, he learned about ghost populations in the context of Fort McMurray, where many temporary residents may not have as strong of an interest in the community—their home is elsewhere—which introduces unique challenges to the local society.
The workshop attendees toured the Suncor plant, tailings ponds, a wastewater treatment facility, and Athabasca River, noting natural bitumen deposits on riverbanks.
The value of first-hand knowledge of the people who live and work in areas like oil-and-gas country is such a valuable tool for research, Hurley says. “To be on the ground and see these issues first hand, you learn so much more than you ever could by reading textbooks and reports and papers.”
“You can’t manage water as separate regions or cities. We need to think of water on a watershed scale,” he says, adding that efforts are being made to develop resources in an environmentally respectable way—but that’s not enough.
“There are needs to assess issues in a more comprehensive way, to look at these issues as a whole to understand environmental impacts, social impacts, and economic impacts. People who are impacted need to be a part of the conversation.”
Islam is grateful for the opportunity to learn with 27 other people. “CWN is a large networking organization with many like-minded people, so it’s an opportunity to get involved and make a difference. It is always beneficial to connect with people who are working in the field. I learned so much!”
Hurley says the CWN workshop was a sort of wake-up call.
“The workshop spurred me to think about the real-world application of my research, not just the academic exploration,” he says. “You need to really understand an issue. You need to think about how actual practices on the ground are carried out. You need to understand issues not just from an academic perspective, but also from an applied perspective. Workshops like this help that understanding.”
Moreover, he says, “There is a need for us all to think about where our water comes from.”
For more information about CWN, visit cwn-rce.ca.
—with files from Tanya Chartrand