Engineering Prof Gets $5 Million for Groundwater Research

June 25, 2009 - News Release

More than a million people living in some of southern Ontario's fastest-growing communities rely on bedrock aquifers for their water, including Guelph, which draws its water from fractured dolostone.

As demand for water increases, so do potential risks associated with contamination of the water-yielding underground layers of porous fractured rock. Yet there is minimal understanding about the threats posed by contamination moving through the overburden soil into the bedrock below.

University of Guelph environmental engineering professor Beth Parker is on a mission to change that. Backed by a recent $5-million, five-year investment from the Ontario government, she is heading an international team of 16 researchers intent on developing technologies to secure safe and sustainable groundwater supplies.

“Ontario’s population is growing relentlessly, along with concerns about the presence of water contaminants,” said Parker. “The biggest uncertainties and the greatest risks for adverse impacts are in communities drawing part of all of their water from bedrock aquifers.”

In addition to Guelph, Ontario’s “bedrock communities” in and near the Grand River basin include Fergus, Orangeville and Cambridge.

According to Parker: Bedrock aquifers are particularly prone to contamination, preliminary studies have shown. The uncertainties and risks associated with bedrock aquifers are especially serious because water flows in fractures at exceptionally high velocity and can rapidly spread contaminants, including human viruses. But there is little information about how and why, relative to other aquifer types such as sand and gravel, Parker said.

With this new grant from the Ontario Research Fund, Parker and her team will study everything from how contaminants travel through groundwater in fractured rock and how they affect well-water supplies to whether they can be easily removed or destroyed underground.

They’ll also develop new conceptual models, tools and methods to help government and companies solve groundwater contamination problems.

The ultimate goals are to better understand the risks posed by contaminants and to develop predictions of future uncertainties, as well as protection and remediation plans.

The research has important implications for all types of industrial and municipal waste-derived contaminants, including chemicals and pathogens.

“Once we understand the nature of the problem in more detail, we can learn to factor this into the decision-making process,” said Parker, who was involved in investigations and remediation of contaminated industrial sites before entering academia.

The City of Guelph will serve as the field laboratory for the project. With a population of more than 120,000, it’s Ontario’s largest community supplied by bedrock groundwater. A strong collaboration is developing between the academic researchers and the water-focused staff at the City of Guelph, Parker said.

“Guelph will act as a surrogate for other groundwater-based communities,” she said, adding that this is the first time an urban bedrock aquifer system has been subjected to such comprehensive and multidisciplinary investigations.

As part of this project, a fractured rock field research facility is being established on the U of G campus, which also draws water from the bedrock aquifer. This will become one of the most advanced research facility concerning bedrock aquifers in North America.

“What we learn here will help advance our understanding of entire urban water systems and help bridge gaps between researchers and professionals,” Parker said.

Learning to use the most advance scientific information in the management of groundwater supplies is essential for growing municipalities, Parker said. Advantages of achieving sustainable groundwater use include saving money and energy by avoiding long-distance conveyance and treatment of water from the Great lakes.

“Water is an important resource. It’s scarce around the world, and locally it can also be very scarce, especially if poorly managed. We have a culture where we think we’ll never run out of water, but our mindset needs to evolve so that water sustainability is achieved.”

This is just the latest of Parker’s groundwater research projects. She received a Leaders Opportunity Fund grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation last December for lab and field equipment to study organic chemical contamination in fractured rock beneath industrial sites. She came to U of G in 2006 as a Senior Industrial Research Chair with more than $5 million in funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. Parker’s research initiatives are part of UOG’s plan involving water as major research thrust.

The new Ontario Research Fund project lead by Parker involves a team of scientists and engineers spanning a broad range of different types of expertise and includes professors from U of G, the University of Waterloo, McMaster University and Quebec’s Laval University, as well as researchers in the United States and Switzerland. Other Guelph faculty involved in the project are Emmanuelle Arnaud and Gary Parkin of the Department of Land Resource Science; Aaron Berg, Department of Geography and Andrea Bradford, John Cherry, Bahram Gharabaghi and Edward McBean of the School of Engineering.

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University of Guelph
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Guelph, Ontario, N1G 2W1