CREATE-ing Environmental Leaders

Posted on Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

Four students pull in net from lake

The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin makes up one-fifth of the world’s freshwater and some of the most productive agricultural land in North America. It is also home to over 35 million people, or roughly 10 per cent of the population of North America, and with such a concentrated human presence comes environmental impact.

Paul Sibley, a professor in the School of Environmental Sciences, is working with a team of researchers and graduate students to better understand and protect the economically and environmentally important Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin.

Sibley received $1.6 million from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) in 2013 to help “CREATE” the next generation of environmental leaders. NSERC’s Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) Program supports unique mentoring, learning and research opportunities that address significant scientific challenges. Sibley was the first U of G professor to receive a CREATE grant, which involves a rigorous application and review process.

 “With such an intense human presence comes a heavy human footprint,” Sibley says. “The Great Lakes have a well-documented legacy of anthropogenic impacts,” including invasive species, nutrient loading and chemical contamination. Ecological sustainability is also an ongoing concern.

“Historically, these problems have been examined from the perspective of individual stressors, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that effective, realistic solutions to these issues must be founded on a comprehensive understanding of how these stressors interact and their cumulative effects,” Sibley says.

The project involves co-investigators from seven universities in Canada as well as collaborators from universities, government agencies, and conservation groups in both Canada and the United States. It will run over six years.

This summer, six graduate students from the University of Guelph, McMaster University and Western University worked on the project. The goal is for these students to emerge ready to assume key positions in government, industry and academia to help guide and create effective policies and management strategies for the Great Lakes.

Soren Brothers, a post-doctoral fellow and the CREATE Great Lakes program manager is enthusiastic about the project’s first summer. “The topics being examined by the students are incredible, ranging from policy to food web interactions and drivers of harmful cyanobacterial blooms,” shares Brothers. “It is especially exciting to see how these individual projects will inform one another as the program matures.”

The students are working on projects to assess and address the multiple stressors and their cumulative effects, and will work collaboratively to come up with international solutions. For example, of the six students currently in the CREATE program, two students are assessing factors that contribute to the development of harmful algal blooms in the Great Lakes and surrounding watersheds, and two students are evaluating impacts of multiple stressors on food web structure in Lake Huron. Another student is assessing historical changes in sediment contamination in several Great Lakes areas of concern resulting from chemical contamination and the sixth student is assessing the effectiveness of policies that have been developed to address the many stressors in the Great Lakes.

Peter Kraska, a M.Sc. candidate working with Prof. Neil Rooney in the School of Environmental Sciences, is one of the students evaluating food web structures. He is looking at municipal wastewater treatment plants’ effluent impacts on aquatic food webs in Owen Sound by tracing the waste through the food web and determining whether there is a significant source of nutrients within the inlet.

The current municipal wastewater treatment plant is going to be supplemented with a Biologically Activated Filter, which will greatly reduce the concentration of nutrients in the waste being discharged into the inlet. This reduction in nutrients however is of concern to the Saugeen Ojibway Nation who operate a commercial fishing operation in that area of their traditional fishing territory.

“The Saugeen Ojibway Nation re-evaluate their ‘total allowable catch’ based on the latest estimates of productivity and sustainability. Should we determine that the effluent is indeed a significant source of nutrients; the total allowable catch may need to be revised once the MWTP upgrades are complete,” explains Kraska.

Kraska is currently in the internship portion of the program and is working with the Saugeen Ojibway Nation Environmental Office. He moved up to Cape Croker in early August 2014 and has been working to reconcile project expenses, attend meetings with consultants regarding the environmental impacts of proposed renewable energy projects, and simply learn as much as possible about the Saugeen Ojibway Nation Environmental Office and its mandate.

“Over the next few months I will attend meetings with proponents, consultants, and lawyers, and see first hand how the process of environmental consultation and planning works between First Nations and the federal, provincial, and municipal levels,” shares Kraska.“This has been, and will continue to be, a wonderful learning experience for me not only on the topic of environmental project management, but also in how a distinct community has been able to survive all this time without losing its identity.”

Savitri Jetoo, a PhD candidate in civil engineering at McMaster University, is also participating in the project. She became involved with CREATE with her supervisor, Prof. Gail Krantzberg. Jetoo joined the project in January and is focusing her research efforts on looking at governmental policy issues related to the Great Lakes. Her hope is to learn from past policy examples, such as the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and inform future policymaking.

“We are moving away from policy that only involved government to the inclusion of the wide cross section of people. It is important to engage people at the community level. The people that live by the lakes and impact the lakes must buy in to the process,” explains Jetoo.

Jetoo is also exploring the concept of adaptive governance. She explains that the environmental problems facing the Great Lakes are really a suite of stressors that work together. She feels adaptive governance will allow for the constant change and adaptation needed to deal with the complexities of problems faced. She hopes to explore this topic more in her internship, which she will begin next winter. The internship is the element of the program that she is most looking forward to due to the value of the professional skills training she will receive.

Sibley agrees. “The training received by students extends far beyond the borders of the Great Lakes,” he says. “Many of the processes and techniques that students learn will be applicable in other regions of Canada that are also facing environmental issues.”

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