Grant helps research into groundwater

September 22, 2005, vol. 34, no. 2
By Carol Thorbes

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National funding will help a Simon Fraser University-based research group attempt to predict groundwater recharge in one of Canada's driest and fastest growing regions.

SFU associate professor and chair of the earth sciences department Diana Allen leads a North American-wide network of researchers using the Okanagan as a case study to understand recharge and its impact on groundwater resources. The case study is entitled A Basin Approach to Groundwater Recharge in the Okanagan: Bridging the Gap Between Science and Policy.

“We will jeopardize longterm social, economic and agriculture activity in watersheds, which are groundwater reliant, if we don't develop groundwater resource management strategies,” says Allen. “They must be based on sound scientific data and analysis that decision-makers can easily digest and interpret.”

Recharge is the percentage of the total precipitation in a given area that is added to the area's groundwater reservoirs annually. Streams can also recharge groundwater indirectly. Various factors, including climate variability, land use, topography and interaction with surface water, make it difficult to predict the amount of groundwater added annually and to estimate the total amount of groundwater. Making the situation more unpredictable is B.C.'s unregulated groundwater use.

A $280,000 grant from the Canadian Water Network (CWN) will enable Allen's group to collaborate with researchers involved in an initiative called PATHWAYS. It brings together researchers, planners, policymakers and industry to create groundwater methodologies and software tools that help decision-makers develop regulations and land-use plans based on scientific information and projections.

Allen helped create a prototype of such a suite of targeted decision support tools to project water resource management needs for the Gulf Islands.

“The prototype used web-based tools for tasks such as landscape modelling and plotting statistical information such as climate history on a three dimensional, computer graphic rendition of Bowen Island,” explains Allen. “The prototype then predicted water resource needs based on various population growth, housing and land-use development scenarios. It also predicted whether these scenarios would be sustainable based on current scientific data.”

Earth scientists and urban planners are particularly concerned about the sustainability of groundwater resources in high growth and arid areas, such as the Okanagan. Rapid urban development and changing weather patterns make it increasingly difficult for public works managers to count on groundwater infiltration as a way of keeping Okanagan Lake at controlled levels.

In this region, surface water licences are at or nearing their limit, and groundwater is becoming a much sought after resource.

Nick Hedley, an associate professor of geography at SFU, and researchers at other universities and the Geological Survey of Canada are involved in Allen's network. Their ability to secure $866,000 in base funding from key partners such as the federal and provincial governments enabled them to leverage the CWN funding.

The CWN is one of 21 networks established through the federal government's networks of centres of excellence program. The CWN supports projects that address critical water issues facing Canada.

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