Helping protect well water

Oct 17, 2002, vol. 25, no. 4
By Carol Thorbes

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Nadine Schuurman's fascination with standardizing geographical information systems (GIS) has led to the creation of a gem for the provincial government.

The Simon Fraser University assistant professor of geography has developed a graphical user interface (GUI) that enables B.C.'s ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection to better standardize and analyse well water data.

Schuurman is one of a few scientists in Canada dedicated to making data more reliable and useable.

“Research on sophisticated algorithms and geographic information systems that can detect hidden spatial patterns in all kinds of disciplines and between disciplines has outstripped the quality of data available,” says Schuurman.

Her software translates and classifies the lay terms often used by well drillers to describe groundwater conditions into standardized geological terms.

Schuurman developed the system in collaboration with Diana Allen, a ground water expert in earth sciences at SFU.

“Well logs are really the only source of subsurface data in most areas of Canada. They are a well driller's record of the types of rock and soil conditions found at different subsurface elevations,” explains Schuurman. “When you get hundreds of drillers providing multiple interpretations of what constitutes rock and sand you can run into trouble, especially when the province's ground water models are based on that data.”

Events such as the Walkerton, Ontario tragedy have not only made provinces across Canada more diligent about safeguarding water systems and infrastructure but also about structural data that is used to make decisions about water systems.

Drinking water contamination killed seven people and made hundreds sick in Walkterton two years ago.

B.C. is in the midst of creating a water management act. Schuurman's GUI program will enable a staff of two handling groundwater issues at the ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection to process the thousands of well logs overwhelming them much faster and more efficiently.

As well as cleaning up data supplied by well drillers, Schuurman's GUI allows hydrogeologists to choose different data classification systems depending on what part of the subsurface they are focusing on, and what assumptions they are making about groundwater flow.

B.C. is interested in contributing financially to another program proposed by Schuurman and Allen.

It would improve well drillers knowledge about rock and sand identification and classification in order to improve well-log data at the collection stage.

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