Interview with Dr. Diana Allen

Professor, Department of Earth Sciences

Hydrogeology, Climate Change Impacts, Water Security

People are very attached to water; they are attuned to issues such as sustainability of their water supply, conflicts between water users, and impacts of climate change. Dr. Allen shares these concerns. A hydrogeologist by profession, her research aims to develop strategies to assess risks to water security, and ultimately, these ideas inform our country’s decision-makers and policies. On a fundamental level, her research is shedding light on the processes that take place as natural groundwater systems respond to stressors like contamination and climate change. Scientists working with decision-makers reflects how “water brings people together.”

As a scientist, how have you worked with government to protect our water resources?
I engage with the provincial and federal governments and contribute knowledge concerning groundwater resources in British Columbia, across Canada and abroad.  I became a member of the groundwater advisory board for the Province at a time when BC had no legislation about groundwater. That process lasted a few years and culminated in the creation of the Groundwater Protection Regulation under the Water Sustainability Act, which I contributed to shaping.

How serious is the problem of groundwater contamination in Canada?
Groundwater contamination is most noticeable in places like British Columbia’s Fraser Valley [near Vancouver]; here, nitrate contamination poses a socioeconomic dilemma that many agricultural regions share. We know that the application of fertilizer is contaminating the groundwater. Nitrate contamination is chronic and it's one of the most extensive groundwater contaminants worldwide. It's complicated because if you tell the farmers to stop fertilizing, the public won't buy blueberries and raspberries that aren't plump and juicy, so this consumer pressure forces the farmers to apply fertilizer to produce better crops. Clean groundwater is at odds with agriculture; what we are seeing is a socioeconomic decision to live with some level of contamination and treated water.

We hear about the depletion of groundwater due to climate change – is this a growing concern in Canada?
Population growth and climate change are introducing a lot of uncertainty on the sustainability and reliability of surface water resources. Surface waters are being hit hard with droughts and flooding; communities then look to groundwater as an alternative water source. We can see the depletion of groundwater sources worldwide. In Canada, the prairies, the Okanagan, as well as the Gulf Islands are regions where the groundwater supply is at risk.

What are the barriers to improving the protection of groundwater sources – is more research needed or is it more about policy at this point?
There are things we still need to understand—like how rapidly precipitation gets into the groundwater—in order to figure out how much water is available in a given area. The solutions we might apply have huge uncertainties in the estimation, which makes it harder to inform decision-making. It is exceedingly difficult to determine how we can monitor and manage the water in a way that will be sustainable in the long term.

Management and science go hand-in-hand. We learn from taking measurements and making models, which help to inform policy- and decision-making. I think the scientists of tomorrow are going to be working a lot closer with decision-makers, being hired by municipalities and regional districts to better manage the resources that we have. We are starting to see this happen across Canada.

How do you prepare your trainees to participate in the protection of groundwater?
In addition to the fundamentals of the science of hydrogeology, I challenge my students to write in different styles – information for general audiences, briefing notes for decision-makers and local government, scientific writing for other researchers. I want them to learn not only the science, but also how to use it to contribute toward decision-making, which is not a traditional focus in science teaching.

What educational backgrounds and personal strengths do you look for in prospective trainees?
They must have had at least an undergraduate course in hydrogeology. I look for creative and critical thinking, and computational savvy because a lot of what we do is modeling-based. Geographic information systems (GIS) skills are of growing importance for the type of work that I'm doing right now. For students who don't have GIS experience, when they come into the lab their first task is to get up to speed with GIS.

Do all of your students do fieldwork?
Some students in my group are more interested in the field and others are more mathematically inclined and like the modeling; all of my trainees do both.

What is your approach to assessing risk to water security?
My research group is adapting risk assessment approaches that have been developed by geoscientists for natural hazard risk assessment, for example related to volcanoes and earthquakes, to address hazards that may compromise water security.

We have examined certain groundwater quality problem areas—like in BC where there are hazards related to shale gas development—and ask what are the consequences and where are the areas where there would be a greater likelihood of contamination getting into the groundwater.

We have created risk maps for the whole Northeast Peace Region of BC showing how susceptible the shallow groundwater might be to a spill. We have made similar maps for the Gulf Islands to look at the risk of saltwater intrusion. These maps are intended as tools for decision-makers to determine where they should cast their efforts on protecting groundwater supply and where they should avoid hazardous land-use activities or drilling water supply wells because the aquifer is susceptible to contamination. We are adapting and testing this risk mapping framework in several locations for a variety of problems.

How do these maps inform decision-makers about the risk to water quality in a region?
There are two components to risk. One is the susceptibility of the system and the second is the presence of hazards. If you have a highly susceptible aquifer but no hazard, then there is no risk.

The maps serve two purposes for decision-makers. First, the maps enable them to identify where the risk is and take measures to mitigate that risk, such as forming emergency response plans. The second is for planning purposes in which the high-risk regions inform what activities should be permitted in that area.

What other groundwater research are you conducting?
The more fundamental side of my research program examines how groundwater systems respond to stressors, i.e., how rapidly one would expect to see a change in a groundwater system in response to a specific event or long-term stressor like climate change.  I look at timeframes from ‘minutes to millennia’, the theme of my NSERC Discovery Grant.

I'm also looking at processes that acted on the landscape in the distant past. What we observe today is a consequence of what is happening today and what happened over geological history. By understanding how a groundwater system responds to stressors long after the stress occurs we can start to understand the longer term impacts of climate and environmental change.

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Read more: Dr. Allen's profile on the Earth Sciences website, the Groundwater Resources Research Group site and the Featured Researchers page

Interview by Jacqueline Watson with Theresa Kitos