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Protecting the Planet's Liquid Assets


Protecting the Planet's Liquid Assets


Protecting the Planet's Liquid Assets

The Pacific Water Centre at SFU is a collaboration with community to tackle issues affecting the planet's most valuable resource: water.

Recent water woes in California, Flint, on Canadian First Nations reserves and beyond have been stark examples of the destabilizing effect that critical clean water shortages can have on a community. In anticipation of a near future where such events promise to be the norm unless serious measures are taken, SFU’s Faculty of Environment (FENV) launched the Pacific Water Research Centre (PWRC) in June 2015 to gather collaborative research momentum from physical geographers, environmental scientists and resource management experts to inform policy and change.

FENV dean Ingrid Leman Stefanovic spearheaded the community-based initiative. She was prompted by the World Economic Forum’s 2015 declaration which stated that the global water crisis will pose the single biggest threat to the planet over the next decade, from droughts affecting farmlands (agriculture accounts for about 70% of global water consumption) to lack of access to clean water for millions. She envisions the PWRC as a mecca of cross-disciplinary collaborative research dedicated to help mitigate real water crises.

Steve Conrad is associate director of the PWRC and believes the province is in a strong position to preserve its water systems. “B.C. is at a turning point,” he says. “One that will see our water reserves being increasingly tapped as our economy and population grows.”

FENV is the only interdisciplinary environmental faculty in Western Canada and the PWRC is an opportunity for it to enhance and expand its partnerships with representatives from First Nations, government, industry, local communities, NGOs and academia. The PWRC believes that the interface between ethics, culture, the arts, literature, policy, the lived experience of water and how those perspectives impact environmental decision-making is a growing priority for both the faculty and the PWRC, as well as one that allows the university to make a unique contribution to the issue.

“Water isn’t just a natural feature, it’s a life requirement,” says Conrad. “Human and ecological systems depend on water and only by considering the interactions between these systems can we fully understand and best inform policies that manage it. And with the passing of the new water act in 2014, we have the tools to sustainably manage our watersheds–now we just need to keep our attention on the issue.” 


Steve Conrad has more than 20 years experience as a resource and environmental management professional. He has extensive experience in adaptive decision-making theory, environmental program management and evaluation, complex system modeling, the water-energy nexus, water governance, and human behaviour. He often combines his practical experience as an engineer with his social science knowledge to develop integrated strategies for developing environment policy, and he is a content expert on assisting organizations, municipalities, and regional governments reach sustainability goals in energy, water quality and supply, and operational efficiency. He is a with the school of Resource and Environmental Management (REM) at SFU, focusing on adaptive governance, and methods for integrating social science theories with engineering constructs to improve water resource decision-making. He serves as chair of the REM Water Research Working group, chairs the BCWWA’s committee on risk and resilience, is on the Board of Directors for the American Water Works Association, and volunteers as a project advisory member for the Water Research Foundation. 

Q & A with Steve Conrad 

If you could sum up the value of university research in a word, what would it be?


What motivates you as a researcher? 

I've always been fascinated by how people make decisions. What information do they include or exclude? What advice do they use? And how does perception affect their decisions? When we make decisions that affect critical resources like water, its important that we have a good understanding of what drives decision making and I am motivated to study ways to bring new information to this process.

How is your research making an impact in our lives?

Growing up in the Sonoran desert, water has always held a special place for me. I see a small miracle each time it rains. I believe that water is a precious resource and I see that my research is making a difference in how we use and protect our water supplies. An example of this is my work with Metro Vancouver looking at how people conserve water so we can prepare for droughts.

SFU bills itself as "Canada's most engaged research university." How does your work exemplify this spirt of engagement?

My research depends on collaboration with water users and managers on all levels from the individual, farmers, and local, provincial, and federal governments. My collaboration with cities like the Kelowna, New York and Los Angeles, my work with groups like the American Water Works, the BC Agricultural Council, and Alliance for Water Efficiency, as well as my work with government organizations like the BC Ministry of Environment, AZ Governor’s Office of Energy Policy, US Department of Energy, US EPA, and California Public Utilities Commission has helped these organizations manage water and energy resources that affect millions of lives. My research brings water users together with water managers to address important resource issues.

An example of this includes a joint water and electric utility planning tournament I led where approximately 32 people from the United States, Canada, and Australia and representing water and electric utilities, water and energy sector professionals, federal and state regulators, and academic institutions took part in a simulated planning tournament in order to identify opportunities and barriers to water and electric utility integrated planning.