Research looks at risks to water treatment and supply following wildfires

Feb 6, 2018

The 2016 Horse River Wildfire in Fort McMurray was catastrophic for the city and the province. The disaster, however, presents unique learning opportunities for Alberta and the international scientific community. A new research project will provide knowledge to support best practices and policy associated with water treatment systems so that Alberta communities have safe and secure drinking water in the event of similar disasters.

Monica Emelko is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Director of the University of Waterloo’s Water Science, Technology & Policy group. She is leading a new Alberta Innovates’ research project, Drinking Water Supply after Severe Wildfire in Alberta: Assessing Initial Risks and Treatment Technology Resilience. Emelko is working on the project with Uldis Silins, a forest hydrologist and University of Alberta professor. The two have been working together since the 2003 Lost Creek Wildfire in Crowsnest Pass.

“It’s a continuing evolution. As a researcher, you want to do work that is meaningful. Our original work at Lost Creek was critical and informative. We learned how problematic forest fires can be to water quality,” said Emelko, whose research focuses on drinking water supply and treatment.

“It has helped me personally understand the significant risk there is in our country exacerbated by climate change. It’s a space we have not seen before. All fires start small, you never know when one will become a megafire. One question is how responsive can technology be if it becomes catastrophic,” she added.

Only three days following the evacuation of Fort McMurry, the researchers were called in to provide support to the municipality. The team immediately got to work anticipating the broader impacts caused by the fire, including contaminants in the river, and strategies to minimize negative effects on the drinking water supply.

Knowledge gained from a 12-year study of wildfire effects in the Alberta foothills proved invaluable for understanding and managing risks to drinking water supply. They were also on scene for the Keyno wildfire in Waterton National Park and a series of fires in B.C. this past summer.

“The Fort McMurray wildfire was a different environment than Lost Creek. The Athabasca River is big. It is also already impacted by the nature of the environment. In contrast, Lost Creek has a smaller ecosystem. The connectivity is very different. These cases represent the extreme bookends of what we might see in Alberta,” said Silins.

Forested regions produce the majority of surface water supplies in Alberta. They are also the primary source of the province’s drinking water. Wildfire remains the most catastrophic form of landscape disturbance in these regions. Increases in wildfire severity, combined with rising drinking water demand, result in a pressing need to evaluate wildfire impacts on water supply and treatment.

The project will test technology known to be rapidly responsive to large swings in water quality. This includes piloting a “mini” water treatment plant operating in the context of Horse River Wildfire. The research will look at an extreme situation to see if technology is successful in treating severely deteriorated water. It will also look at scenarios to prepare operational guidelines to treat water post-wildfire. Emelko says that treatment infrastructure has the capacity to overcome these challenges when appropriately designed, operated and supported with real-time performance feedback.

“We have a sense of what a fire can do, not what it will do. What becomes case specific is the technology in the plant and the operational response. We need to know our systems, what’s in the plant, and our watershed. It’s not as easy as turning a switch on,” she said.

Partners in the project include Alberta Innovates, University of Waterloo, University of Alberta, University of Calgary, Alberta Environment and Parks, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, City of Calgary, Veolia Water Technologies Canada, and Malvern Instruments.