Collaborating to advance water research

By studying water issues locally, University of Lethbridge water researchers are discovering fundamental principles about water systems and their management that bolster a global body of knowledge.

Lars Brinkmann, a PhD candidate in the Department of Biological Sciences, is the inaugural recipient of a $30,000 fellowship – the largest individual student award endowed at the U of L. The fellowship is made possible by energy company Nexen Inc. and their initial investment of $300,000 which, when matched through the Province of Alberta's Access to the Future Fund, will establish a $600,000 endowment for graduate scholarships and fellowships in water research at the University of Lethbridge.

Brinkmann is exploring how mercury concentrations in fish are affected by the food web. He explains that even in seemingly pristine bodies of water, traces of mercury often threaten the health of humans and other animals in the ecosystem.

"Mercury is a serious problem because it's a very potent neurotoxin, and it has very adverse effects in human adults. What's even worse is that at very low concentrations, it still has a very bad effect on developing fetuses," Brinkmann explains.

The heavy metal is a byproduct of some industrial processes. Even water systems nowhere near a point of contamination can contain mercury, as it is transported by rain and wind.

Mercury becomes most concentrated at the top of the food web. Predatory fish can contain very toxic levels of mercury and can be dangerous for humans to consume. However, the concentration is affected by what those fish eat and how they allocate energy to survive (like spawning, movement and growth of the body), which makes concentrations in ecosystems quite variable.

Brinkmann hopes to find out why the food web is causing so much variation by studying the fish in the South Saskatchewan River Basin and determining how their energy budgets relate to mercury concentration. His work suggests that it's not the size of a fish that minimizes concentration, but rather its rate of growth; fish that grow quickly tend to have less mercury in their tissues.

Brinkmann's supervisor, Dr. Joseph Rasmussen, a professor in the U of L's Department of Biological Sciences and a Canada Research Chair (Aquatic Systems), explains that the doctoral student's research is filling an important gap in the literature. Most of the research on mercury toxicology hasn't dealt with food web interactions.

"It treats food web components as generic, but it's hugely variable from one system to another," Rasmussen says.

In recent years, emission controls have limited the amount of mercury that industry produces, but it continues to pose an environmental threat. It's becoming more important to find ways to manage the pollutant once it's in the system, Rasmussen explains.

"It's good to promote practices that reduce emissions, but you can't control it like a tap. However, you can manage the system on the other end and, say, manage our fisheries in such a way that we reduce mercury in fish."

When it comes to Alberta's spring systems – the points at which groundwater comes to the surface – even less is known. That's why a team of U of L researchers and partners is studying the natural springs as a strategy to learn more about groundwater and ensure the resource is used sustainably in the future. But at the moment, scientists don't understand the role springs play in local habitats.

"One might imagine that because springs are relatively scarce, their ecological value might be limited. Conversely, they provide unique environments, and it's likely that there may be some unique organisms that rely on them," explains Dr. Stewart Rood, a U of L Board of Governors Research Chair in Environmental Science and 2008 Killam Research Fellowship recipient.

Rood has been collaborating with Dr. Abe Springer, a professor with Northern Arizona University, to better understand the province's springs. The Alberta Springs Project – modelled after Springer's and colleagues' Southwestern U.S. springs studies – was created when Springer visited the U of L as its first Fulbright Scholar in water research in 2007.

The Alberta Springs Project will investigate springs throughout southern Alberta, including those of the Porcupine Hills region, an outcrop of foothills that is not directly linked to the Rocky Mountain zones. In the areas with springs, the topographical conditions allow for groundwater to come to the surface and create a diverse array of springs.

The project is broad. In addition to inventorying the springs, researchers are studying their hydrology, water chemistry and aquatic and riparian ecology. They hope to find out, among other things, how springs are impacted by seasonal and climatic changes, how the type of spring affects the area's biology and how groundwater relates to surface water. The research initiative will also compare the spring systems in Alberta, Arizona and Wisconsin.

Eventually, the information will help Alberta plan for the future.

"As surface water resources become overextended in a region, the next source of water which is typically tapped is groundwater stored in aquifers," Springer says. "Alberta is in a unique position of not yet having significantly tapped the extensive groundwater resources of the province, so there is still time to plan for better management of them and minimize or mitigate any potential future impact to aquifers or springs from groundwater use."

The Alberta Springs Project has secured $200,000 in funding over four years from the Imperial Oil Foundation, and it has attracted researchers from across North America.

"One emphasis of this project is to bring together individuals with shared interests in order to better understand what we know and don't know and to develop a more systematic strategy for studying and inventorying springs," Rood says.