Functional Flows gets funding boost

A critical study by the University of Lethbridge's Water Institute for Sustainable Environments (WISE) that could shape how the province manages its water sources is being given a $1 million boost by the Alberta government.

Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions is contributing $1 million toward a proposed $2.5 million project that will take place over the next three years.

Functional Flows, headed by principal researcher Dr. Stewart Rood of the University's Department of Biological Sciences, will attempt to answer the question of how much water needs to be left in our rivers to sustain healthy aquatic and riparian ecosystems, all the while developing strategies to provide sufficient water to support growing human populations and industrial expansion.

"It is critical for the environmental health of our aquatic ecosystems that we understand the ecological impacts from river damming and water diversions," says Rood.

"Further, we need to create and implement strategies for environmental flow regimes that will ensure that our rivers continue to sustain high water quality, as well as the fish and floodplain forests that we value."

Alberta's rivers deliver mountain snow-melt and rainfall to the drier regions of the prairie and parkland zones, where most Albertans live and work.

Water is trapped by dams and reservoirs and diverted off-stream for agricultural irrigation, municipal and domestic use and industrial purposes.

As the human population grows and industrial expansion continues, the demand for Alberta's surface water will progressively increase.

Rood and his team support the notion of working rivers, whereby river regulation and water withdrawal continues, but in a strategic manner that both sustains environmental health and supports socio-economic uses.

Rood contends that deliberately artificial flow patterns can optimize water for environmental survival during low flow years, and capitalize on the opportunities provided in high flow years to rejuvenate the fish and floodplain forest ecosystems.

"One of the significant challenges identified in Alberta's Water for Life strategy is meeting the needs of healthy aquatic ecosystems. The work being undertaken by Dr. Rood and his team provides a scientific and evidence-based approach to improving environmental performance, even in Alberta's highly allocated river systems," says David Hill, director of Centres and Institutes and Research Advocacy at the University of Lethbridge.

"This approach allows stakeholders and water managers to directly participate in building and improving environmental resilience through specific water management opportunities. The understanding gained through this research will be a critical component in ongoing integrated watershed management decision-making."

The research activities associated with Functional Flows involve substantial student training, contributing towards the next generation of environmental scientists and natural resource managers for Alberta and Canada. The research projects bring together biologists, geographers and other natural and social scientists affiliated with WISE, working in collaboration with other academic and government researchers.

The collaborations also engage regional agencies such as Alberta Environment, the Alberta Conservation Association and the public Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils.

"The U of L has a long history of research collaboration with the community. This is particularly the case in Dr. Rood's research. This program brings together the research team, with government operators and regulators and stakeholders of the community, ensuring that the science and research findings can be implemented to deliver improved environmental performance measures," says Hill.

"This project will contribute to Alberta being recognized not just for its forward looking water strategy – but for ongoing and improved watershed management operations."

Balancing environmental sensibilities with the future economic prosperity of the province was a driver of the Functional Flows project, which received an initial $250,000 contribution from ConocoPhillips Canada (CPC). Based in Calgary, CPC is part of ConocoPhillips, a leading global exploration and production company. "We see this as an opportunity to engage the research expertise at the University of Lethbridge in a manner that will benefit everyone from students and faculty members involved in the research, to industry, agriculture, municipalities, Aboriginal communities and end users of Alberta's water resources," says Lloyd Visser, VP, Environment and Sustainable Development.