Wilfrid Laurier University’s (Laurier) leading expertise in ecotoxicology and water issues in cold regions combined with SOWC’s cutting-edge equipment is spurring research projects that are vital to the protection of our environment.
Laurier is home to some of the top researchers studying the impact of contaminants on aquatic life. The university is also the only academic institution to have a formal partnership with the Government of the Northwest Territories (NWT) aimed at managing and protecting water resources in terms of resource development, extraction and impact from climate change.
The university has managed to excel in these two fields of study by taking an “interdisciplinary approach,” says Deborah MacLatchy, Laurier vice-president academic and provost.
“Even though we are smaller than some universities, we take an interdisciplinary approach by having collaborations among biologists, chemists, hydrologists and social scientists because when you get into water use and water policy it’s ultimately about choices and often economics.”
As a result of the school’s strengths in ecotoxicology and cold regions, Laurier developed a world-class Centre for Cold Regions and Water Science at its Waterloo campus, which houses state-of-the-art labs and equipment for researchers involved in these two fields of study. This Centre also houses SOWC’s ecotoxicology equipment.
“Laurier is unique among our partners in having a specific focus on cold regions and a formal partnership with the NWT,” says Brenda Lucas, SOWC executive director. “They have consolidated their water capacity with the new Centre, which means that the SOWC infrastructure will be better connected to the broader expertise at Laurier.”
Laurier is one of SOWC’s nine post-secondary partner institutions. So far this partnership has resulted in research projects related to studying the effects of various wastewater treatments on fish.
“In addition to its own expertise, Wilfrid Laurier also has strong collaborative relationships with researchers at University of Guelph and University of Waterloo,” says Lucas. “Together, this group is looking at how environmental issues, such as changes in wastewater treatment, affect the fish living downstream.”
MacLatchy, who is an ecotoxicologist and comparative endocrinologist, is the co-leader of the SOWC’s Ecotoxicology Node. She is a founding member of the Canadian Rivers Institute and the Laurier Institute for Water Sciences, a multidisciplinary group made up of 27 researchers. This Laurier research group is focused on both Canadian and global water issues, including the effects of climate change, the sustainability of healthy aquatic and coastal ecosystems and the development of regulations and policy related to water use.
In her role with SOWC’s Ecotoxicology Node, she has facilitated research projects utilizing the lab and equipment within this Node. The Ecotoxicology Node caters to research geared towards assessing water quality and its impact on aquatic biota using biological and chemical analytical tools to improve water quality and aquatic ecosystem health. Advanced analytical equipment is available through this Node at the Guelph Wastewater Facility, Laurier and the University of Waterloo.
As part of this Node, there are also two Mobile Field Trailers staged at Laurier. The trailers are designed to function as mobile laboratories to facilitate testing the exposure of multiple species to waste waters and contaminants within the watershed, including process streams from industries, municipalities, agriculture and other activities.
“Essentially having the mobile trailers to look at these effects in stream, and the lab setup inside the Guelph Wastewater Facility, allows researchers to understand these effects in the real world,” says Lucas.
With the help of the SOWC equipment, MacLatchy and her colleagues have been investigating the impact of wastewater effluent on fish in the Grand River.
“We are combining field work in the Grand River with lab studies where we can take contaminants found in sewage and expose fish with a higher level of control,” says MacLatchy. “The mobile trailers and field equipment housed at Laurier and the University of Waterloo enable us to do work in the field as well as in the lab.”
The goal of the research is to not only examine the impacts of contaminants but also the mechanism of the effects in order to understand why they occur, adds MacLatchy.
Currently the research group is focused on estrogen-like compounds, which are contaminants that arrive in city’s sewage from the use of pharmaceuticals, such as birth control and hormone replacement drugs.
“We know estrogens in the river system can feminize fish by causing male fish to develop female characteristics,” says MacLatchy. “We are trying to understand why it happens and to answer questions such as whether there are different stages when the fish are more vulnerable, whether it is happening downstream of multiple plants or just one and if it is related to the type of treatment used. We simultaneously work with wastewater engineers and municipal leaders to find ways to prevent these contaminants from entering the river by instituting economically-viable process changes.”
In addition to MacLatchy, other successful Laurier researchers with a connection to SOWC are Jim McGreer and Robin Slawson. McGeer, who is the director of the Laurier Institute for Water Science, studies the impact of metals from the mining industry on fish and invertebrates and how these contaminants affect food webs. Slawson, who is a trained microbial ecologist with experience in sediment, soil and water microbiology, is focused on watershed microbiology and source water protection.
Besides boasting some of the top researchers in ecotoxicology, Laurier is also leading the way in research related to water issues in the NWT.
“The work we are doing in the north is unique in that we have a partnership with the NWT government and that’s a relationship other research groups don’t have,” says MacLatchy.
Laurier has been conducting research in NWT for decades and in 2010 formed an official partnership with the government. The engine behind this important project is the Cold Regions Research Centre, which is made of up 31 experts. To date, Laurier research has influenced the development of evidence-based environmental policy that has translated into practical applications to support ecological integrity and human health, such as shaping government policy on seismic exploration and the impacts of permafrost thaw on water resources.
“The north is impacted by climate change at a much faster pace than here,” says MacLatchy. “If the ground that was permanently frozen is now melting, that can impact the infrastructure, ecosystem health and local communities. What happens in the terrestrial environment has significant impacts on the watershed.”
More than $15 million in operating and infrastructure funding has been secured for NWT research. Currently funding is going towards constructing living laboratories from the south end of the border of NWT to the Mackenzie River Delta, says MacLatchy.
“This will help us to be able to understand the difference in land coverage, changes to the ecosystem function and how these changes will have an impact on the aquatic system. This work will then translate into practical applications and influence government policy. It’s research that is integral to not only the future of the NWT, but also to Canada and the world, given the large amounts of fresh water stored in Canada’s north. We ultimately live in one interconnected world; changes in one region impact others and lessons learned in the north in water science are transferable to the south and vice versa. That’s why the research approach at Laurier is so beneficial.”