Protecting a most precious resource

A unique waste water research and treatment facility in Calgary is geared toward finding better ways to remove pollutants from our drinking water.

By Sandy Robertson
March 2015


When you’re awash in fresh water the way we are in Canada, waste water remediation isn’t something you spend much time worrying about. Yet, given that 99 per cent of the world’s water is either undrinkable or frozen in icecaps and glaciers, the remaining one per cent leaves us with precious little to squander.

While already a critical global concern, the issue of scarcity is becoming even more pressing as the effects of emerging pollutants are increasingly felt, from gender-bending hormones that render fish infertile, to the role waste water plays in the spread of disease. At Calgary’s Advancing Canadian Waste Water Assets (ACWA) facility, which combines waste water treatment and research, scientists are discovering what these alarming signals mean for public health and for healthy ecosystems, and finding ways to undo the harm these contaminants are causing.

ACWA welcomes the world to learn about and test waste water solutions

“ACWA is unique in the world in the way it aligns so many disciplines of science and engineering with waste water operators and with industry,” notes Ed McCauley, vice-president (research) and the scientist who first laid the foundation for ACWA at the University of Calgary. “From the beginning, this intentional alignment found support from all levels of government, with a clear line of sight for science and operators to discover and then rapidly drive better treatment processes and technologies to make access to clean water a global reality.”

This rather breathtaking system of naturalized streams on the banks of the Bow River are part of the Pine Creek Waste Water Treatment Centre. The streams, laboratories and research treatment plant will test and remediate local water contaminants and also open the door to the world to share the experimental facilities, tap expertise and pursue training and partnerships to discover and test new technologies. ACWA also offers itself up as an insightful model that can be customized and replicated in other natural systems around the world.

“The research taking place in ACWA offers many direct benefits, including modelling effective watershed stewardship and environmental protection practices that others around the world can learn from,” says Lee Jackson, ACWA scientific director, and professor at the University of Calgary.

Canada’s leadership in the intricacies of environmental research

Canada has already earned a reputation as a global leader in environmental research for the paradigm-realigning research at the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) in northern Ontario. David Schindler and his colleagues used large-scale experiments to examine the role of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, in causing algal blooms. The discoveries made there led to rapid changes in policy and industry practices, and a flood of international awards.

More recently, Karen Kidd, Canada Research Chair at the Canadian Rivers Institute at the University of New Brunswick, conducted experiments at the ELA and demonstrated that exposure to environmentally relevant concentrations of estrogen, the active ingredient in birth control pills, affected male minnows and led to near total population collapse.

ACWA is similarly taking difficult environmental questions out of the lab to factor in the complexity of natural environments with widely fluctuating conditions – where laboratory-only research has offered limited insights into problems of this magnitude. Like Kidd, ACWA researchers Jackson and Hamid Habibi have found egg yolk protein production and eggs in fish testes in the Oldman River of southern Alberta, suggesting that we need to develop and use better waste water treatment to keep such contaminants out of our water supplies.

The 12 naturalized experimental streams comprise 3.8 kilometres of flowing water that can be dosed with contaminants to discover the benefits of advanced treatments in large scale, controlled experiments. These replicated streams are integrated with advanced analytical laboratories where the biological and chemical characteristics of waste water and treated effluents are analyzed.

The university has assembled an internationally renowned team of water researchers. The team is led by Jackson, who — as ACWA scientific director and biological sciences professor — spends much of his time bringing together researchers to bridge the gap between pilot-scale research laboratories and applications in full-scale municipal waste water treatment plants. The research spans the fields of ecology, biology, toxicology, microbiology, process engineering, medicine, veterinary medicine, chemistry and public health. Here’s an overview of some of the leading water researchers and how ACWA will help them push their understanding of waste water remediation further.

Faculty of Science a centre of waste water research

While leading ACWA, the Faculty of Science at the University Calgary also hosts a wide range of water ecology research, including Jackson's field-based research endocrine disruption in field-based populations, Matt Vijayan’s work on the generational effects of pollutants on fish growth and development, Hamid Habibi’s long-term studies on the effects of toxic compounds on the reproduction and development of fish and Bernhard Mayer’s use of chemical and isotopic techniques to trace nutrients and contaminants in surface water and groundwater.

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Watchers on the water: surveillance and the emergence of pathogens in waste water

With a watchful eye on public health, Glen Armstrong, Cumming School of Medicine, is focused on the role waste water plays in disease outbreaks. His research asks, “Can waste water be used as an early warning system to alert us if a certain pathogen or antibiotic resistance gene has been introduced into the general population?” This could allow infectious diseases physicians and scientists to be more proactive in implementing informed treatment and prevention measures.

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Linking the health of people, animals and the environment

Municipal waste water, by definition, teams with bacteria. And while some of these bacterial communities are critical to remediating waste water, it isn’t clear how they are adapting to competition and to different environmental stresses and conditions. For safer drinking water, microbiologist Tao Dong in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine is exploring survival and adaptation in the bacterial strains that pose the highest risk to public health, because if they are not treated properly, they are recirculated into the system and pose a serious health concerns. Read more. Dong’s colleague in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Sylvia Checkley, is also working on water safety, examining how farm practices and seasonal runoff at hundreds of Alberta sites affect well water quality.

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Bioengineering for cleaner water

In the case of helpful microbes, Schulich School of Engineering Professor Andrew Tay’s research looks at how biotechnologies can degrade or neutralize contaminants. Tay, who holds a Canada Research Tier 1 Chair in Wastewater Engineering, is selectively engineering the growth of bacteria to target the breakdown of contaminants.


Gopal Achari, also from the Schulich School of Engineering and with the Center for Environmental Engineering Research and Education, is also looking to new innovative technologies to treat waste water. In collaboration with Cooper Langford from the Department of Chemistry, Achari is researching advanced oxidative processes to break down contaminants in water.

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A network of problem-solvers

The $38.5-million ACWA project, funded by the Government of Canada through the Canada Foundation for Innovation and by the Province of Alberta, has already connected water research partners from across Canada, including:  Dalhousie University in Halifax, the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., and the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

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Moving forward, moving fast

The value of working together across so many disciplines and domains puts ACWA in the position to help drive new research and monitoring and environmental management practices. For example, Jackson says one of the near-future projects the group will undertake with IBM is Wire the Watershed. The project would see sensor networks that monitor and transmit — in real time — changes to water flow and snow pack, allowing for a more informed strategy for managing community response when necessary.

Sensor networking applications could also be used for remote monitoring of water activity and quality in northern communities and First Nations lands, allowing for cost-effective proactive treatment and improved water safety.

Small-scale facilities could also be set up close to contaminant point sources, such as hospitals, that discharge a relatively narrow range of pollutants, cleaning effluent close to the site of origin rather mixing such effluent with other municipal and industrial waste waters.

Another application is the Smart Sewers network that could live-monitor effluent characteristics in the sewers before they flow to the treatment plants, allowing time for the plant to leverage holding facilities and to better handle a critical situation or unexpected toxin in the system that could impact beneficial bacteria. 

Read more about ACWA'S ripple effect for science research at the University of Calgary.

ACWA is an initiative of the Urban Alliance, a strategic research partnership between The City of Calgary and University of Calgary, created in 2007 to encourage and co-ordinate the seamless transfer of cutting-edge research between the university and the City for the benefit of all our communities. 



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