Water: Canada’s Greatest Natural Resource
Water is certainly one of Canada’s greatest natural resources: it is not only essential for all life but is also central to the Canadian economy. It has both measurable market value as well as less tangible values such as supporting the health of the environment. Although Canada possesses a significant proportion (7%) of the world’s freshwater, it is the quality of this water that determines its ultimate use and corresponding economic value. For example, beach and fisheries closures related to poor water quality can greatly impact Canada’s tourism and fisheries industries. Likewise, lack of access to safe drinking water can have significant economic, social and health impacts. It is for these reasons that we need to improve the way we safeguard the health of our water resources, through the development of innovative tests that will comprehensively monitor the quality of our water.
What is Wrong with the Current Tests?
Currently, water quality is primarily assessed at the tap using culture-based indicators of microbial pollution, such as coliform bacteria and E.coli. This paradigm is flawed in three ways. First, it relies on laboratory technology that is over a century old while faster and more predictive methods are now available. Secondly, it is anthropocentric, focusing only on protecting drinking water for human health, while we know that water sustains all life, including plants and animals, on our planet. Lastly, the current paradigm is reactive, rather than proactive with respect to protecting water at its source: the watershed. By creating new tests that focus on overall watershed health, we will provide the advanced tools needed to protect our watersheds.
Are These New Tests Available?
These tests are not yet available, but our interdisciplinary team is working on it! We will use an emerging field of science called metagenomics to find new indicators of pollution. Metagenomics will allow researchers to characterize the microbial communities found in water and understand how these microbes respond to pollution events. We will use this information to identify the microbial indicators that are the most sensitive signals of pollution in a watershed. We will also match the pattern in which the microbes are perturbed back to the specific source of pollution. The initial work in discovering these indicators will take place in watersheds within British Columbia, and the new tests that we develop will be piloted in watersheds across Canada.