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$1 million invested in real-time data collection to protect drinking water

Harmful algal blooms have serious implications for drinking water treatment.

UWindsor researchers and their partners have received more than $1 million to deploy real-time continuous monitoring instruments into Lake Erie to better understand and predict development of harmful algal blooms (HABs) and to protect and secure drinking water in southern Ontario.  

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Alliance grant, along with industry partner funds, were awarded to the cross-disciplinary team which includes researchers from UWindsor’s Faculties of Science and Engineeringas well as partner universities and collaborators from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Canada.  

“These real-time sensors are a game changer because we might be able to identify what is causing algal blooms and use that information to predict when and where they are going to happen,” says Jill Crossman, co-PI and assistant professor in the School of the Environment at UWindsor.  

HABs have serious implications for drinking water treatment. Once in the system, they can cause processes to break down and lead to service interruptions, making blooms an increasing societal concern. 

“A key problem is that the driving forces we know – phosphorus, nitrate, water temperature, wind speed – can change so much over such a short time that it’s difficult to collect enough data to understand exactly what’s going on,” says Dr. Crossman.  

The real-time data will be collected with more than $1 million worth of instruments from the Real-Time Aquatic Ecosystem Observation Network’s (RAEON) - the first time used this way in freshwater  to better understand how nutrients, temperature, and other factors lead to the development of HABs and hypoxia, oxygen-depleted water.  

“The state-of-the art equipment and instruments and technical expertise provided by RAEON was key to securing this funding and is allowing us to use a novel approach to dealing with HABs – a growing and significant problem for water security in Canada and the world,” said Aaron Fisk, project lead, Professor and Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Changing Great Lakes Ecosystems, and Science Director of RAEON, headquartered at UWindsor. 

Equipment will include: real-time buoys; Slocum gliders – a bright yellow, torpedo-shaped autonomous underwater vehicle that collects data where buoys are impractical; and eDNA detectors, which collect DNA to determine whether harmful or rare species of algae are present in the water.  

“Real-time data will be sent directly to our cellphones and lab computers – we need this level of data collection to finally understand what is really going on, says Dr. Fisk. 

The information will also help identify other possible climate change triggers that lead to HABs, such as proliferation of algal species that are more resistant to higher temperatures. Engineers will use this information to develop early warning indicators and water security models. 

“We’ll be designing optimal water treatment systems that rapidly react to the early HABs warnings – something no one has done before,” says Rupp Carriveau, Professor and Director of the Environmental Energy Institute at UWindsor.  

Carriveau’s engineering team will use hydraulic models and specialized knowledge of the regional water grid, to develop emergency management scenarios.  

“This is particularly important when you consider that 78% of the water in the system we are studying, goes to commercial greenhouses in the region – that have millions and millions of dollars of fruit on the vine,” says Dr. Carriveau. 

“We’ll develop these rapid reaction scenarios using our regional water grid model – this might include proactively storing more water and or developing diversion strategies that will help us get water to critical places without compromising safety. 

The project includes three industry partners; Union Water Supply System, InnovaSea, and Pro-Oceanus, along with researchers from Trent University, Queen’s University and the University of Toronto. RAEON is funded by a $15.9 million grant from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation. 

- Sara Elliott