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‘Cleaner than Arctic ice’ is how Ontario township’s water quality is described

Alberta researchers seek funding to study its pristine water

May 2, 2023  By Matt Jones

While some lysimeters have already been installed to analyze the groundwater in Tiny Township, researchers are seeking funding for more in-depth study.

Tiny Township in Ontario has some of the cleanest water on earth, and researchers are eager to find out why and how. The University of Alberta’s Dr. William Shotyk and Dr. Michael Powell presented preliminary findings to the Tiny Township council last year, with Shotyk saying that the groundwater contained “one part per trillion of lead,” and that it was “cleaner than the ancient Arctic ice.”

Shotyk and Powell have applied for a National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada grant to study the water, and the system that filters it, in depth.

Shotyk has been studying the groundwater in the area for 30 years. In addition to his past work with the University of Heidelberg’s Institute of Earth Sciences in Germany and the University of Berne’s Geological Institute in Switzerland, he also owns a small farm in the nearby Elmvale area. Powell says that Shotyk sent samples of the groundwater in the area to his European colleagues for analysis.


“They couldn’t find any organic pollutants in the water,” says Powell. “They sent him a letter saying, ‘This is the only water we’ve ever analyzed in the world that we can find no organic pollutant.’ No human fingerprint.”

Since then, Shotyk has amassed a team of scientists to attempt to determine how the water reaches its state of quality. Powell has served as director of the project since its launch in 2018. And while some might assume that the cleanliness of the water is a result of effective oversight or a lack of development, Powell is quick to dismiss those factors. However, the province permitting water use for washing aggregate and townships permitting aggregate-taking in the recharge areas of the water is a looming potential threat, which is why Shotyk and Powell are eager to study it now.

Powell says there are likely four sources for the water – a recharge zone far to the east, water bubbling up through the bedrock below the valley filled with 120-125 metres of glacial sediment, water trapped within the glacial sediments, and water in the form of precipitation, with rain or snow absorbing into the soil.

“So, you’ve got all of these sources of water, then you’ve got them flowing in and through the ground and finally into an artesian system,” says Powell. “If you could imagine this water mixing in the subsurface and going through layers and layers of glacial material, some very fine clays and silts that are very good at cleaning water, some sands and gravels that are not, and changes in microbiological communities, and they have a tremendous impact on the evolution of groundwater. The minerology also has a huge impact – oxidation, reduction, acid-base reactions, mineral dissolution, precipitation – all of these things are working. As well as the age of the water and the path along which the water travels.”

The project’s cost
Powell says that the entire project will cost roughly a half-million dollars, of which they are aiming to raise one-third themselves. In the meantime, Shotyk has received a grant to begin using lysimeters to collect and measure changes in groundwater quality, chemistry, or depth. Two lysimeter nests were installed at the beginning of the summer, with another set planned to be installed in March.

With four different sources feeding the water, it is somewhat surprising that the quality is so pristine – which is the entire impetus for the study.

Dr. William Shotyk is leading a project to examine the shockingly clean groundwater in Tiny Township, Ont.

“Even though there are atmospheric particulates, even though there is rain and snow, which has in it every element in the periodic table, the water that bubbles up through the ground a few kilometres away is pristine,” says Powell. “There’s also a major clay deposit as a cap that acts as a layer that retards water flow, so the water underneath is under pressure and becomes artesian. That water flows up from maybe 30 to 60 to 90 metres below the ground and comes up through layer after layer of sand, silt, and clay. The water may have had some pollutants in it, but by the time it reaches a certain surface they’ve all been filtered out. And this is not a mechanical filtering, this is a chemical filtering for the most part.

“Therefore, one of the biggest benefits that could come out of this research is a better understanding of how this process of natural filtering works. If we better understand that we could possibly recreate those conditions and develop more effective means of building filtration systems from naturally occurring geological materials, it could also possibly tell us where else we should look for pristine waters in other parts of Canada that have been glaciated.”

Powell asserts that another benefit would be proving conclusively how clean and valuable a resource this water is.

“By showing that this water is pristine and why, we can convince government organizations at all levels that there should be more than a single-tiered criteria for water quality evaluation prior to permitting water taking or land use change that might impact water,” says Powell. “We know that all water is important, we know that we need all water. But not all water is the same. This is a resource that exists nowhere else in the world. It’s Canada’s crown jewel in its resource crown. And if it’s protected and publicized properly, it will show how Canada thinks about natural resources. And if it’s allowed to be destroyed, then it will also show the fallacies of what Canada does to its resources.”

When talking about local water supplies, one of the most pressing conversation topics in Canada is the interest by large corporations in purchasing those water supplies. Powell acknowledges that is a real concern but is unsure of whether a company such as Nestlé would deem the water supply to be worth the trouble that would come with it.

“I shudder at the idea that this would happen,” says Powell. “I can’t imagine that Nestlé hasn’t considered this – they must be aware of this water. We’ve written articles for the Globe and Mail, and we’ve been on the CBC, and there’s been news article after news article written about different aspects. It’s not as if this isn’t known. But I don’t know if there would be the type of flow [they need]. Nestlé isn’t going to get anything like they get from Guelph. And I don’t think they would be successful.”

Matt Jones is a New Brunswick-based freelance writer.

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