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Q-and-A with Beth Parker: Dreaming big for the Bedrock Aquifer Field Facility

A driving force in ground water research dreams big


January 17, 2020
By Ground Water Canada

Topics
The dream: a rendering of what the new facility could look like. PHOTO COURTESY G360

Beth Parker is the founding director of the G360 Institute for Groundwater Research, holds an NSERC senior industrial research chair and is a professor at the School of Engineering at the University of Guelph.

Parker spoke with Ground Water Canada after funding was approved for a new Bedrock Aquifer Field Facility (BAFF) in Guelph, Ont., to build on the existing facility, established in 2009 as part of the G360 Institute. The new, research-focused, educational facility will highlight ground water and serve as a hub for the public and professionals alike. Parker, who is spearheading these plans, told us of her dreams for the new BAFF.

WHAT IS G360?
G360 is a research institute that, essentially, has its home at the University of Guelph. It’s meant to represent me and my professor colleagues and about 15 staff members who are professional geologists or professional engineers focused on advancing ground water science and practice through field-based research. We’re an interactive, multidisciplinary team with a focus on data collection and analysis involving high-resolution measurements from field sites. We’ve been motivated to better understand real-site complexities by doing work in the field, which has driven us to be innovative in how we collect our data, including spatial detail using a variety of sensors. Recently, high-resolution temporal data added to spatial detail supported by new capacity for data storage has come to the forefront. We work with many data types from individual boreholes and then combine the insights from multiple boreholes at local and regional scales. We’ve been able to do things differently as technology has advanced – sometimes the technology is developed internal to G360, and other times developed external to our group, allowing us to connect with our vendor- and supplier-type collaborators to demonstrate new capabilities for characterization and monitoring, ultimately bringing improved methods and insights to the profession.

For example, we use all the multilevel systems that are commercially available, often in non-standard ways. One thing we’ve done uniquely is dared to put more ports in the ground than what’s typically done by site owners. We get to push the envelope because we’re doing research and that’s given us lots of new and practical insights, such as the position and thickness of fractured rock aquitards. I think as we push on the state-of-the-practice a bit, we’d like to think there is transferability to our practitioner colleagues. We are often asked to collaborate with our consulting colleagues on projects, allowing us to further test our novel tools in a variety of challenging field conditions or new applications.

One of the things we think is a real game-changer in the ground water profession for bedrock is the ability to use flexible fabric liners that are manufactured in the U.S. by FLUTe (Flexible Liner Underground Technologies, https://www.flut.com/). I’ve been working with the inventor, Carl Keller, since 1993. In addition to manufacturing a few commercially available multilevel monitoring systems for above and below the water table, this technology features easy removability or decommissioning and many design configurations. There are now many data collection options involving the FLUTe liner for deployment of various sensors for hydraulic head, temperature and contaminant conditions including NAPL [non-aqueous phase liquids] detection. Most important to the science is that we’ve used them very effectively to deploy many sensor types behind the liners and/or seal the borehole so it isn’t an open hole cross-connecting the natural system. The liners can accommodate a range of bedrock borehole conditions; from large diameter water supply wells to small diameter core holes. We can also use it to deploy fibre-optic cables for distributed temperature or acoustic sensing in boreholes, which is really new and innovative. These new data types are exciting to see, providing new insights about the position of hydraulically active fractures and their flow rates in many zones along a borehole, very efficiently.

It allows us to work at field sites in different stages, so instead of thinking you drill a hole and you immediately complete it as a monitoring well, we get to use it for a certain type of multi-stage data collection cost effectively, with much more data to provide insights about site conditions before moving toward a permanent monitoring stage. We’ve been deliberately separating the answers to questions that are objective-specific; characterizing the system before committing to a monitoring design. But of course, there’s always characterization that comes from later monitoring – it’s just that the permanent monitoring designs can be better informed with a different style of data. We’re quite accustomed to doing geophysics right after we drill, knowing that we likely won’t have a chance to do geophysics in the same way after the borehole has been converted to a monitoring system. We’re now able to bring hydrological data into a kind of geophysical logging stage of the site investigations. In a similar way, we’re calling it hydrophysical logging and we use temperature and hydraulic head and many different tools that work that way to give us insights as to flow. We’re excited about using these hydrophysical data sets and head profiles to help us better delineate where aquitards exist in the system. We’re trying to focus on aquitards to better refine our understanding of flow systems and contaminant migration pathways and travel times.

Since 2003, we have been using the Guelph region bedrock aquifer as a research laboratory in many unique ways, promoting major progress towards establishing a world-class ground water monitoring network for this urban aquifer system – the only such advanced ground water monitoring to exist for a bedrock aquifer community in North America. The BAFF is now the centrepiece as a means to demonstrate to the public how the aquifer functions and serves for special research projects. The BAFF’s value is greatly enhanced because it is tied to the broader scales of monitoring and research.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR CONNECTION WITH THE CITY OF GUELPH.

It’s great to have a facility on campus that is also in the heart of Guelph’s downtown, within their water supply well field, and within this ground water dependent community. The city is a key G360 research partner and is very much interested in what we do and implementing our designs into their monitoring network. There are challenges: How do we keep the public informed to the state of our professional abilities about what’s right with ground water in Guelph? How do we build confidence in the reliance on this bedrock aquifer for sustainable quantity and high-quality water for the range of water needs? How do we ensure that we aren’t impinging on neighbouring communities or user needs including ecosystem health while pumping from the same source?

The city has been investing in our approach to high-resolution characterization to design monitoring systems since 2008, with numerous G360-designed monitoring locations within and around the city. We’re drilling and collecting data and building monitoring systems that include new technology and capabilities on both public and private properties. These systems are funded by many different projects, many with the city and often with private companies as partners with federal and provincial research grants. The city and industrial site owners, along with their consultants are accessing this data in near real time, so they are able to implement it  into their ground water flow models and their decision-making: how to optimize pumping well operations and perhaps even bring dormant wells back online in a way that makes most sense.

What’s exciting, too, is that I have a number of PhD scientists who are committed to this vision. Even though they’re not faculty members they’re very much a part of the research enterprise here in terms of making our science new, robust and relevant.

WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR BAFF?
The proposed new facility will be on the same site as the existing structure at the University of Guelph Arboretum. We’re even trying to keep some of the original building structure with many important design features showcasing ground water and modern technologies. We’ve been given final approval from the university board of governors and our physical resource committee and are now officially in fundraising mode. There are lots of ways in which we’re trying to build excitement around this, but in the same vein that we’ve been enjoying working with ground water equipment vendors and manufacturers, we see this as an opportunity to expose our students to many commercially available products, many of which are developed in Canada. Collaboration with the suppliers, demonstration kits or actual infrastructure at our research facilities will provide hands-on learning opportunities with these technologies. Exposure to well-established tools or new tools in early stages of development enhances both technology transfer and professional practice within the Canadian ground water industry.

WILL THE NEW BAFF BE FOR THE PUBLIC?

I think this is a natural use of an educational and research space – one suiting all ages and stages of education and public engagement. As an undergraduate student, I remember learning about ground water and I found it one of the most head-bending subjects because nothing can be seen directly and therefore understanding relies on visualizing things in your mind. Of course, there are tools and techniques useful for explaining these concepts to the public that will engage various age groups, with hopes of engaging them directly in water stewardship activities. We’ve been thinking about many displays for this facility and, specifically, how to display ground water flow systems, the nature of both aquifers and aquitards, how these systems are understood in a robust manner, how these systems behave under pumping and non-pumping conditions, and how ground water influences other components of the water cycle. As we embark on this fundraising campaign, I would be excited to hear back from our Canadian ground water colleagues on how to best design these displays. What can you think of that would take this idea for a display to another level? How do we make it more intuitive for the non-ground water professional? More visually clear, hands-on and interactive to show relationships or causes and effects?

We are at the perfect stage for collecting ideas. The time is right to rally enthusiasm for using this future facility to the best of our collective abilities and we’re looking for design features that would make this a great place for education, technology demonstrations, conferences, workshops and professional and/or public meetings. We’d like to engage you and the public.

Our hope is to establish a rock wall that represents characteristics of the Silurian dolostone aquifer that supplies fresh water to the Guelph area and beyond, but we want to make the rock properties visual and realistic for people and more accessible than a quarry. That’s just one idea – a transparent well that extends two or three storeys tall so that we can show people what our tools look like inside a borehole and demonstrate how these tools work, would also be valuable. We have existing boreholes in the subsurface near the building that allow us to demonstrate equipment making measurements down a borehole and show the data on monitors as it is being collected for discussion. We might use numerical models to simulate ground water system behaviours and how conditions change due to different influences relevant to the residents of Guelph and Ontario communities. Using physical displays combined with computer models allows people to visualize what they otherwise could not. People talk about dashboards, so that’s essentially monitoring data that’s converted into live-type displays. We’re going to need help, though, because I can’t build any of this stuff myself – I can only dream about it!

SHARE YOUR IDEAS!
We just have to get people to come and explore with us. We’re always open to doing demonstrations. That’s the stage we’re at right now: showing technologies when they are being used and what this data means. We’re looking for sponsors and a sponsorship could be cash, in-kind equipment, support with professional time or ideas. Our focus extends to all possible aspects of ground water, including low temperature geothermal for heating and cooling. We are also engaged with ground water at the interface with surface water and the other components of the water cycle, including the effects of agriculture, urbanization, resource extraction and climate change, all of which are relevant as we work together for a sustainable future.

Interested readers may get in touch with G360 directly or through Ground Water Canada. This interview has been edited and condensed.