Ground Water Canada

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The climate connection

Diana Allen shares insights gained from her research and weighs in on ground water issues in Canada

January 8, 2015  By Ground Water Canada

Diana Allen is one of Canada’s leading ground water experts. As a professor in the earth sciences department at Simon Fraser University specializing in hydrogeology, she is a prominent advocate of protecting Canada’s ground water resources.

Diana Allen is one of Canada’s leading ground water experts. As a professor in the earth sciences department at Simon Fraser University specializing in hydrogeology, she is a prominent advocate of protecting Canada’s ground water resources.

Diana Allen says low flows in streams are a serious concern that have motivated her to focus on climate change impacts on ground water systems.



Allen was appointed to British Columbia’s Ground Water Advisory Board, where she played a key role in developing regulations and shaping public policy. In 2013, she was presented the C.J. Westerman Memorial Award by the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of BC (APEGBC) in recognition of her research, teaching and service to the community. Ground Water Canada caught up with Allen this summer to learn about her research and get her insights about the ground water industry in Canada.

Ground Water Canada: Would you please share with us a bit about the important work you are doing with the British Columbia’s Ground Water Advisory Board?

Diana Allen: Well, that all started in 2003 when I was asked by the province to sit on a six-member panel called the Ground water Advisory Board appointed by the minister [of the environment]. I was the only academic in the room, but academic in the sense that I am a very practical academic. The research and training I do is very practical. There were a driller, a pump installer, two people from consulting, and a representative from the ministry [of the environment]. So we had this board that represented quite a broad range of viewpoints on how British Columbia should be shaping its ground water regulation. The Drinking Water Protection Act had recently been modified. There was a provision in the Water Act, at the time, to introduce some ground water protection regulation and that regulation was intended to come out in three phases. Phase 1 was passed in November 2004. So it was very rapid, from September 2003 to November 2004, drafting recommendations to government. It was crafting the regulations themselves, although the lawyers made some modifications to our wording, but those regulations speak to driller and pump installer qualifications and construction standards. Right on the heels of that coming out, we started to work on phase 2, which looked at reporting and a variety of topics. It was a very comprehensive set of recommendations for regulation. That regulation never came out. The provincial government decided to go back and modify the Water Act because it was insufficient to deal with the complexity of problems that were beginning to emerge. So the Ministry of Environment took it and started the modernization of the Water Act. This past spring, the Water Sustainability Act was passed. So a large component of the regulations we developed will migrate right over, at least that’s my understanding. There will be some modifications because the act is worded differently now. Phase 2 essentially will be the well reporting.

What did you discover from your research into the Grand Forks Aquifer?

DA: That project, funnily enough, didn’t start out at all in how it ended. At the time the ministry had an interest in looking at well-capture zones for the Grand Forks Aquifer. There are a number of large-scale production wells in that small valley and the way that they had delineated the well-capture zones was based on a fixed-radius method. My colleague at the ministry said it would be interesting to see if there are other ways these capture zones can be delineated. I thought: we can build a ground water model of the area. It was just me building this very simplistic model of the Grand Forks Aquifer. And, I thought, what could I do with this thing apart from reporting on these capture zones? I started thinking about climate change and what that could possibly do to ground water recharge and very early work that I did was simply looking at global climate change projections for that area. For example, if it got wetter by this amount, what would that do to recharge? The very first paper that I wrote launched this area of research for me that I’ve been doing and continue to do. Once I had that first thought, it raised more questions than it did answers. I recruited a master’s student and he really lifted the research to a totally different level, linking global climate models, looking at recharge in a distributed way and building in a river connection to the whole system. From there we had a template. We duplicated the process in Abbotsford and another study was done in the Oliver area of the Okanagan with modifications. There is a collection of studies that stemmed from that early work in Grand Forks at a local scale leading to recent work in Fort Collins in Colorado where a group of us are trying to summarize what could happen to recharge across the Western United States in the face of climate change.

GWC: Do your students get in touch with you, are they in the field?

DA: Oh yeah, yeah. The ones that have come up to me and said I really got inspired by hydrogeology and what other courses can I take and how can I best prepare myself for this type of career. I don’t stay in touch as much with the undergraduates as I do with the graduate students but definitely the ones I know where they are and most of them, I know they’ve gone off and are working for various consulting companies.

GWC: What are the major ways ground water is impacted by climate change?

DA: We’ve learned a lot in terms of synthesizing our understanding of climate change processes, not just climate change processes, but climate processes in a wide variety of terrain. Mountains and coastal systems are the two areas I tend to focus on. In the context of mountains, most of the mountain regions have snow melt, or have snow pack on them in the winter, and the amount of snow pack is expected to decrease in the future. Likewise, our glacier cover is expected to decrease. So the amount of water that’s generated from mountains could become lower than it is right now just due to that loss of water. But [many people] really don’t understand that if you don’t have the snow then that means you’re going to end up with more rain. How does that change the dynamic of everything? We really don’t know the answer to that. There haven’t been a lot of studies that have looked at what’s going to happen if we move from a snow melt type of system to one that’s more rainfall-dominated, or rain on snow events. In the future, we have to pay a lot more attention to how surface water and ground water are connected. The people who look at surface water, they do know that ground water provides base flow to streams – it’s a common principle – but their models and the work they do tend to focus on what’s happening to the surface water system. Low flows in streams are a very serious concern for the future, and that’s why I’ve been focusing on climate change impacts on ground water systems. What do they mean to things like low flows in the summer or availability of water during the summer when irrigation demand is really high?

We have a chronic problem in Canada with respect to hydrology in general. We lack long-term ground water data. There are some provinces that have some old records that go back to the 1950s, maybe a bit before, that but not a lot of information. We have a little bit of spotty coverage on how ground water systems have changed historically over time, as evidenced by their ground water levels. But I don’t think we really have enough information and a long-enough time period of observation to be able to truly understand the response of a ground water system to climate variability.

The other big problem is that we don’t know how much ground water is used in Canada. Domestic well users don’t record how much they use. Large users have to report; but with the cumulative effect of ground water extraction, I don’t think we have the faintest idea what that is in this country. And for that matter, probably not even surface water either. And given that ground water and surface water are connected, do we really know how much water we are using?

GWC: Any ideas for going about rectifying that or finding a way to measure?

DA: Well, there’d be a lot of kickback if we said to domestic well users you need to put a water meter on your well. But I would think there could be a community out there that’s concerned enough that they might want to participate in a pilot study by putting water meters on.

I’ve pitched that idea to the Islands Trust, which is the body that oversees water on B.C.’s Gulf Islands. Let’s see how much we really do use. If it starts with the small user, a grassroots type of action, maybe there could be an impact.

GWC: How can we advance the public recognition of the importance of ground water and protecting it?

DA: The six-member Ground Water Advisory Board was very innovative on the part of the ministry. From a driller’s perspective it’s a business, and from an academic or a government perspective it’s a sustainability issue. Working together had its challenges but ultimately I think we’re all in the same business, right? So, if we can find more opportunities to work together, then I think that’s the way to go.

The other thing I’d say is that the drillers are really the ones that are talking to the residents and they have that opportunity when somebody says “I need a well” to maybe talk a little bit more about what’s so precious about this resource.

Just raising that awareness could go a long way. The driller could also point to, for example, a handout that maybe the Ministry of Environment creates, with a list of web pages that have information on how to disinfect a well, or what to be worried about.

A well owner’s first contact is with the driller and I wonder if they don’t know where to go after that. Providing that link could be valuable.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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