Has Ontario reached a watershed moment?
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Every time we turn on a tap in Canada, we expect to get safe, clear and fresh water. That’s today. But what can we expect tomorrow?

“Our watersheds are our lifelines,” says April James, the Canada Research Chair in Watershed Analysis. “We all depend on our freshwater resources.”

The Nipissing University hydrologist researches how water moves through watersheds, from rainfall to the flow of streams, and recharges groundwater. James also looks at how all the decisions we make – as individuals and as a society – affect our water resources.

It probably comes as no surprise that building power-generating dams and polluting rivers affect the greater watershed. But so does owning a house and making gardening or landscape decisions, she says.

James collects water samples, tracks water levels, and measures soil moisture, to gain a better understanding about how our watersheds function. But tracking water flow can be difficult because the subterranean rivers that are part of our water system are vast and inaccessible.

“Hydrologists have to act like detectives on the landscape,” says James. When she and her team can’t get direct evidence, they turn to water chemistry and water isotopes to help them paint a picture of the flow patterns throughout a watershed.

“The isotopic signature gives us information on how long water has been stored in the watershed, and helps us track the water to its source,” says James.

By collecting water samples and comparing the isotopes signatures, James can then use the data to create computer models that simulate how water flows through an environment. Luckily, there have been decades of research on water isotopes, so she has long data sets to compare her findings and create these models.

“Developing better tools that measure and predict the flow paths that water takes to our streams and lakes will help us predict the response of big storm events,” she says. They’ll also help James and her team predict how environmental spills will move through the water system.

With increasing industrial development, James says the issues with water level and water quality become more and more important.

“Our basic research on how a watershed functions has a direct line to how we control water levels, implement power generations and near-shore development, and contain contamination and pollutants,” says James.

“We need to understand our impact on watersheds to think about our future together,” she says.

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