Water Music

By Allan Casey

The prairie temperature has yet to top -30 C today, the coldest day of winter so far. As I crunch toward the National Hydrology Research Centre (NHRC), I wonder if Howard Wheater is having second thoughts about his first Saskatchewan winter. Trading London, UK, for Saskatoon, SK, might have seemed like a lark in June, but this is real booster-cable weather.

"This is the coldest day of my life," the eminent hydrologist jovially affirms when I find him in his new office at Innovation Place. An Everest-grade parka hangs on the coat stand, he wears a grey collared sweater inside, and his assistant bolsters him with Alberta-sized mugs of Earl Grey tea. After 32 years at Imperial College, London, one of the world's foremost authorities on the use and management of water has traded his comfortable place in a fabled city for a ground-floor window over-looking a frozen parking lot in western Canada.

"We have absolutely come to a landmark time in history with respect to water," says Wheater, newly installed as Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Water Security. "We've lived through an era of ever-expanding demand and increasing development of resources to meet that demand. And we see all around us now where we have come to the limits of sustainability."

Water Music

As one of those who care passionately about the future of earth's fresh water, Wheater's arrival into the University of Saskatchewan research community gives me a reason for hope. Over the next two decades, the number of people who face shortages of good-quality water is expected to surpass two billion. In ever-complacent Canada, we cling to the myth that we will always be water-rich. We have no national plan to manage our water now, nor in a potentially hotter, dryer future.

Indeed, the global water crunch has already arrived in our own backyard. The South Saskatchewan River, which so generously carries sweet Rocky Mountain water across an otherwise dry prairie, is nearly tapped-out. The Athabasca River, which runs the gauntlet of the Alberta oilsands, has been found to be heavily polluted and poorly monitored.

Wheater has come west to tackle these problems, and many more, in an ambitious CERC project to change the way we care for water in Canada and beyond. Over six feet tall, thin and agile, Wheater looks younger than his 61 years. Good thing, because frosty January weather is the least of the challenges he faces here.

As his British colleagues may have wondered, why the University of Saskatchewan? Years before Wheater's arrival, the university designated water research as one of its key research priorities, gathering some of the top talents in ecology, toxicology, and hydrology, and building some of the best research facilities anywhere. Simultaneously, a network of social scientists-from economics to native studies to public policyhas been deployed to study the wider dimensions of water. Agricultural scientists also play a key role, and much of the academic work will be done on a partnership basis with government agencies like the NHRC.

The task now is to get this cadre of researchers working as a team in order to solve the riddle of sustainable water, and that is where Howard Wheater comes in. "One of my jobs is to pull the research community together," says Wheater, who has likened his role to that of a symphony conductor. Interdisciplinary science has a renewed focus, and Wheater will have an unprecedentedly large "orchestra" to manage, one with $30 million in funding. "This is probably the biggest single university endowment in water research worldwide."

To begin with, Wheater's research ensemble will focus on three main tasks. It will study the Saskatchewan River basin as a whole to answer questions about water security as it relates to climate change. The South Saskatchewan downstream as far as Saskatoon will be used to study the impacts of land use on water quality with a particular focus on agricultural and municipal inputs to the river. Meanwhile, the Athabasca River will be the test bed to study sustainable resource development, especially oilsands and other mining.

Big-scale, interdisciplinary research is only a start. Wheater aims for his water science to be put to practical use by those who actually manage water, by policy makers and by governments.

That part is music to my ears. Water is devilishly difficult to manage. Thousands of agencies and individuals have some say in water. It leaks through the administrative cracks and refuses to honour political boundaries. Municipal, provincial and federal government offices stake their jurisdictional claims in the name of health, irrigation, recreation, utility power, manufacturing and many more. The result is that water is managed by everyoneand no one.

Wheater knows it will not be easy to contend with our fragmented government structures here. In the UK, he was used to a strong central government guided by stringent European Union rules that place ecological quality atop the water agenda. Though he calls himself "the new boy," he sounds cautiously optimistic about tackling the organizational confusion. "If we get together with the social scientists, we can actually study what is not just an environmental problem, but a very complex social problem."

As if all that was not challenge enough, Wheater and company intend to use the laboratory of western Canada to develop concepts and techniques with worldwide application. Integral to his CERC program, Wheater will launch and lead the Global Institute for Water Security. The new agency, currently making its way through the university governance system, should be ready for public unveiling in time for Water Week at the U of S beginning March 21. A central goal of the new institute will be to translate water science into real-world water management.

As a young scientist in 1981, Wheater went to Oman to study flooding in the aftermath of a deadly deluge there. Since that first foray to the beautiful Arabian peninsula, most of his career has been dedicated to sustainable water. He has consulted with governments, non-governmental organizations and research colleagues in virtually every part of the world.

His Saskatoon posting will be as ambitious as anything he has done to date, and it comes at a career stage when he might be tempted to coast. His children encouraged him to make the trip west, and it helps that he is married to a colleague. Patricia Gober researches water policy and recently joined the faculty of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.

Wheater's take on his own future is a no-nonsense British one; "I have a grant that lasts for seven years. That will take me to the ripe old age of 68. We'll see how it goes."

As a citizen of the west who has followed the rise of water science at the University of Saskatchewan with keen interest, I hope it goes well indeed.

Water Music

Saskatoon-Humbolt MP Brad Trost, left, U of S President Peter MacKinnon and Howard Wheater tour the Aquatic Toxicology Research Centre.

Allan Casey (BA'86) is the author of Lakeland: Ballad of a Freshwater Country, which won the Governor General's Award for non-fiction in 2010. He is a regular contributor to Canadian Geographic magazine on the subject of water. He lives in Saskatoon, not far from the river.

Facts and Figures: Water Research at the U of S

  • More than 70 faculty in at least 19 U of S departments are currently involved in water research
  • More than 20 faculty involved in water research are U of S alumni
  • 1 Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in water research: Howard Wheater
  • $30 million over 7 years to be invested in the CERC
  • CERC funding will add:
    • 6 new faculty
    • support for  about 45 undergraduate summer students
    • support for about 24 master’s students
    • support for about 24 PhD students
    • support for about 20 post-doctoral fellows
  • 5 Canada Research Chairs (CRC) at the U of S focus on water, of which 2 are U of S alumni: Monique Dubé (MSc’95) and John Pomeroy (BSc’83, PhD’88)
  • Direct funding for the five water-related CRCs totals $15 million, and related research funding is approximately $75 million