The Canadian Prairie Biome is located throughout the southern portion of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba in Western Canada and is home to 80 percent of the country's agriculture industry. Changing climate is affecting agriculture, flood and drought risk, and water quality. In addition, land management practices, such as drainage and wetland removal, are changing the landscape and the ecological services that it provides.

Global Institute for Water Security sites are located throughout the prairies in Saskatchewan and Manitoba and represent varying prairie environments. Research conducted at these sites is being used to develop hydrological models of agricultural land management practices and new hydrogeochemical models of agricultural pollution and beneficial management practices. In addition, research focus is on improved understanding and modelling of ecosystem vulnerability to climate variability and change as well as potential feedbacks to the land-atmosphere system. 

Swift Current Runoff Plots

The study site consists of three adjacent, 5-hectare instrumented experimental plots in the semi-arid, agricultural region of southern Saskatchewan. The site (near Swift Current) was established by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Semi-arid Prairie Agricultural Research Centre in the late 1950s to research the effects of agricultural land management practices on runoff water quality, chemical transport and soil erodability.

The plots are instrumented with edge-of-field surface runoff monitoring. They have a long record of data collection associated with the runoff amount, water quality, land management practices, precipitation, soil characteristics and climate observations.

The current research focus of members of the Global Institute for Water Security (working jointly with AAFC) is to understand the fundamental drivers of threshold-like hydrological runoff responses to snowmelt and rainfall events in a semi-arid, prairie landscape. This is through analysis of high frequency, long-term data; experimental monitoring of the surface hydrology; and hydrological model building and testing.

Photo (pointing south): The three plots during a wheat year. There are heated sheds at the northwest (lower) end of each plot containing a flume, stilling well, water level monitoring equipment and automated samplers.
Photo credit: Allan Cessna. Taken from his paper: Cessna et al 2013, Journal of Environmental Quality 42:782-793.

Tobacco Creek

In December 2011, the Global Institute for Water Security secured a Canadian Water Network grant to support research to understand the effects of agricultural beneficial management practices on hydrology, water quality, and aquatic ecosystem health in the Red River Valley and Lake Winnipeg Basin. Agricultural beneficial management practices (BMPs) are used to reduce nutrient loads to sensitive aquatic ecosystems, and mitigate effects of flood and drought. Despite widespread application of these practices across North America and Europe, there remains relatively little information on their effectiveness.

Tobacco Creek is a 1,000 km2 subwatershed located in south-central Manitoba which is part of the agriculture-dominated drainage system of the Lake Winnipeg Basin.  It is one of the most data-rich watersheds in Canada, where more than 20 years of research has been targeted to understanding effectiveness of several BMPs.  The research has been facilitated by government scientists and university researchers from across the country in cooperation with the Tobacco Creek Model Watershed – a group of stakeholders (community members, farmers, agriculture industry, and government) and scientific researchers. The watershed is an ideal environmental laboratory for GIWS development of coupled hydrological-biogeochemical models for quantitative assessment of BMP effectiveness, and for testing agri-environmental indicators.

Current scientific focus:           

  • Hydrological modelling to assess BMP effects on peak flows in cold regions
  • Development of nutrient sub-models for understanding BMP effectiveness in reducing downstream nutrient export
  • Testing functional indicators of nutrient status and ecological condition
  • Assessing in-stream nutrient retention processes
  • Design of monitoring networks capable of detecting BMP effects
  • Testing high frequency sensors in challenging environments 
  • Contributing to long-term research legacy at Tobacco Creek, and disseminating results to local stakeholders and policy makers. 

Research group members: Helen Baulch, Howard Wheater, John Pomeroy, Taufique Mahmood 

Brightwater Creek

  • Observation sites located in central southern Saskatchewan within the moist mixed grassland ecoregion. 
    • Primarily cultivated with cereal crops, with areas of native grassland and pasture.
  • The basin area is approximately 900 km2 and covers much of the headwaters of Brightwater Creek, which drains to the South Saskatchewan River.
  • Research site was established in 2007 as part of a National Agri-Environmental Standards Initiative (NAESI) research project.
  • Station network set up and operated by Environment Canada and University of Guelph.
  • The site is part of the CanEx-SM10 experiment run in collaboration with NASA.

Current Scientific Focus

  • Hydrological modelling and remote sensing validation.
  • Flux towers for surface mass/energy balance measurements.
  • Soil moisture and precipitation networks.
  • Large scale soil moisture/evaporation measurements.

Global Institute for Water Security Working Groups

St. Denis National Wildlife Area

The St. Denis National Wildlife Area landscape is characterized by large wetland areas and Prairie pothole topography. Photo copywright: Environment Canada, Robert Armstrong.

The St. Denis National Wildlife Area is a 361-hectare area that was established by Environment Canada in 1968 to monitor the effects of agricultural activities on wildlife habitat. Located about 40 km east of Saskatoon, the landscape is characterized by numerous closed-basin wetlands, known as prairie potholes, and a rich diversity of plant and animal species.

Since 1980, a number of research initiatives have been carried out, including investigations of waterfowl and habitat, hydrology and soil science. The site has a long record of data collection and scientific study and provides an excellent opportunity for integrated research on the effects of land management and climate change on the hydrology of the prairie landscape. Researchers from the Global Institute for Water Security and Environment Canada are working jointly at St. Denis.

Current scientific focus:

  • Measurement of air temperature/humidity, precipitation and wind speed via two meteorological stations.
  • Monitoring of tree swallow nesting activity and waterbird communities.
  • Continuous monitoring of water levels in selected wetlands, to track runoff and estimate water balance. 
  • Monitoring and modelling of surface and subsurface hydrology and water quality response, including extreme events.
  • Development of an integrated model (i.e. ecohydropedology) to improve understanding of fundamental processes.
  • Testing of the model using manipulative experiments on selected watersheds.
  • Linkage of the results to regional models using both local and regional transects.

Research group members: Angela Bedard-Haughn, Bob Clark, Bing Si, Dan Pennock, Chris Spence, Garth van der Kamp, Andew Ireson, Helen Baulch, Britt Hall, Jane Elliott, Cherie Westbrook, Christy Morrissey, Jeffrey McDonnell, Darcy Henderson, Uri Nachshon, Heather Wilson, Dell Bayne. 

Lake Diefenbaker

Lake Diefenbaker was created in 1967 by the construction of the Gardiner Dam and the Qu'Appelle River Dam
  • A large, multi-purpose reservoir on the South Saskatchewan River in south-west Saskatchewan, Lake Diefenbaker was formed by the construction of Gardiner Dam and Qu’Appelle River Dam.
    • Approximately 430 km2 surface area, 9.4 km3 volume and 22 m average depth.
    • Uses include power generation, flood control, irrigation, industrial water supply, recreation and fishing, aquaculture, and augmentation of the Qu’Appelle River.
  • Fed by Old Man, Bow and Red Deer Rivers in southern Alberta.
    • Most of the upstream basin area is dry, treeless prairie; primary land use is grain and livestock production.
    • Irrigation return flows and municipal/industrial effluents represent major sources of contaminants in upstream contributing watersheds.

Current Scientific Focus

  • The Global Institute for Water Security research is among the first long-term research program established at Lake Diefenbaker and aims to understand current and future vulnerability of water quality and aquatic ecosystems to nutrient loading. 
  • Past research projects include: 
    • Water quality analysis on nutrient loading and algal blooms (2008) by the Toxicology Centre, University of Saskatchewan.
    • Sampling and analysis of nitrogen fixation by cyanobacteria (1994 – 2005) by Department of Biology, University of Regina.
    • Intensive study (1984) by Water Quality Branch of Environment Canada and Saskatchewan Department of Environment on nutrient loading from upstream areas and sediment toxicity.

Global Institute for Water Security Working Groups

Smith Creek Research Basin

  • Located in eastern Saskatchewan within the Aspen Parkland sub-basin of the Assiniboine River.
  • Approximately 435 km2 basin characterized by prairie pothole topography, with numerous isolated wetland areas with little or no surface inflow/outflow.
  • Established in 2007 by the Centre for Hydrology, U of S with funding from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Prairie Habitat Joint Venture Committee, Prairie Provinces Water Board, Manitoba Water Stewardship, Saskatchewan Watershed Authority and Ducks Unlimited Canada.
  • Basin has undergone rapid changes over the past 50 years, transitioning from areas of extensive woodland and wetlands to grain and oilseed cultivation.
  • There has been a reduction in wetland areas from 17% to 9% during 1958 – 2001.

Current Scientific Focus

  • Smith Creek is being studied to understand the effects of land use changes and drainage on eastern prairie hydrology, flooding and drought, and to develop a hydrological model for predicting these changes.
    • Investigations of the role of wetlands in governing streamflow and effects of wetland drainage through modelling and experimental techniques.
  • More recent focus on water quality issues related to wetland drainage.

Global Institute for Water Security Working Groups

Swift Current Creek/Wascana Creek/South Saskatchewan River

A GIWS-member research team from the U of S School of Environment and Sustainability and Toxicology Centre has received funding through the Canadian Water Network to study the effects of wastewater chemicals on aquatic environments in Saskatchewan. The research team is establishing and validating a set of techniques to characterize and assess potential effects of municipal wastewater effluent on aquatic environments. This research builds on past GIWS-funded research into the identification and assessment of chemicals of concern in the South Saskatchewan River system.

Resesarch sites and corresponding urban centres include:

  • Wascana Creek, Regina
  • Swift Current Creek, Swift Current
  • South Saskatchewan River, Saskatoon

The research outcome is a suite of practical, effective, user-friendly and relevant tools that can be applied across Canada, and which can be easily integrated in current regulatory requirements for municipalities. To ensure these tools can meet the needs of water managers, the research team includes municipal collaborators from each of the city water treatment plants involved.

Canada has been a leader in establishing regulatory frameworks which aim to assess risks associated with endocrine-disrupting chemicals. However, no comparable attempts to harmonize testing strategies and decision-making criteria for monitoring these componds in wastewater effluent have been made. Processses which rid pharmaceuticals, personal care products, natural hormones and other contaminants from wastewater are often incomplete and inefficent. In addition, aquatic environments are at risk due to input of nutrients from agriculture sources, reduced streamflow due to extreme weather variation and increased effluent inputs from population growth and urbanization. At a time when water supply and quality may be dwindling due to climate change, such research is especially important. 

Research group members: Markus Hecker (lead), Natacha Hogan, Steve Wiseman, Paul Jones, John Giesy, Howard Wheater, Chris Somers (University of Regina), Alice Hontela (University of Lethbridge), Peter Leavitt (University of Regina), Twyla Yobb (City of Saskatoon), Tim Cox (City of Swift Current), Jerry Cheshuk (City of Regina).

Buffalo Pound Lake

Buffalo Pound Lake is a eutrophic reservoir in rural Saskatchewan which provides drinking water to residents of the cities of Regina and Moose Jaw  (25% of the province's population). The lake is susceptible to algal blooms, which may increase in frequency due to high nutrient loads,  and warmer weather. Water treatment processes and costs are significantly affected by lake ecology. The Buffalo Pound Water Treatment Plant relies on expensive advanced treatment processes to ensure high quality finished water, and help eliminate taste and odour caused by algal blooms.

GIWS-member researchers are developing models to provide early warning of conditions likely to lead to harmful algal blooms, or warn of major changes in lake chemistry which could affect drinking water treatment. Results will benefit the local water utility and water users, and aid in the management of other bloom-affected waters and surface water supplies. Researchers are working closely with plant managers and the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency to ensure research outcomes align with management and policy-related objectives.

Research goals:

  • Using long-term data and paleolimnological techniques, investigate changes within Buffalo Pound Lake, with a focus on understanding recent changes in algal communities and odour production.
  • Using a lake observatory buoy which measures physical, chemical, and biological parameters in real-time, develop monitoring tools to provide advanced warning of bloom risk.  This will include the first application of a coupled hydrodynamic-ecological model to the system, informed by improved geochemical and ecological understanding of the study system.  
  • Characterize toxins within Buffalo Pound, with sampling informed by high frequency monitoring data.

Research group members: Helen Baulch (lead), John Giesy, Karsten Liber, Paul Jones, Lorne Doig, Karl-Erich Lindenscmidt, Peter Leavitt (University of Regina)

*Funding and logistical support for this research is provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (Strategic Project Grants), the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, the Buffalo Pound Water Treatment Plant, the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency, and the Global Institute for Water Security.