Waterloo to tackle legacies of agricultural pollutants on a global scale

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Runoff from an agricultural field.Three researchers from University of Waterloo will share more than $500,000 to address persistent, long-term pollution created by excess fertilizers in the lakes, rivers and wetlands in several parts of the world. 

The interdisciplinary project entitled Legacies of Agriculture Pollutants (LEAP) is one of six international projects receiving a combined contribution of $1.84 million CAD over three years. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) is the Canadian funding partner organization, alongside the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), supporting six international research collaborations through the Water Joint Programming Initiative.

 Philippe Van Cappellen.“Protecting water quality in the face of a growing population and the corresponding demands on agriculture is critical to ensuring both water and food security for generations to come,” said Professor Philippe Van Cappellen, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Ecohydrology and the principal investigator on the LEAP project. “The transnational and transdisciplinary research involved in this project, demonstrates the importance for collaboration across disciplines in order to help tackle the water challenges we are facing globally.”

Due to increases in agricultural production in past years, large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers and animal manure are making their way into our waterways, contaminating drinking water and producing harmful algal blooms in lakes, reservoirs and coastal areas. Over time, nitrogen and phosphorus legacies have developed in soils and in groundwater, meaning that even when we improve current agricultural management practices, it may take a long time to see improvements in water quality.  LEAP aims to gain a predictive understanding of these legacy nutrients over time on how they will be released into our lakes and streams.

Nandita Basu.“It is crucial to understand both the environmental and economic impacts of these nutrient legacies as we invest more time and resources into improving water quality,” said Nandita Basu, a professor jointly appointed to Waterloo’s departments of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Civil and Environmental Engineering, and also working on LEAP.

Competition for the current funding was intense and involved a two-stage application process. 

Roy Brouwer“This project is a true reflection of the Water Institute’s core mission of promoting relevant, impactful, collaborative, interdisciplinary research,” said Roy Brouwer, executive director of the Water Institute and a professor in the department of Economics in the Faculty of Arts, who is also one of the three researchers in the project.

The funding will support the hiring of three PhD students and Kimberly Van Meter, a postdoctoral researcher. They will focus primarily on the Great Lakes watersheds, and work with European researchers over the next three years at Stockholm University, the University of Copenhagen and the University of Coimbra, who will explore similar questions in their countries.

All three researchers are members of the Water Institute.