Vanier researcher works to bring new meaning and inclusion to environmental assessments and water decision-making in Canada

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) have become one of the most important tools government and industry use to understand environmental risks associated with new development projects. But the environment is more than water and soil. And as practiced today, EIAs have many blind spots, often failing to include people and nature in meaningful ways.

Nathanael Bergbusch, PhD Candidate in the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability (SERS) has been awarded the prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship for his innovative research proposal titled “Towards Sustainable Watershed Management: Meaningful Inclusion of Communities and Ecosystems in Environmental Assessment.”

Born and raised in Saskatchewan, Nathanael earned a Master of Science in Freshwater Science and Management from the University of Regina where he previously earned a Bachelor of Science in Biology. He joined the Social and Ecological Sustainability doctorate program under the supervision of Simon Courtenay. He is also participating in the Waterloo’s Collaborative Water Program – the most interdisciplinary water program in Canada.

Nathanael Bergbusch
For part of his Vanier-funded project, Nathanael has co-created research initiatives with File Hills Qu'Appelle Tribal Council’s Lands, Resources, Environment, and Stewardship department. Together with other scientists, water non-governmental organizations, and people of the 11 First Nations, they are proactively envisioning a water-related regional assessment for the Qu’Appelle River Valley. This research will be conducted in the Treaty 4 territory of southern Saskatchewan – the site of a proposed $4 billion irrigation project.

Commenting on the opportunities and potential for regional environmental assessments, Nathanael thinks

“often times because of issues with consultation or misunderstanding of distant impacts, scoping for developments is done for individual projects with little consideration of regional ecosystems and people that should have a seat at the decision-making table. I think there is momentum to change that with the new Impact Assessment Act, which promotes regional assessments to understand cumulative impacts of projects like dams, oil and gas, and irrigation in an area. But it's still, at least federally, in its infancy.”

Nathanael’s work will capitalize on nascent federal expansion of environmental assessment legislation to influence and inform new methodologies that consider a concept called environmental flows (eflows). He says that in the context of watershed management, and EIA broadly, the concept of eflows “is about water for the whole environment, not just minimum flow but also the quality of water, the timing, and the availability of that water.” He says eflows, if embedded in a new way, could help EIAs by helping answer questions like “how much water is being used for consumptive industry? How much can stay in the water body and environment? And how much is needed for local people to be happy and healthy? The concept of eflows includes people and how they need water to flourish both culturally and for rights and livelihoods, but also for recreation, health, and even aesthetic values.”

The research Nathanael will undertake is true to his program and the Faculty of Environment in that it is not only interdisciplinary, but it is also innovative. Typical doctoral students might be coached by supervisors and peers to narrow focus and simplify a research project. Nathanael’s project scope and complexity brings together natural and social sciences to achieve multiple outputs. Reflecting on how he arrived at this proposal, he thanks his supervisors and lab-mates for enabling him to explore and be creative. He shares that “it's been challenging for me to shift my focus and study the process and how we change the process and not research strict ecological questions, which are questions I used to ask in my past research. So, my supervisor and committee opened me up to being comfortable writing about how to change and influence a process to work towards water sustainability.”

File Hills Qu'Appelle

File Hills Qu’Appelle, File Hills Qu'Appelle Tribal Council, © 2020 (Source)

His supervisor Simon Courtney and committee Tim Jardine, Kelsey Leonard, Bob Gibson and André St-Hilaire have spent a great deal of time in conversation with Nathanael about the project. He says that “they're very comfortable with change happening in my PhD and with us continually discussing what the outputs will be. Kelsey Leonard is the one who recommended that I publish more of a methodology piece on how we create collaborative regional environmental assessments. And the File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council thought this made a lot of sense for our data sharing agreement. I also see the possibility for a separate chapter that is more focused on hydro-ecological modeling.”

Understanding the complex and challenging nature of the work he is about to undertake; Nathanael is very grateful to Vanier CGS for this award because “it feels like the gift of time.” He says winning the award “felt amazing, but it also felt like approval or the ability now to have more time to build relationships and do the work that I want. I have a bit more funding and an extra year of my PhD. To be able to let the work breathe more, that was the super big gift that I was hoping for. It’s a huge honour.”

Nathanael will join the ranks of four other Vanier award-winning researchers at Waterloo this academic year, and the greater community of Canada’s Vanier scholars.