I trod down the gravel path between my home and the ferry dock at Snug Cove on Bowen Island. The sun was not yet up, and there was a distinct, late-summer aroma in the air. For us temperate rainforest dwellers in coastal British Columbia, the scent was not only recognizable, but it was that of home. Fragrant and evocative – something to sharpen the senses as I begin my journey.
My trip today was to Calgary to pick up Raincoast’s new cargo van, destined to become Tracker, the new mobile community water pollution monitoring lab for our Healthy Waters program. Today was midway along this notable journey, which began as a dream, and is poised to become a groundbreaking tool to measure water pollution in watersheds in BC.
The launch of Healthy Waters
During the floods of 2021, Raincoast led a team of concerned organizations to sample and analyze water in the Sumas Lake area, and showcased our ability to deliver insight into the health of affected waters. Our subsequent report identified worrying levels of pesticides, hydrocarbons, metals, and pharmaceuticals in fish habitat, and pointed to agriculture, human waste water, water control structures, and poor riparian protections as factors that degraded fish habitat.
We are now partnering with several watershed-based communities as we roll out our Healthy Waters program, and sampling source water, rivers, road runoff, drinking water, and marine water. Samples are being analyzed by high quality service labs, and data will provide insight into priority concerns within and across watersheds. We are, however, planning to strengthen our ability to meet the needs of our partners by investing in our capacity to measure contaminants directly in watersheds.
Next steps for our mobile lab
We are building a capacity at Healthy Waters to bring the lab to the field in 2024 in the form of a mobile laboratory. Having acquired our cargo van, we are now poised to convert this vehicle into a fully-functional mobile laboratory. We aim to deploy Tracker in the summer of 2024, bringing sensitive instruments that will measure the health of water – fish habitat – in freshwater and marine environments around BC.
The vehicle modification project will entail:
- Three compartments with removable barriers – driver and passenger, laboratory, and field gear storage
- Lab countertops and cabinetry to accommodate instruments
- Solar panels, battery systems and satellite link to maximize our ability to work effectively in the field
- Atmospheric controls to ensure a safe working environment (temperature, humidity, and HEPA filtration)
- A computer workstation for data acquisition and communications
- A compartment at the rear of the vehicle to store field gear, safety equipment, and samples
Following the conversion of the cargo van to a mobile lab, Tracker will be equipped with instruments to measure a number of contaminants of concern. Some of these will enable the detection and quantification of microbiological indicators, such as fecal coliform (specifically Escherichia coli), which will allow us to determine the presence of human waste (i.e. leakage from septic or wastewater systems); nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which can point to agricultural runoff as a source of contamination; and metals, which can be indicative of anthropogenic influence in waterways. We also look forward to being able to measure pesticides, hydrocarbons, and other tracers of human activities.
Our Healthy Waters journey has begun, but you too can help by contributing to our Tracker project.
Why measure water pollution
Measuring water pollution is not for the faint of heart. With up to half a million chemicals out there, the first question might be, ‘where do we start?’. The contaminant file is thought by many to be left to governments, industry, and academics, who have access to the expertise and the laboratories required to delve into this topic. During my 30+ years as an ecotoxicologist, I have discovered PCBs in killer whales, pesticides in salmon habitat, and microplastics at the North Pole. Such findings portray a world under assault from the chemical era – the Anthropocene – but they also deliver valuable data to stewardship groups, natural resource managers, regulators, and stewards who are in a position to set priorities and take action.
Despite the complexity of the file, the clear risks to the environment associated with a variety of contaminants c, and the duty to mitigate, I have watched government willingness to tackle the pollution wane, and federal leadership on water quality erode. Axed during the Harper era, Canada still has no agency overseeing the ocean pollution file, and little interest in delving into the freshwater pollution area. Perhaps it is a function of our embarrassment of riches, with three oceans, 230,000 km of coastline and seemingly unlimited abundance of freshwater, estimated at 30% of the world’s supply.
And yet, water quality is in the news almost every day: boil water advisories for First Nations communities; beach closures following sanitary sewer overflows; pharmaceuticals in wastewater; flame retardants in seabirds and marine mammals; ‘forever chemicals’ in polar bears; and potentially troubling contaminants in seafoods. We in Canada have lost connection to our water, still viewing rivers, lakes, and oceans as dumping grounds for municipal, agricultural, and industrial wastes. Yes, we have eliminated some of the nasty ones, like PCBs and DDT, but they still linger, because these chemical mistakes are persistent and will remain with us for centuries. Yes, we have improved wastewater treatment processes and oversight, but many emerging contaminants persist in waste waters. Yes, many industries have stepped up with important source control efforts, but these are often perceived as costly. And yes, governments have taken some action on a short list of contaminants, but the appetite for regulations is modest at best.
The trouble lies perhaps in the fact that we are adrift in a sea of complexity and tepid regulatory leadership, with up to 1,000 new chemicals on the market every year, and limited capacity to study the presence, fate, or effects of more than a handful of these. We are ignoring the need to be diligent, aware, and curious. We are unable to fully grasp the invisible threats in water to salmon, whales, and people. We are in need of data from our waters to inform stewardship, best practices, and restoration in our watersheds.
Tracker will help us to generate such data and guide important solution-oriented conversations and planning in support of protecting and restoring healthy waters and watersheds.
Our annual report is out now!
Get highlights from the year, our science, flagship projects, staff and volunteers, as well as a peek at what’s in store for the coming year.