Since 1993, I have been collecting surface water samples from numerous lakes, rivers, and wetlands throughout Alberta to examine their water quality spatially and temporally, including natural and anthropogenically impacted ecosystems, e.g., following produced water, emulsion, and/or bitumen releases into the environment. For many of these projects, I was involved in the design and delivery of the water quality monitoring program by advising my clients and the pertinent regulatory agency of monitoring parameters, frequency, and duration.
As is, there is no single or simple measure of water quality. Surface waters naturally contain a wide variety of substances, and human activities inevitably add to this mixture. Scientists have therefore developed specialized approaches to measuring quality. A single water sample may be tested for a few substances, or for a few hundred, depending on the issues at hand. Samples may be collected by traditional methods, i.e., by filling a container of water in the field and then returning it to an accredited laboratory for analysis. Or, data may be collected automatically by installing electronic devices directly into watercourses. These specialized sensors can transmit information via satellite telemetry to office computers within a few minutes of collection.
Water quality parameters fall into three broad categories:
- Physical characteristics, including temperature, colour, suspended solids, and turbidity;
- Chemical characteristics, including nutrients, minerals, metals, oxygen, and organic compounds;
- Biological characteristics, including the types and quantities of aquatic plants, animals, algae, bacteria, and protozoan parasites.
Once a water sample has been analyzed, the data are compared against federal or provincial scientifically-derived water quality guidelines. Different guidelines have been developed to protect the various uses of water, including:
- aquatic life;
- agricultural uses (stock watering and irrigation); and
- recreational and aesthetic purposes.
The final evaluation of water quality depends on its ultimate use, although the requirements for protecting aquatic life are usually the most stringent.
Alberta Environment and Park’s mandate to protect water quality is determined by the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (EPEA) and by the Water Act. Under EPEA, the department regulates industrial and municipal discharges to surface waters, and approvals are required. These approvals take into consideration the protection of water quality. Other activities are managed by adherence to Codes of Practice. Alberta’s Water Act specifies that Water Management Plans can be developed for rivers and lakes and that protection of the aquatic environment is to be specifically addressed in these plans. The Act encourages planning both at the drainage basin scale and in smaller zones.