Emerald Awards highlight green gems at UAlberta

Water research project, residence sustainability program recognized as leading environmental efforts in Alberta.


Uldis Silins discusses the Emerald Award-winning Southern Alberta Watershed Project. (Video: Alberta Emerald Foundation)

(Edmonton) All things in this life worth having are worth working hard for, and the Rocky Mountain headwaters are no exception.

Working hard for more than a decade researching and monitoring the health of the southern portion of this critically important source water are members of the Southern Rockies Watershed Project.

The University of Alberta-based team—a diverse group of natural resource scientists spanning every discipline from headwaters climatology and wildfire ecology to water treatment process engineering, natural resource economics and even sociology—was named winner of the 2014 Emerald Challenge Award for water.

Project lead Uldis Silins, researcher in the Department of Renewable Resources, says the project started as an ambitious documentation of the devastation the 2003 Lost Creek wildfire had on the hydrology, water quality and stream ecology in the Crowsnest Pass. The fire burned out of control for 26 days and consumed more than 210 square kilometres in the headwaters of the Oldman River basin.

Today, the group’s research activities span thousands of kilometres across nine watersheds and represent the largest and longest-running forest hydrology research projects in Alberta.

“It has certainly evolved,” said Silins. “First, many more researchers have come to the table. This project has gone from characterizing a landscape disturbance in the headwaters to characterizing at a large regional-basin scale and how that affects water resources downstream, including human use of water.”

He adds, “We were described in a grant review as the first initiative globally to meaningfully tackle source-to-tap issues.”

Silins says the project was given life when the province brought him together with researchers from across Canada to look at the after-effects of the fire.

“We realized we were all water scientists but we didn’t speak the same language,” he said. “This project has very much become a journey of interdisciplinary water research.

“We’ve spent many of those years throwing chalk brushes at one another trying to develop a common understanding, and at times we still struggle, but I think that is a telling comment on just how challenging this kind of interdisciplinary research is.”

Curbing waste in residence

Trina Innes talks about UAlberta's Emerald Award-winning Waste in Residence programs. (Video: Alberta Emerald Foundation)

Also receiving an Emerald Award June 6 was the U of A’s Office of Sustainability for its Waste in Residence programs.

In an effort to meet the university’s goal of diverting 50 per cent of campus waste from the landfill by 2015, the Office of Sustainability and Residence Services began working together in 2010 to encourage recycling in residence.

The first order of business for the new partnership was to carry out some community-based social marketing work to understand what the barriers to recycling were and determine what tools students needed to improve their diversion rates.

Students were educated on how to properly recycle and given recycling options beyond their traditional recycling streams.

One example of the Office of Sustainability’s recycling innovation was partnering with a variety of community groups and companies to divert back from the landfill.

“During the spring move out, space-strapped students would leave the campus with waste bins overflowing with unused goods,” said Trina Innes, director of the Office of Sustainability. “Food, clothing, toiletry items, furniture, electronics—thousands and thousands of pounds of it—and all because there was no system in place to capture and make use of it.”

From April 14 to May 5, Eco Move Out produced

  • 1,292 kilograms of electronics to be recycled by Shanked Computer Recycling
  • 568 kg of non-perishable food and toiletries donated to the Campus Food Bank
  • 1,114 empty personal care containers to be transformed into recycled plastic by TerraCycle
  • 7,081 kg of clothing, furniture and household items donated to Goodwill Industries and Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore

“We also have programs related to energy conservation, waste and recycling and green certification—it is just about finding opportunities on campus to introduce sustainability into our everyday practices,” said Innes. “Clearly sustainability is something we value, and it is growing in terms of value and is becoming more of our culture over the last five years.

She added, “We are so excited by the Emerald Award; we feel these kinds of things will inspire other people to get involved in programs on campus too.”

Also nominated for an Emerald Award in the Individual Commitment category was biological sciences professor Erin Bayne, for his commitment to finding creative solutions to bird conservation, including recruiting citizen scientists to help collect data.

The Alberta Emerald Awards recognize environmental efforts by youth, educators, corporations, individuals, not-for-profit associations, community groups and governments.