Making our water safer

Researcher awarded $4.2M provincial research chair to find better ways of managing one of the world's most vital resources.


(Edmonton) A University of Alberta researcher has been awarded a new provincial research chair to improve the way water supplies are used, reused and managed.

Nicholas Ashbolt, a professor in the School of Public Health, was named the Translational Health Chair in Water by Alberta Innovates—Health Solutions. Ashbolt will receive about $4.2 million for the seven-year research program.

According to Ashbolt, Alberta has some of the best water and water safety controls in North America. “Alberta is the first jurisdiction in North America to introduce drinking water safety plans,” he says. To ensure Alberta maintains its high level of water standards, Ashbolt and his team will introduce better and more efficient ways of testing and managing urban and rural water supplies.

“We want to use microbial risk assessment to set general limits and identify specific targets for the various types of pathogens (disease-causing organisms) in water intended for different purposes,” explains Ashbolt. “This will mean that Albertans can continue to develop sustainable municipal and agricultural practices and infrastructure that provide good quality water well into the future.”

He adds that these new approaches not only help operators to better know their systems, but also greatly enhance the effectiveness of water management.

Ashbolt’s arrival strengthens the University of Alberta Water Initiative, which brings together the interdisciplinary capacity of more than 100 researchers whose work spans resource economics, water treatment, toxicology and microbiology, northern and cold weather research, ecosystem biology, energy and the environment, water policy, nanotechnology and sensors.

“We are pleased to have recruited Nicholas Ashbolt to the University of Alberta,” says Kue Young, dean of the School of Public Health. "His presence will elevate the area of water research and benefit not just Albertans, but people throughout North America.”

Through the work Ashbolt will conduct, the U of A will be able to collaborate with the University of Calgary in a provincial waterborne disease reporting and surveillance system.

“What excites me about coming to the University of Alberta is the wonderful opportunity we have to work directly with regulatory agencies and relatively quickly yield significant changes,” says Ashbolt.

“I’m here to change the way we manage water, not only from a public health perspective, but also more broadly,” he explains. “We’ll be looking at how we engineer the whole system, from water recovery to energy and nutrients recovery for food production. We’ll also look at where water can be reused in people’s homes.”

“Water is our most valued global resource and is intrinsically tied to the health of populations. There is urgency in creating and using knowledge to manage our use and reuse of water for all citizens. Alberta is an ideal place for Dr. Ashbolt to work, share his expertise and mentor others so that our province is a leading centre for best water management research and practice,” says Cy Frank, CEO of Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions. “We’re confident that his work will result in safer water for all Albertans.”

Before coming to the U of A, Ashbolt was a senior research microbiologist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and professor in civil and environmental engineering at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, where he led a number of regulatory changes based on microbial risk assessment.