Global Water Futures reaches its finale

Guest Contributor
August 9, 2023

Seven years ago, Global Water Futures (GWF) was formed to propel Canadian water science forward. This spring, the organization marked its finale. Mostly.

Water scientists from across the country — students, professors, and post-docs — came together in Saskatoon to mark the finale. In addition to the usual science conference fare of discussions and poster sessions there was music and art directly inspired by and created through GWF projects.

The last in-person GWF collaborator meeting had taken place in 2019, adding to the sense of excitement and celebration of the gathering, a culmination of the attendees’ work over the past seven years.

“The finale marks the end of an era and leaves a legacy,” said Dr. John Pomeroy, GWF’s director and a long-time leader in Canadian hydrology. “A legacy that will benefit Canadians for generations through some fundamental changes in how we apply solutions to water problems.”

The end of this era was always planned. GWF had been formed under the auspices of a seven-year non-renewable Canada First Research Excellence Grant. This covered roughly one quarter of the organization’s operational costs. The rest came from a combination of-in kind and cash contributions, coordinated through the four partner universities responsible for the organization: the University of Saskatchewan, where operations were housed, University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University and McMaster University. Further federal, Tri-Council, and Canada Foundation for Innovation funding also contributed to operations.

“At the end of the day, we funded 213 professors at 23 universities across Canada and they've together hired almost 2,000 students and researchers, technicians, engineers and others,” Pomeroy told Research Money. He noted, however, that this number may increase.

GWF has built 64 research basins across the country — from BC to Quebec and the remote far north. Most of these projects have been completed, and the countrywide research stations provided robust data for the nation’s water scientists. But the pandemic years slowed progress for GWF — Pomeroy says that covid “had a tremendous impact on operations,” necessitating a two-year extension to complete all projects.

Among the challenges: inability to travel to Indigenous communities in Northern Canada, difficulty hiring students and bringing researchers, and lab closures. Water monitoring research requires a high level of human input, requiring everything from a chemistry lab in Ontario to field technicians adept in mountaineering in the Rockies.

The ambitious scale of operations also meant these challenges could be met with some flexibility. Redirecting entire programs to adapt to pandemic restrictions was not out-of-the question, and plans to do so could be designed bottom-up. The 64 project groups operated day-to-day, somewhat independently, with full organization-level operations meetings bi-annually.

Once these projects also wrap up, GWF is not going away; it is in the midst of transitioning, under the guise of the Global Water Futures Observatories project. The Canada First Research Excellence grant that originally launched the organization supported a much larger scale of operations than was originally envisioned for GWF Observatories. Instead of building new observatories, and forming new research networks, the emphasis of the new organization is on maintenance.

A new CFI grant for GWF Observatories is active until 2029, providing $40 million under a renewable granting format, which requires GWF to independently fund 60 percent of operations. The funding maintains operations for the research basins, 20 major labs, and other water monitoring systems.

“It also allows us to keep a small core secretariat for Global Water Futures intact,” said Pomeroy, “because we're still hopeful we'll be able to bring other major research projects and leverage those observatories, as we as we did for the main GWF program.”

International collaborations also mark the path forward: GWF scientists are involved with the Cooperative Institute for Research Operations in Hydrology, for example, aiming to build out a US water model, based on GWF’s work on the Canadian model.

“We have demonstrated the ability to run these globally…in the Himalayas, the Tibetan Plateau, the mountains of Central Asia, the Andes, the Rockies through North America, the Pyrenees, the Alps,” Pomeroy concluded. “Some of the models are the most sophisticated that exist.”


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