• Protecting Water and Farmland in Simcoe County

Update on Tiny Township groundwater research project

In Council Watch
Jan 23rd, 2021
Collecting water samples

Drs. William Shotyk and Michael Powell collect groundwater samples from an artesian well last year. AWARE Simcoe photo

From Dr. Michael Power, University of Alberta

Letter to Shawn Persaud,
Tiny Township director of planning and development

January 12 2021

Thanks very much for your patience regarding the request (email, Dec. 3, 2020) for an update on the progress of the groundwater project that is being planned within Simcoe County. The project science team includes Prof. William Shotyk (project lead) and me, Univ. of Alberta; Prof. John Cherry and Prof. Beth Parker, Univ. of Guelph; Prof. Ian Clark, Univ. of Ottawa; Dr. Riley Mulligan and Dr. Elizabeth Priebe, Ontario Geological Survey (OGS; Energy, Northern Development and Mines).

The project team will investigate the ages, sources, reservoir capacity, and processes responsible for the exceptional groundwater quality within central and northwestern parts of Simcoe County and will glean information about how current and future anthropogenic forcing might impact water resources. Background observations, that have led to the planning of this project, were made by Prof. Shotyk during the past 30 years and are summarized in the form of a book chapter, which will be published online as part of an E Book by Prof. Cherry entitled “The Groundwater Project” (https://gw-project.org/).

Support staff, researchers, students, and laboratories at each organization will provide the results required to meet project objectives. Stakeholders from civil society, public, private, and government organizations will be sought as partners to ensure that the project’s outcomes represent the priorities of all actors via their representation in project planning. Further, we will ensure that dissemination of project results inform a broad group of decision makers who are concerned with the protection, use, and future of the special groundwaters of Simcoe County.

Many activities have been undertaken in the past in anticipation of a large project that would answer questions about the quality, quantity, sources, and fate of these special groundwaters. Prof. Shotyk has designed and constructed three dedicated research wells, made from special materials, on his farm property near Elmvale so that he can monitor water quality; his efforts have been supported by Jamie Archer of Canadian Well Drilling, via the Elmvale Foundation (a federally registered charity for environmental education which Prof. Shotyk founded and leads). His additional efforts to sample and test waters within Simcoe County have been supported by the many landowners and partners who have allowed him to sample their flowing artesian wells and springs. These efforts led to the determination of the exceptional quality of the water. Colleagues in Europe have analyzed the water for organic pollutants, they found none. Mineralogical determinations have been done to identify possible source areas for the minerals that make up the sediment layers within the deep buried valleys that host the groundwaters. These types of data will provide clues for understanding the complex hydrogeological and geochemical settings.

Prof. Clark has done preliminary work to estimate the age of some of the flows, and their waters range from modern (several decades) to ancient (several millennia). Profs. Cherry and Parker have developed proprietary analytical systems that will determine various parameters in new research wells that will be drilled during the project. Because of the extreme purity of these groundwaters, they are currently investigating modifications to their equipment to ensure that their instruments for collection of hydrogeological information do not impact the simultaneous measurements of water quality.

The geological and hydrological settings of the highlands and lowlands of Simcoe County and the groundwater scenario of the area are complicated. Their characteristics are due mainly to the formation of deep valleys formed during glaciation which were subsequently filled with layers of different types of sediments and then sculpted by post-glacial processes. Some of these sediment layers are good for transporting water (aquifers) and some are not (aquitards); they form a complex network which changes both laterally and vertically, ranging from the Niagara Escarpment to the West and past the Simcoe Highlands to the East, and from the surface to depths of more than 100m – throughout the whole of Simcoe County. The goal of the project is to identify some of the hydrogeological relationships and geochemical processes operating within the soils and deep buried valleys to better understand the occurrence, distribution, and quality of the flowing artesian wells and springs.

A complicated project requires significant planning and coordination between and within each organization. That preparation has been moving forward since mid-2018. Each investigator has had to finish previous commitments and formulate the important questions that need to be answered by the team in order to meet the outlined objectives; technical aspects of how high-quality data are best produced are challenging due to the geochemical vs hydrogeological objectives. We postulate that this work will result in a thorough understanding of how the groundwaters of Simcoe County have reached their level of purity and will fill knowledge gaps that will inform future policy decisions regards source water use and protection; the results are intended to impact water policy at all levels of government.

In 2019, The Elmvale Foundation arranged for the donation of an Ion Chromatograph from Fisher Scientific to the Elmvale District High School (EDHS). With this instrument, students can learn how to analyze water quality based on sampling the water in their own homes, wells, and surface waterways. By participating as citizen scientists, merging science with society, these students will develop a knowledge-based appreciation of their watershed and its protection. Further, their findings will become an important part of the large groundwater project. Also in 2019, the Elmvale Foundation hosted a stakeholder engagement meeting in Elmvale to build awareness of the project and to elicit membership from any person or organization interested in providing input, or gaining knowledge, related to project goals and activities (14 June; 13:00-17:00; 15 participants); a stakeholder survey was subsequently sent to all participants to determine their level of interest and potential role in future work.

The core research team visited the area in 2019 to visualize the topography and how it might relate the hydrogeology. Most recently (October 2020) researchers from U. Ottawa and U. Alberta met in Elmvale and sampled groundwaters from selected sites. These samples were sent to U. Ottawa for further isotopic analyses (determination of source areas and age), the OGS (determination of a broad spectrum of physical and chemical parameters), and U. Alberta (trace and ultra-trace element analyses). The results of these tests will be communicated to landowners who provided samples and will form an important basis for project planning.

In short, previous work combined with ongoing efforts, have led to the observations that determined the need for a comprehensive study which will shed light on many aspects of the groundwaters of Simcoe County. The ultimate outcome is to impact policy toward understanding, appreciation, education, and protection of a truly exceptional water resource of national and international significance. Beginning with Prof. Shotyk’s decades of academic efforts, to awareness building through meetings with civil society groups and First Nations, to community engagement such as the Elmvale Water Festival (www.elmvale.org), and recently to the development of innovative sampling methods and state-of-the-art analytical measurements, the project is advancing our understanding of water quality and its importance.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions. I hope to visit the area again in the Spring to visit additional flowing wells and springs and I would be happy to meet in person if you have the time.

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