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A watershed moment – rethinking our relationship with water

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Maricor Arlos and her students in the field (Photo: Supplied)

Growing up in the Philippines, a country in the western Pacific Ocean made up of 7,107 islands, Maricor Arlos didn’t think much about the water that surrounded her.

Maricor Arlos

With no central sewage system, many households in the Philippines have septic tanks or other forms of decentralized waste collection that would be cleared out periodically without much notice or interest. It wasn’t until she came to Canada to study environmental engineering that Arlos began to think about her relationship to water.

At a watershed innovation workshop in Kananaskis in 2013, Arlos, who had just submitted her master’s thesis from the University of Waterloo and was contemplating her next career move, was caught off guard when an Indigenous elder asked her why she was there. Her parents were agricultural scientists, and her sister was an engineer, and there had been no question that she would follow a similar path.

“I had never reflected on what I wanted to do or what my values were,” says Arlos. “I thought, I actually don’t know why I’m here.”

The learning circle included people from industry and government, but what impressed her most was how Indigenous participants talked about sustainability.

“They think seven generations ahead of time,” she says. “I never thought about that when I was in the Philippines, or even when I was doing my undergrad education. It’s a beautiful thing for someone who is working in that area to think about: how do we take care of our water resources not just for now, but for future generations?”

It was this life-changing experience that led Arlos to focus her research on wastewater impacts – specifically emerging issues and potential remediation approaches associated with municipal wastewater-derived micropollutants in Canada. The micropollutants of concern, including pharmaceuticals, hormones, antidepressants and other non-industrial use chemicals, are not fully removed at wastewater treatment facilities. They occur in very low concentrations, but they still have the potential to affect fish and other aquatic and invertebrate life.

“We have really good wastewater treatment systems here in Canada, but we haven’t designed our treatment plants for the specific removal of pharmaceuticals and personal care products,” notes Arlos. “With the advancements in technology, you can find them in parts per trillion – a ‘drop in the lake’ concentration – but if you have different concentrations of a certain chemical in a river over time, what does that mean for the organisms in the river?”

Now an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Alberta, Arlos works mainly with the Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets facility in Calgary, using a series of artificial streams for simulation testing of micropollutants in wastewater.

The facility, she says, is a “nice little playground” where she collaborates with University of Calgary biologists on research related to environmental risk assessment and micropollutant monitoring data.

A watershed, Arlos explains, is a land area that channels a web of melt or rainwater, streams and rivers to a single larger body of water. Alberta is unique in that it encompasses a lot of glacier-fed watersheds, but as she notes, a watershed is more than the flow of water.

“People are connected to the movement of water,” says Arlos. “There are cities and agricultural areas that have connections to water that may be good or bad. It may be beneficial for the environment. It may be spiritual. There’s hydrology or water balance, which is how I was trained, where you start at the top and go all the way to the bottom, but one thing I was not trained for is the connections with people and animals within a watershed.”

Outside urban centres, she says, wastewater management is an issue, particularly when it comes to clean drinking water in Indigenous communities. Arlos describes herself as someone who likes to connect the dots; one of her proposals is a mobile trailer that provides both analytical chemistry services and wastewater treatment on a smaller scale for these underserved communities.

“There is a disconnect between an engineering education and social responsibility,” says Arlos. “I want to co-create solutions and make water research equitable and available in the communities here, and also in my home country.”

Arlos takes her responsibilities as a water mentor seriously – as an educator and especially as a woman and a person of colour. She has served as a mentor with I-STEAM Pathways, a U of A program that enables First Nations, Métis and Inuit undergraduate students to gain research experience in environmental fields, and she is intentional about recruiting a diverse group of undergrad and graduate students to her classrooms and research initiatives.

“Most of my students are members of underrepresented groups who bring in their own ‘watermarks,’ further propelling innovation driven by dedication and purpose,” says Arlos. “I truly want my team to produce work that not only puts knowledge into practice but also fits their own aspirations when implementing and generating ideas.”

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Over the summer, Arlos will travel to the Philippines to work on a water project “close to her heart” with friends and colleagues from Canada and the Philippines. The researchers will analyze water and fish samples at 15 sites on Laguna Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the Philippines, to scope out the environmental and human health impacts and water research priorities associated with organic chemical pollution.

It’s not the first time Arlos has given back to her community. While still a PhD student, she established a scholarship for Filipino high school students interested in pursuing environmental studies. Reading their essays, Arlos was impressed by their knowledge of issues related to the watershed, and it deepened her own understanding of the water systems in the Philippines.

Carlo Berdadero Bais, the recipient of the inaugural scholarship, was “kind of adopted” by Arlos’ family, who provided him with a place to stay and other resources.

“I’m so blessed to be with the right people to be given the opportunity to make this wonder happen,” says Bais, who recently graduated with honours from the University of St. La Salle in the Philippines and will begin his master’s degree at the U of A in September.

“Carlo is such a great student who truly cares about the environment,” says Arlos, who envisions them working together on a project at some future point in the Philippines.

“I’m still on a journey. My heart leads me to go into these underserved communities and make a difference.”

| By Donna McKinnon

Donna is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.


The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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