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'We need to be starting now:' Edmonton professor leading the charge on reusing wastewater

Water will become more scarce as climate heats up, professor says.

Nick Ashbolt, with the U of A’s School of Public Health, recently received a $1.9-million grant from the federal government’s Canadian Institutes of Health Research to develop a framework for the safe re-use of wastewater across the country.

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Nick Ashbolt, with the U of A’s School of Public Health, recently received a $1.9-million grant from the federal government’s Canadian Institutes of Health Research to develop a framework for the safe re-use of wastewater across the country.

A University of Alberta professor is leading Canada’s charge to conserve and reuse water before it’s too late.

Nick Ashbolt with the U of A’s School of Public Health recently received a $1.9-million grant from the federal government’s Canadian Institutes of Health Research to develop a framework for the safe re-use of wastewater across the country.

“We need to be starting now because this is a long term transition, but it’s a fundamental transition,” Ashbolt said.

“If Calgary runs out of water in 50 years, what are they going to do? It is an immediate concern in southern Alberta, and quite frankly, for environmental reasons and economic reasons, it’s a no-brainer to do this elsewhere.”

Infrastructure needed to recover and reuse wastewater is relatively simple and inexpensive,
Ashton said, but will take time to build out – which is why he said it’s urgent to get on it now.

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He said the cost of upgrading Canada’s current water infrastructure would run about $120 billion, and argued it would make more sense to move to a system that’s cheaper and more sustainable.

“Do we waste that money on more of the same, or do we come up with things that cost half as much and are better for the environment and human health?” he said.

Pulling out wastewater for recovery can be useful for smaller communities that rely on septic tanks and lagoon disposal, and particularly First Nations communities – some of which he is already in discussion with – that don’t currently have access to clean drinking water.

Ashbolt and two colleagues are creating a Resource Recovery Centre on the outskirts of St. Albert, in collaboration with a company in the Netherlands, that will serve 2,000 people with a full-scale blackwater energy and nutrient recovery process, converting sewage to energy and fertilizer.

Ashbolt operates under the idea that nothing – even what you flush down the toilet – needs to be considered waste. Currently, much of our sewage goes to landfills.

“It’s a terrible waste of people’s money and time and effort, and for that matter greenhouse gases,” Ashbolt said.

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