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Doctoral student says it's time for us to rethink construction in waterways

Research looks at alternative ways of mitigating impact
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Digging Greg Courtice believes his research could help improve environmental outcomes for in-stream construction projects. PHOTO courtesy of Airborne Engineering Corporation

When undertaken without safeguards, construction in waterways can cause issues for plant and fish life. Sediment released can increase turbidity, affecting the light that plants receive, and causing abrasions on the gills of fish.

Throughout North America, environmental regulation focuses on the concentration of the sediment that is released, requiring firms to measure it, and shut down work when it exceeds a designated threshold.

According to Greg Courtice, a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia's Okanagan campus, the approach is flawed and needs revising.

"It's kind of like the Wild West out there, where everyone is applying (mitigation strategies) in different ways," explained Courtice. "There isn't a lot of precedent for what best management practices are."

In an effort to reduce the concentration of sediment released during construction, builders sometimes construct sediment isolations, which can take the form of berms. According to Courtice, who is currently working with Bow River stakeholders in the Calgary area, they can be problematic. "It's very difficult in practice to construct these sediment control measures," he said.

"It's kind of like fitting a square peg into a round hole. In practice, most of those sediment control measures don't work very well."

Courtice is hoping to develop a more holistic approach to regulation that will account for two additional variables: Duration (how long the work lasts), and the area in which it takes place.

He contends that the current regulatory approach "limits our ability to develop the most environmentally friendly solutions" because firms are forced to propose solutions that only focus on concentration of sediment.

"It all comes back to the fact that we're focusing on concentration," said Courtis.

"If we incorporate all three components, we may be able to determine more environmentally friendly solutions.

"You may be able to reduce the overall time you spend in the river if you relax the concentration limits, but still apply a similar level of protection by ensuring you only work in the river for a certain amount of time," he said.

Courtice believes that a new approach could lead to cost savings, as it could allow firms to speed up the construction process, provided it is carried out in an environmentally sound manner.

"I always like to emphasize that the goal is to ensure that the environment is being protected by using the more traditional concentration-based approach," he added.

Prior to pursuing doctoral studies, Courtice spent several years working as a consulting engineer on flood-mitigation projects in southern Alberta after the 2013 flood.

Courtice explained that he believes his current research "is shedding light on opportunities that seemed to be outside of our field of view, because we weren't looking at the whole picture."

Dave Williamson, of local environmental-consultancy company Cascade Environmental Resource Group, said he thinks Courtice's research is valuable.

"I think (Courtice) is looking to make an argument to get the temporal (duration of construction) aspect entrenched in some regulation," he explained. 

That said, Williamson noted that Cascade already takes that variable into account when involved with in-stream construction projects.

"We always look at duration, because you want to know how long before (the waterway) returns to background readings," he said.

Background readings are generally taken upstream, explained Williamson; they are the "undisturbed" watercourse turbidity value. 

Williamson added that Courtice's work appears to be more focused on construction on riverbanks, where the potential for longer construction times is greater.

"For our riparian area regulation, it's not very common that you've got works like that, on a bank, although there is still some and (those projects) need to be permitted under the (Water Protection Act) and Fisheries Act," said Williamson.  He added that in the Sea to Sky, the work is wide ranging, and can involve such things as servicing sewer line crossings, natural gas crossings, and culvert replacements.

In his view, protecting riparian zones is critical, and he welcomes Courtice's contribution to the field.

"If nothing else, it reaffirms the importance of waterway protections," he said.