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Ryerson Urban Water
Dr. Lynda McCarthy in her lab

“(It’s) been a 50-year journey from when the Canada Centre for Inland Waters started in 1966,” Dr. Lynda McCarthy said in a recent interview. “Having an academic institution that could do the same thing (as CCIW) was a natural fit.”

Dr. McCarthy had much to say about the multi-disciplinary research centre that saw its official inception in 2013; as she said, the journey to the creation of Ryerson Urban Water (RUW) started 18 years ago when she was hired by Ryerson and saw an opportunity to improve Toronto’s urban water cycle.

 “Ryerson was uniquely positioned to have this water centre because there was a surprising number of water experts in all disciplines here and we’re on a Great Lake.” McCarthy went on to add that Toronto is now the largest polluting urban environment on any of the Great Lakes - which shows the importance of RUW’s mandate.

After the Canada Centre for Inland Waters – an Environment Canada and Department of Fisheries and Oceans research institute created to help protect the Great Lakes – started to decline under federal leadership, McCarthy realized there was a need for another major institute, removed from direct government intervention, to support conservation of the Great Lakes.

In 2013, the organization had 25 members - that number has since grown to 44 with all faculties in the University still involved.  “The expertise was already here,” stated Dr. McCarthy. “They just needed to come together under one umbrella."

Above (left to right): Ron Pushchak, Mehrab Mehrvar, Vadim Bostan, Lynda McCarthy, Andrew Laursen
Above (left to right): Ron Pushchak, Mehrab Mehrvar, Vadim Bostan, Lynda McCarthy, Andrew Laursen

When she first envisioned the organization, Dr. McCarthy figured it would be similar to the original CCIW of the mid-60s – when experts were brought together to solve the issue of water quality degradation in the Great Lakes. That vision has never changed and neither has the purpose of the organization: to develop a sustainable urban water cycle.

In McCarthy’s opinion, RUW needs to cultivate this viable water cycle, “so society can have confidence in their drinking water, corporations can have sustainable manufacturing practices that don’t pollute the Great Lakes, and municipalities can implement resilient, long-term water infrastructure."

From the very start, she had approval from (then Provost and VP Academic) Dr. Alan Shepard. “Once you have support at the highest levels, (the initiative) can only go forward.” Dr. McCarthy explained. This support continued with Dean Imogen Coe (Faculty of Science) in 2013. She added that anyone who wants to start a similar organization should find support for their vision in the upper echelon of their field.

Her advice: “If it’s corporate, see if you can get to a VP, maybe even the CEO. If it’s academia, upper levels of administration.” Additionally, she emphasizes that many others supported the early vision of RUW. Indeed, a major $10 million 2008 CFI proposal entitled Institute for Identifying Environmental Stressors and Implementing Engineered Solutions in an Urban Environment, a progenitor to RUW, included the multi-disciplinary expertise of Drs. Andrew Laursen, Vadim Bostan, and Kim Gilbride (biologists), Dr. Mehrab Mehrvar (chemical engineer), and Dr. Ron Pushchak (environmental policy analyst). It was strongly supported by then Associate Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Science Dr. Mohamed Lachemi. All of these experts are key members of RUW today.

Currently, RUW has been working on mitigating the effects of climate change and the increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events. McCarthy said, “In July of 2013, when Toronto received more rain in 24 hours than it did when Hurricane Hazel came through in the 1950s, we realized that an urban water centre that would really examine stormwater management practices during these extreme weather events…was so critically important.”

One example of RUW’s impact on stormwater management practices is the research and ongoing collaboration of Dr. James Li with municipalities to inform their water management policies. In July 2015, Dr. Li held a workshop with municipal utilities, Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change and the engineering community to convey the results of stormwater exfiltration that began in the 1990s in the former City of Etobicoke. Dr. Li shares his research routinely and reaches out to the levels of government who oversee water management. He hopes that through open communication, he can impact policy on urban water systems.

Similarly, Professor Andrew Millward combines his research in urban tree strategies with policy changes in Toronto. He is currently looking at planting more trees along boulevards in Toronto to ensure that their roots and soil capture excess water and store carbon. The trees are better for storm water systems, make the air cleaner, and improve neighbourhood health and outlook.

Another program that’s near and dear to the hearts of many RUW researchers is green roofs, “Not only for crop production and local food growth, but also water capture to mitigate extreme weather events coming through.” Dr. McCarthy stated.

Roberta Bondar’s 2007 report on integrating environmental education into the school curriculum has seen modest uptake in schools. McCarthy said, "It’s still not being taught to the children consistently, in the way it should be - RUW is working with educators to find solutions to the lack of integration...we would like to see environmental education woven into the curriculum...taught in a more wholesome way."

Dr. Lynda McCarthy with her lab equipment (from a high angle)

“My motto has now become: from the classroom to the boardroom to the legislature.” McCarthy said, adding, “When we educate both bottom up (children) and top down (corporate) at some point in the middle, the whole voting citizenry might be educated - the way we were in the 1960s. It was a priority then.”

In 2008, this grassroots approach was successful, when the Director of Covenant House – the largest homeless youth agency in Canada – came to Ryerson looking to put a green roof on top of their building. The Ryerson community lent their expertise to help the youth create a rooftop garden and pond – they also made the process into a teaching experience as the youth learned about amphibians and crops. The program was highly effective, as the youth used the yield from the garden for cooking purposes, which helped them learn more skills and add to their repertoire.

Right now, McCarthy is talking with principals in the Jane and Finch area of Toronto about implementing a similar community garden program in their schools. As Dr. McCarthy believes, the skills and sense of control students gain from the community garden and experience working together will help their communities to blossom. In her opinion, a good example of this is the South Side of Chicago, where community gardens flourish in one of the very poorest districts.

Joining many people around the world, Dr. McCarthy will be closely watching the outcomes and promises made during COP 21 in Paris. As she said, the massive droughts and extreme weather events around the world show that water needs to be addressed. She’s also interested to see if the idol culture of today’s generation, the whole ‘Hollywood guiding us’ – it’s cool to care about the environment – has positive impacts on the environment.

Looking to the future, Dr. McCarthy would like RUW to become a role model for other water institutes and research centres, encouraging academics to play a major societal role in bringing information to the public in an inclusive and holistic way. “I just think we should be out there, trying to solve major societal issues. Making a dent. Making a difference.” Dr. McCarthy added, “There are staggering urban challenges around water ahead. That means there are a great number of opportunities for making a difference. These are great times to be a part of an urban water sea-change.”



By: Corrina Serda - 1st Year, Professional Communication Program
Communication Intern, Ryerson Urban Water