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Community advice to young hydrologists, Part 1

Community advice to young hydrologists, Part 1

We at Water Underground loved reading Young Hydrologic Society’s post titled “Community advice to young hydrologists” – an advice column written by a network of established scientists in the field. We appreciated the column so much, in fact, that we have decided to re-blog the post to you (with YHS’s consent, of course). We’ve split up their post by question, and have added in hyperlinks to all contributors and related material (as has always been our inclination). Happy reading!


Question: What book or paper has been most influential to your career and why?

Groundwater by Freeze and Cherry – this textbook, now out of print, was a critical reference as I began my graduate training in hydrogeology and I still refer to it today.

Jean Bahr (University of Wisconsin)








I can think of no single one.  However, papers that were a combination of field observations and clever analyses leading to new insights always are intriguing.  Papers which I find of little value are those that propose a new modeling approach with little to no field verification, or which use existing models to reach some conclusion.  For example, we seem to be seeing a proliferation of papers using complex models to highlight some “new” effect of climate change on the hydrologic cycle, with no grounding in hindcasts. (See this, also) The musings of Keith Beven always have been insightful, including his Advice to a Young Hydrologist.

Jerad Bales (CUAHSI)



I can’t identify single “most influential” books or papers – I learned early to read as widely as possible, and not just within narrow/specific research problems of direct interest. I have been inspired by a range of articles – including books on philosophy, history of physics, etc. – which broadened my approach and ways of looking at a given problem. Indeed, some of my most influential work developed from studying methods and approaches in statistical physics and physical chemistry.

Brian Berkowitz (Weizmann Institute of Science)



The most important influence was a person – Mike Kirkby and particularly the undergraduate course on quantitative hydrology he taught at the University of Bristol when I was taking my degree there (later, I would do a post-doc with him at Leeds that resulted in the development of Topmodel). That gave me a lot of reading to do – but it was probably not the hydrological reading that had most influence, but rather the papers on theoretical geomorphology starting with Horton BGSA 1945, then picked up by Kirkby, Frank Ahnert and others in the late 1960s. I struggled to understand them (at the time I wanted to be a geomorphologist but I have never quite finished getting the water part right) but they left me the idea that it was possible to theorize about environmental processes and systems in approximate but useful ways.

During my PhD the most influential paper was undoubtedly Freeze and Harlan JH 1968, and the papers about the field site I was applying my model to by Darrell Weyman (HSB 1970, IAHS 1973). If I had talked to him a little more (he was doing his PhD at Bristol while I was an undergraduate) or read those papers more carefully, then I might have been more realistic in my PhD modelling.

The most important book at that time was Zienkowicz, Finite Element Modelling (that was the technique I was trying to master). Hillslope Hydrology edited by Kirkby was also important but came later.

Keith Beven (Lancaster University)


Paper: Scale of Fluctuation of rainfall models by I. Rodriquez-Iturbe. It formed the basis for my MSc research that I did during 11 months in Davis California (As a Dutch Student from Wageningen). It was extremely difficult stuff, but I kept on it and it understanding gave me the stamina to really dig into a subject. It was the basis for my first paper entitled “Analytically derived runoff models based on rainfall point processes” in WRR. To obtain better background I also read in depth the influential.

Book: Random Functions and Hydrology by R. Bras and I. Rodriquez-Iturbe.

Marc Bierkens (Utrecht University)




Dooge’ 1986 Looking for hydrologic laws in WRR. This paper gives a broad perspective on science, including scales.

Günter Blöschl (TU Vienna)









Konrad and Booth (2005), Hydrologic changes in urban streams and their ecological significance, American Fisheries Society Symposium, 47:157-177.  This paper is a bit outside my area of expertise, but I think the linkage they make between physically measurable streamflow changes and stream ecology represents a fundamental shift in thinking from engineering hydrology to more of an eco-hydrology perspective.  They illustrated that we need to go beyond analyzing just changes in peak flow or low flows (or fixed percentiles), to look at more derived metrics that better capture hydrologic regime change.

Laura Bowling (Purdue University)




That is a very hard question. As a Geography undergraduate student, I had to write a particular essay on the “all models are wrong” theme and this involved critiquing two papers which completely changed my worldview about models and modelling: Konikow and Bredehoeft’s 1992 ‘Ground-water models cannot be validated’ Advances in Water Resources 15(1):75-83.  and Beven’s 1989 ‘Changing ideas in hydrology – the case of physically-based models’ Journal of Hydrology.

But in the last year, I would say it has been Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (2016) who is a gifted and talented scientist and writer and has the knack of intertwining the natural world with tales of remaining brave in your career. I wish I’d had the opportunity to read it earlier in my career.

Hannah Cloke (University of Reading)


Ecological and General Systems – H.T. Odum. This book explores general systems theory in the context of ecosystem behaviors. It is holistic, comprehensive, and full of important insights about the structure and dynamics of systems.

Matthew Cohen (University of Florida)





It is a novel by Milan Kundera: “Slowness”. My natural tendency is to rush up, be as fast as possible, quickly fix things… Yet, speed often leads to miserable outcomes. Many lines of Kundera’s book are still in my mind, and they work as a continuous reminder for me that only slowness allows thoughtful consideration, serious reflection, and appreciation of reality. Realizing this has strongly influenced my academic career as it made me focus on the quality (and not the quantity) of my work.

Giuliano Di Baldassarre (Uppsala University)



Several hydrogeology-related texts were very helpful for me.  These include some of Mary Hill’s papers, John Doherty’s PEST manual (as much for the philosophy as the instruction), some of Jasper Vrugt’s early papers, and work by both Wolfgang Novak and Steve Gorelick on measurement design. The real recommendation would be to find authors that you enjoy and read as much of their work as possible – in this category, I would add Shlomo Neuman, Randy Hunt, Hoshin Gupta, Dani Or, Keith Beven and Graham Fogg. I am sure that I am forgetting more than I have listed. I think it is equally important to read broadly. Rather than provide a list, I’ll encourage you to look at my recent paper in Ground Water (Sept 2016) for some suggestions!

Ty Ferré (The University of Arizona)




Book:  Groundwater Hydrology by David Keith Todd, 1st edition, 1959. As a 3rd-year undergraduate in hydrology at the University of New Hampshire in 1973, this book (and course by Francis Hall) kindled my interest in groundwater and completely changed my career path, which previously was essentially an aimless sleepwalk through my major in mathematics.

Paper/report:  Kaiser, W. R., Johnston, J. E., and Bach, W. N.. 1978, Sand-body geometry and the occurrence of lignite in the Eocene of Texas: The University of Texas at Austin, Bureau of Economic Geology Geological Circular 78-4, 19 p.  This paper demonstrated in stunning detail how modern borehole geophysical data together with understanding of the geologic genesis of sedimentary deposits could be used to create unprecedented subsurface maps of aquifer/aquitard system heterogeneity and structure. This led me down the long path of better integrating groundwater hydrology and geologic depositional systems.

Graham Fogg (UC Davis)


My interests have been in predictive hydrometeorology. The following were influential books at the start of my carrier in the late 70s and early 80s: Dynamic Hydrology by Eagleson; by Wallace and Hobbs; Applied Optimal Estimation by Gelb (ed).  These represented the fields of hydrology, meteorology, and estimation theory with applications to prediction, and were the necessary pillars to build predictive hydrometeorology.

Konstantine Georgakakos (Hydrologic Research Center in San Diego)






Haitjema and Mitchell-Bruker (2005) which taught me to think of groundwater as a process that interacts with topography, climate and geology in complex but predictable ways.

Tom Gleeson (University of Victoria)









The paper that has been most influential to my career is most certainly  “Johnston, P. R., and D. H. Pilgrim (1976), Parameter optimization for  watershed models, Water Resources Research, 12(3), 477–486. I read this paper during my graduate work in the early 1980’s and was intrigued by their report that “A true optimum set of (parameter) values was not found in over 2 years of full-time work concentrated on one watershed, although many apparent optimum sets were readily obtained.”

On the one hand this paper clearly identified an important problem that needed to be addressed. On the other (as I often remark during talks on the subject), I think it was remarkable as an example of a paper reporting the apparent “failure” of the researchers to achieve their goals … how often do we see people reporting their failures in the literature these days :-). More of this kind of work – reporting a scientific study and accurately reporting both successes and failures … but especially failures … is critically important to the progress of science, so that people can both contribute to solutions and also avoid unsuccessful forays down paths already tried.

In any case, the paper clearly pointed me towards an important problem that led to me adopting a path of research over the past decades, which led to the development of the SCE and SCEM  optimization algorithms (and indeed a whole field of optimization developments), studies into impacts of model structural deficiencies, multi-criteria methods for parameter estimation, the diagnostic model identification approach, and more recently the Information Theoretic approach.

The 1990 paper by Michael Celia et al on the numerical solution of Richards equation, recommended to me by Philip Binning at the beginning of my Honours Project at Newcastle Uni. This paper made a big impression on me because it provided a very clear exposition of how to solve a challenging modelling problem – and played a bigly role in getting me interested in research.

Dmitri Kavetski (University of Adelaide)


The Ecological Studies Series, published by Springer, was the most influential in my career because several books published in the Series (e.g., Forest Hydrology and Ecology at Coweeta edited by Swank and Crossley and Analysis of Biogeochemical Cycling Processes in Walker Branch Watershed edited by Johnson and Van Hook) sparked my interest in forest hydrology and biogeochemistry. In tandem with the superb mentorship of Prof. Stanley Herwitz (Clark University), I decided to embark upon a career as a forest hydrologist as a sophomore in college. I never looked back.

Delphis Levia (University of Delaware)





The papers of the series “Plants in water-controlled ecosystems” (2001, Advances in Water Resources 24), by Laio, Porporato, Ridolfi, and Rodriguez-Iturbe have been among the first and most influential I have read. Their clean, analytical approach to the complex interactions among vegetation, soil, and climate remains deeply inspiring. As an example of inter-disciplinary work (actually outside hydrology), I would like to mention the book by Sterner and Elser (2002) “Ecological stoichiometry. The biology of elements from molecules to the biosphere” (Princeton University Press) – a great example of how integrating knowledge from various sources around a common theme can yield deeper understanding and perhaps even lay the foundation of a new discipline.

Stefano Manzoni (Stockholm University)



The Hewlett and Hibbert 1967 conference paper “Factors affecting the response of small watersheds to precipitation…” is perhaps the best paper ever written in hydrology. For a full homage, please look here. The paper is field-based, theory focused and a blend of bottom-up and top-down research, before that was even ‘a thing’. It inspired me in my graduate research in the 1980s; I continued to read it and ponder it in my first years as a professor, as I strived to follow in Hewlett’s footsteps. He was my mentor even though he retired before I could ever meet him.

Jeff McDonnell (U Saskatchewan)




 In general, the books that have been most influential to me refer to sister disciplines. The reason is that I found illuminating to study methods and models used in statistics and economics for the purpose of applying them to hydrology for the first time. Thus, the most influential book to me has been “Statistics for long-memory processes”, by Jan Beran. The very reason is that I found there a detailed explanation of models that were useful to get to target with my Ph.D. thesis. 

Alberto Montanari (University of Bologna)



Chamberlin TC. 1890. The method of multiple working hypotheses. Science 15: 92-96 (reprinted in Science 148: 754–759 [1965]). I read this paper as part of a second-year course in Archaeology, which I took as an elective in my undergraduate program. Although the writing style is somewhat archaic, this article introduced me to the value of hypothesis-based thinking in science and the need to avoid favouring a pet hypothesis or model. It is instructive also to read the many follow-up essays to gain a broader perspective on hypothesis-based research and, more broadly, the “scientific method.”

Dan Moore (University of British Columbia)





I think I was more influenced by my peers, colleagues, mentors, supervisors and friends as I learn better through discussions and challenges. One of the more memorable papers is one of Manning (Manning, R. (1891). “On the flow of water in open channels and pipes,” Transactions ofthe Institution of Civil engineers of Ireland.) and it’s associated history. In this paper he actually suggested a far more ‘complex’ formulation than the formula which is today widely known as the Manning equation – history has it that it was never adopted widely as well as many subsequent more more sophisticated formulations. Science doesn’t work linear and we are sometimes less rational or objective (if the latter is actually possible) than we believe.

Florian Pappenberger (ECMWF)


“Show me a person who has read a thousand books and I’ll show you my best friend; show me a person who has read but one and I will show you my worst enemy.” I have been influenced by many and I can’t say one is *the* most influential or important alone.  At the moment, I am reflecting on (McCuen RH. 1989. Hydrologic Analysis and Design. Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs.) As far as being a hydrology textbook it is not particular special, but it is written extremely clearly with a lot of good step-by-step workflows.  Most importantly, the book integrates throughout its whole development the concept of analysis versus synthesis, and this has been central to how I approach my research.  We do both analysis and synthesis.

Gregory Pasternack (UC Davis)


This is very difficult to say. I must admit that my academic work started from engineering practice and I only started reading the international literature very late in my career. But a book that has been very influential to me was the book by Fischer et al. (1979) “Mixing in inland and coastal waters”. Fischer soon died in an accident after this book was published. The book introduced me to the fundamentals of mixing processes in estuaries, on which I had done substantial field research and had developed my own practical engineering method, which I still use, but which lacked a fundamental theoretical basis. I am still working on finding this fundamental basis, and Fischer’s book put me on that track.

Hubert Savenije (TU Delft)


It would be tough to answer what’s been the most influential to my career as a whole, but I could answer what was the most influential to my early career, and that was Menke’s Geophysical Data Analysis: Discrete Inverse Theory.  I labored through that book for years during my PhD. My copy has dog-eared pages and writing throughout as I tried to figure out inversion methods.  Finally getting my head around the mathematics of inversion really opened up some doors for me early on.  Davis’ Tools For Teaching also really helped me think about how to be as effective a teacher as I could be.

Kamini Singha (Colorado School of Mines)



Books are hardly ever influential once you are actually ‘in’ research. Early on, look for the best review articles in your field. They will ‘set the scene’ for you.

Keith Smettem (The University of Western Australia)






Opportunities in the hydrologic sciences”, National Academy Press. This landmark book which defined hydrology as a science appeared right at the start of my PhD. It provided a nice framework for my own research and that of my fellow PhD students in those days.

Remko Uijlenhoet (Wageningen University)





It is difficult to select one single work from the literature that has been influential over my entire career in groundwater flow and transport modeling.  But, there is one book that I used as a grad student that I still refer to today.  It is “Conduction of Heat in Solids” by Carslaw and Jaeger.  The book is a treatise on analytical solutions to diffusion equations.  The lesson for me is that knowledge from other disciplines (in this case thermal engineering) can be applied to problems in hydrology.  Another lesson is that we can learn a lot and gain important insights through wise approximations that have analytical solutions.

Al Valocchi (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)


Abramowitz & Stegun: Math is something you look up, not something you try to memorize.

Nick van de Giesen (TU Delft)






In hydrology, some of the most influential books for me have been Handbook of Hydrology (edited by David Maidment) and Principles of Environmental Physics (Monteith & Unsworth). These two books are so rich in physics, empirical equations, recipes, and references. Of course the times have changed and nowadays you can google almost anything, but some of the chapters in these books are so well written that I still regularly use them. They also have the benefit that they summarise areas of research where things haven’t actually changed too much since the 80ies – the physics we use haven’t become that much more sophisticated, and sometimes in fact less so; whereas the field measurements on which a lot of the empirical rules and equations are based generally also haven’t been added much to since.

Outside hydrology, some books that have made me think differently about the field and my research include

Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software (Johnson) – one of the first popular science books I read that made me think different (about ecohydrology)

The Sceptical Environmentalist (Lomborg) – I didn’t accept his reasoning but it was seductive and it forces you to really pick apart the logical and rhetorical flaws he uses.

Thinking, fast and slow (Kahneman) – which really made me realise the questionable quality of my analytical rigour and decisions in general (also those of anyone else, though!).

Albert van Dijk (Australian National University)


Physical Hydrology by Dingman and Elements of Physical Hydrology are both great textbooks. Why: just lots of “basics” well explained, emphasizing the need to understand PROCESSES.

Doerthe Tetzlaff (University of Aberdeen)



House at Pooh Corner, specifically, Chapter VI. In which Pooh invents a new game and Eeyore joins in.  The first paragraph is an awesome description of a classic watershed and affirms my theory that hydrology is truly everywhere… even on Mars.  Indeed, the search for “life” has largely been a search for “water.”

Todd Walter (Cornell University)





Comparative hydrology, edited by Malin Falkenmark and Tom Chapman (1989). This book is one of the first to examine global hydrology phenomena. It asserts that a comprehensive and systematic description of hydrological processes is (i) possible (ii) not too complicated. Until then I’d thought the task was impossible, so I found the approach inspirational for my research.

Ross Woods (University of Bristol)

Crop kites

Crop kites

Post by WaterUnderground contributor Mikhail Smilovic. Mikhail is a PhD  candidate in the Department of Civil Engineering at McGill University, in Quebec.

Crops use water for photosynthesis, absorbing nutrients, and transpiration, or the plant-equivalent of sweating. A crop may experience water-stress if the soil surrounding the roots is not adequately wet, and this stress will affect the crop differently depending on the crop’s stage of growth. Irrigation is the watering of plants to ultimately avoid such water-stress.

Non-irrigated crops are more vulnerable to intervals of dry and hot weather, and the increasing unpredictability of a changing climate will further complicate other crop management tools, such as choosing different cultivars (the particular variety of crop, some which may deal with certain stresses in an improved way) or changing planting dates.

Irrigated crops do not experience water stress (they may in fact experience water stress under a non-perfect irrigation system, but forgive this for now), but the water is necessarily derived from somewhere else. This somewhere else may also experience water withdrawals from municipalities, industry, and other agriculture. The source of water may be underground, or water from a river, lake, or spring, but a connection between both underground and surface waters shares with us that water removed from a system somewhere will have a response somewhere. This somewhere may very well be an ecosystem. Irrigation may also be costly related to the abstraction, transportation, and on-farm distribution.

Between non-irrigated and irrigated is a curious place where we can increase the resiliency of our agricultural systems to periods of drought and heat with limited irrigation, while allowing crops to experience well-timed water stress. Agricultural productivity or yield is determined as the amount of crop produced per area of land, say 3 tons/hectare for wheat. When water is a limiting factor, we would be sensible to also consider water productivity, that is the ratio of crop yield and water use, or, the amount of crop produced per drop of water. The practices of limited irrigation, also known as supplemental or deficit irrigation, makes an effort to increase this water productivity.

This space in-between non-irrigated and irrigated, however, has been often poorly explored or simplified. Crop kites is a novel tool to determine and quantify the potential agricultural and water productivity associated with different irrigation practices. This is important for regions interested in shifting investments into or away from irrigation, as well as for researchers interested in evaluating limited irrigation practices as initiatives to establish food and water security, both currently and with changing climates.

A first thought might be, if a crop uses three quarters of the water than it would under ideal conditions, does the crop produce three quarters as much as the crop under ideal conditions? In fact, the answer depends very much on when this water is used.

Let us take the example of winter wheat in northern Africa. Winter wheat can be broadly characterized into five different growth stages. We can illustrate water use throughout the season with the following figure:

Water use is represented by the bottom blue colour, and the associated deficit is represented with the upper orange colour – the top line of the shape is the amount of water the crop would use under ideal conditions on the associated day. This example shows a 0, 10, 20, 30, and 40% deficit occurring in stages 1 to 5 respectively, representing a 78% water use across the entire growing season as compared to ideal conditions. Understanding both the amount of water used and when the water was used, we are able to determine the associated yield, for this example, we reach 68% of potential yield.

Now, what if we were to simulate the yield using all reasonable water uses and all reasonable distributions of the timing of this water use? The resulting shape is our crop kite, with each point associated with a water use distributed throughout the growing season in a particular way:


This shape illustrates the incredible range of yields associated with each water use; for example, 80% of potential water use relates to between ~20 and 90% of potential crop yield.

Water distributed through canals are often delivered according to a schedule, and not necessarily related to growth-stage sensitivities or actual weather. From the crop kite we can derive estimates on how the crop yield will be affected by adopting certain irrigation schedules. We elaborate on this with three examples: S1) water use is distributed to optimize yield, S2) the deficit is distributed evenly across all growth stages, S3) water is used preferentially for the earlier growth stages. The resulting crop-water production functions are illustrated in the following figure:


Although the first schedule optimizing for crop yield may be in line with the motivations of the irrigating farmer, it is often an unreasonable assumption for farmers delivered water according to predetermined schedules, but may be appropriate for farmers irrigating with a privately owned well. Evaluating the potential of supplemental irrigation necessitates estimating the ability of farmers to manage both the amount and timing of irrigation applications. Otherwise, non-reasonable assumptions may be used to evaluate and over promise estimates for agricultural production, with the fault not in the practice of limited irrigation, but in the criteria used to evaluate the system.

Crop kites demonstrate the wide range of water use-crop yield relationships, and can be used to evaluate the potential of limited irrigation to shift both food and water security.


Mikhail Smilovic is a PhD candidate at McGill University and the University of Victoria . Mikhail’s work investigates the interplay between foot security, water resources, and energy, and evaluating and integrating initiatives that increase agricultural production while reducing demands on water resources.

The home of our hearts day 5: The Sydney Tar Ponds and keeping the spark alive

[part six of a special six-part blog series by Mark Ranjram, MEng student at McGill University. From June 8 to June 13 2014, Mark had the privilege of being a part of the Canadian Water Network’s (CWN) Student and Young Professionals (SYP) Workshop in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Here is the prologue to this series.]

The fifth and final day of the workshop started off with a tour of the Sydney Tar Ponds. The tar ponds are a massive contaminated site originating from the production of coke (a derivative of coal), a popular fuel used by the steel plants in Cape Breton to heat their furnaces. A large remediation effort is being conducted at the tar ponds, with 700,000 metric tonnes of contaminated sediment being trapped over a 31 hectare area.

From the tar ponds, we went on a walking tour of a neighbourhood in Sydney immediately adjacent to the now defunct steel manufacturing plant. Our tour guide gave us the history of the neighbourhood, explaining the deeply discriminatory, destitute conditions the workers lived and worked in; similar in many ways to the plight of the coal miners which we explored in Day 3. One of the most haunting things our tour guide showed us was the tunnels which acted as gates into the steel plant compound. As workers walked through these gates, we were told to imagine the blast of heat and dust they would experience as their long day at the plants began. The tour was yet another remarkable realization of the true difficulty people face in their lives, and the amazing ability for the islanders of Cape Breton to overcome these challenges and maintain an optimistic, innovative perspective.


Tunnel into Sydney Steel Compound. Photo Credit: Mark Ranjram

The day ended with a “kitchen party” at a local restaurant, where we sat at a long table and closed off our week in style. At the end of the night, we completed a final talking circle where we talked about what we gained from the workshop and how we aimed to pay it forward. Again, the circle was emotional, vulnerable, hilarious, and heartwarming. As we went around the circle I was again taken aback by how terrific the entire group was and what great things we could achieve with our entire careers ahead of us; and what could be accomplished by all the other people that weren’t there but have that same fire and that same genuine commitment to making the world even just a hair better than it was when they got here. I made a pledge at that table to find a way to bring some environmental education to my community, for example, helping people in my community understand where their water comes from, where it goes, what climate change is and its consequences, and other things in that vein. If I can bring even a modicum of environmental baseline knowledge to the people in my neighbourhood, I will have made a small contribution towards helping create a sustainability-knowledgeable citizen base and voting public. I’m not sure how I will accomplish what I want to accomplish, but the first nations and non-indigenous people of Cape Breton, our amazing workshop leaders, and the nineteen young researchers and professionals I met at the workshop will forever motivate me to make a positive mark on the world. There is a rising tide in the coming generations of water leaders, and I certainly refuse to be left behind as all these brilliant, committed people spend their time making a difference! Thank you again to everyone involved in the workshop, and thanks to all the people out there who want to see a sustainable world and believe it is possible in spite of all the great challenges we face today on Earth socially, politically, economically, and environmentally.


#CWNSYP Cape Breton! Photo Credit: Liana Kreamer

The home of our hearts day 4: the water-energy nexus & deep thoughts on salty water

[part five of a special six-part blog series by Mark Ranjram, MEng student at McGill University. From June 8 to June 13 2014, Mark had the privilege of being a part of the Canadian Water Network’s (CWN) Student and Young Professionals (SYP) Workshop in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Here is the prologue to this series.]

The focus of the fourth day of the workshop was the relationship between energy and water. Cape Breton, with its long history of coal extraction and its proximity to water, was a great place to explore this relationship first hand. We started our day at a community sports complex in Glace Bay, where a shallow flooded mine is being used to store and generate geothermal energy. This was yet another example of the terrific power of the local Cape Breton communities to generate innovative adaptations using their deep understanding of their environment and local issues.


Geothermal energy at the BayPlex sports complex in Glace Bay. Photo Credit: Shao Hui

From the sports complex, we travelled to the Point Aconi Fire Generating Station, a coal-fuelled power plant. The facility was incredibly massive, and during our tour we stood next to the giant sweltering furnace that burns the coal and looked down the maw of a 300 metre sloping coal conveyor belt, both sights a stark visual reminder of our species’ ability to bend the environment on incredible scales.


Looking down a coal conveyor tunnel at the Point Aconi Fire Generating Station. Photo Credit: Mark Ranjram

From the power plant, we headed to the Great Bras d’Or Channel, which connects the Bras d’Or Lakes (actually a marine estuary) to the Atlantic Ocean. Here we discussed the potential and challenges of tidal energy production from the large tides which pulse through the channel.


Dr. Bruce Hatcher explaining the feasibility of tidal energy in the Great Bras d’Or Channel. Photo credit: Kristen Leal

With the technical side of the day done, we proceeded to Baddeck, a small tourist down adjacent to Alexander Graham Bell’s family estate, for a sailing experience on a real sailing ship. As the cold Atlantic breeze whipped past us, we pointed out jellyfish in the water and eagles in the sky and I could not help but think about the deep connections between water and energy in Canada. What are the mechanisms by which we can take our role as stewards of our environment and balance that with our role as supporters of our families and communities; both being of critical importance to our species’ endeavour on this planet? The Mi’kmaq first nations on the island have an incredible commitment to both their environment and their communal economic success, and the non-indigenous population on the island has shown awesome commitment to sustainability and remediation, but how can we get that perspective to scale up to a population as large and as varied as our entire country? Thinking about Toronto, my hometown of roughly 2.5 million people, where green spaces are relatively plentiful for a city but are not necessarily part of our day-to-day, where the rivers are small and hidden away, and the lake is so large as to suggest infinite abundance, how do we develop that baseline of environmental understanding? And how do we translate that understanding amongst a finely discretized gradient of cultural, social, and economic motivations? The answers to these questions are not straight forward, but sometimes the most important step is to just open the sails and give yourself a chance to catch the wind.


They even let me sail the boat! Photo Credit: Raea Gooding

Next post in series…

The home of our hearts day 3: The coal story – mines and mine water remediation

The home of our hearts day 3: The coal story – mines and mine water remediation

[part four of a special six-part blog series by Mark Ranjram, MEng student at McGill University. From June 8 to June 13 2014, Mark had the privilege of being a part of the Canadian Water Network’s (CWN) Student and Young Professionals (SYP) Workshop in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Here is the prologue to this series.]

Coal mining is an essential part of the history of Cape Breton Island, and thus was the focus of the third day of the workshop. We began the day by exploring active and passive remediation methods used on Cape Breton to deal with their problems with mine water. Our stops included a very large waste rock pile that had been capped and vegetated; a water treatment facility removing iron- and sulphur-rich water from decommissioned mines; and a wetland facility doing the same. It was such an exciting experience to be able to put a real world picture on some of the theory you learn about in coursework and it was a very motivating thing to see a community attacking their environmental problems with such innovative solutions!


An engineered wetland used to passively remediate iron-rich mine water. Photo Credit: Gary Pardy

On the second half of the day we travelled to the Coal Miners Museum in Glace Bay, where we were treated to a tour down an actual coal mine from an actual coal miner. A relevant caveat here is that the coal mine we toured was never actually worked for coal, but built specifically to give tours. Our tour guide, Wishie “Wish” Davidson, walking around hunched over with a cane in his hand, gave us the history of coal mining in Cape Breton, which is an industrial tale that would make Dickens jealous. Wish described the “company stores” that were the only sources of food, clothes, and other amenities in the coal mining towns, which forced miners into debt by setting exorbitant prices, and the “company homes” which would allow families to stay so long as they had a worker in the mines and were willing to have their wages docked to pay for the privilege. As we travelled into the 150 foot mine (with four foot ceilings at its shortest section), Wish described the suffocating, nightmarish conditions the miners had to deal with, including the pitch blackness, constant coal dust, cacophony of the drill machines, and the aches and physical trauma that came with shovelling tonnes of coal each day. The remarkable struggle of the workers really put into perspective what actual hardship is, and was a stark contextualization for me of how the challenge of finding solutions to our water problems can in no way be as brutal as the challenge of waking up at four in the morning, six days a week, to travel miles into the ground, and work for fourteen hours in dust, noise, darkness, and pain only to get paid for what you brought to the surface, and only then getting to take home pay that the companies didn’t get their hands on first.


Wish Davidson giving us a tour of the Ocean Deeps Colliery. The cement lining quickly ends as you travel down the tunnel, and you are left surrounded by black coal and timber in passageways as small as four feet in height. Photo Credit: Liana Kreamer

Following the mine tour, we had an additional opportunity to experience the story of coal mining in Cape Breton at an incredible concert given by the “Men of the Deeps,” a choral group that has toured across the world and is composed entirely of miners who worked in the coal mines at some point during their careers. This added another dimension of awe to the performance, as coal mining has been shut down in Cape Breton since 2001, and so the men on the stage were the last men in Cape Breton that could ever tell us these stories. Indeed, it is difficult to express how moving it is to hear a group of people sing about a way of life that was designed to crush them but is still an indelible component of their personal identity. The chorus of one of the songs they sang, called “Sixteen Tons,” gives a great example of how powerful the concert was: “You load sixteen tons, what do you get?/Another day older and deeper in debt/Saint Peter don’t you call me cause I can’t go/I owe my soul to the company store.”


The Men of the Deeps. Photo Credit: Kristen Leal

No matter how much hyperbole we like to kick around, our challenges with apathy, misinformation, and politics are drops in the bucket compared to the daily misery that the coal miners faced. Whenever I feel that spectre of cynicism telling me to throw up my hands and curse at our environmental challenges and stewardship decisions, I think remembering the Sydney coalmines will give me a place to anchor my optimism: it can’t be that bad!

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The home of our hearts day 2: The Unama’ki Institute for Natural Resources and a medicine walk to Glooskap’s cave

[part three of a special six-part blog series by Mark Ranjram, MEng student at McGill University. From June 8 to June 13 2014, Mark had the privilege of being a part of the Canadian Water Network’s (CWN) Student and Young Professionals (SYP) Workshop in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Here is the prologue to this series.]

After an emotional and inspirational first night together, we had the great privilege to begin the first full day of the workshop at the Unama’ki Institute for Natural Resources (UINR), a collaborative local institution operated by the Mi’kmaq nation dedicated to environmental stewardship on Cape Breton Island. At the UINR we had the amazing opportunity to hear from Charlie Dennis, a senior advisor at the UINR, and Elder Albert Marshall, a senior and influential voice in the Mi’kmaq nation. The clarity of their vision and their expression of the deep, fundamental connection the Mi’kmaq have to their environment was deeply inspiring. Elder Albert described the four R’s that are central to the Mi’kmaq decision making process: reverence, respect, reciprocity, and responsibility, and his concept of two-eyed seeing, or balancing traditional aboriginal knowledge with contemporary western science. The sincerity of the UINR’s efforts and their terrific successes reflect an amazing capacity for a local community to focus their knowledge and energy into real, practical solutions. The power of a deep-seated knowledge of your local environment in developing sustainable social, economical, and environmental solutions is something that really resonated with me, and has got me thinking about how I can apply the profound philosophies of the Mi’kmaq people to environmental education in my home community.


Elder Albert Marshall. Photo Credit: Liana Kreamer

From the UINR we headed off to the trailhead of Glooskap’s cave, a sacred place for the Unama’ki and where their creation story begins. Jeff Ward rejoined our group along with Cliff Paul, the Moose Management Coordinator at the UINR; and Tuma Young, an assistant professor at Cape Breton University with a deep knowledge of local flora and fauna. We were invited to clear our minds and spirits by participating in a smudging ceremony, and then proceeded along the roughly 4 km hike to Glooskap’s Cave. Along the way, Tuma identified traditional medicines and cut us all a piece of a branch with a sap that provides a red-bull like energy kick. The trail to Glooskap’s cave ends with you scaling down a ravine and traveling next to (and in) a river which leads to a beach that is Glooskap’s cave. The view of the outlet when you turn past the last bulge of rocks is incredible, and when you realize how important this one stretch of land is to the people who have invited you into their family and traditions, you cannot help but feel like you’ve reached some critical, indescribable intersection between the emotional, physical, spiritual, and intellectual. We ended our time at the beach by making a food offering and participating in a prayer, a mesmerizing chant led by Jeff’s son and a single beating drum. On the way back to the bus, the entire group was clearly in awe of what had happened and how empowering a sincere, respectful relationship with the natural world can be.


Glooskap’s Cave. Photo Credit: Liana Kreamer

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The home of our hearts, Cape Breton – A transformative professional experience with the Canadian Water Network (Part 1 of 6: prologue)

The home of our hearts, Cape Breton – A transformative professional experience with the Canadian Water Network (Part 1 of 6: prologue)


[part one of a special six-part blog series by Mark Ranjram, MEng student at McGill University. From June 8 to June 13 2014, Mark had the privilege of being a part of the Canadian Water Network’s (CWN) Student and Young Professionals (SYP) Workshop in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia]

Let me start this series off by expressing how life changing this event was for me. I am very much a technical water person, more comfortable expressing my knowledge of water using differential equations than a sequence of coherent, elegant words, but I’ve always loved to hear people tell their water stories, and that ability to instantiate into reality the deep connection our species has with water has always been a powerful motivator for me. After leaving the CWNSYP workshop in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia all I can think about is how the intersection of first nations experience; twenty brilliant students/young professionals from across Canada; five dedicated and inspirational mentors; and the indescribable magic of the community that is Cape Breton Island has given me a mountain of emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual capital that I will fight to carry for the rest of my life.

Before we dive into the daily experiences at the workshop, I want to take a paragraph to express what an impressive job the hosts of the workshop did in providing a framework for us participants to unleash our enthusiasm and experience a moment none of us will soon forget. As I hope I’ve successfully expressed in the posts that follow, the diversity of each day’s itinerary was something special. The commitment to providing a robust discussion of water issues contextualized against historical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of water was constant and elevated the workshop to a remarkable place. So, a sincere thank you to the Verschuren Centre of Cape Breton University and the Canadian Water Network for organizing this event; and a very special thanks to our on-the-ground Cape Breton hosts: David Alderson, Martin Mkandawire, Ken Oakes, and Ashlee Consolo Willox; and our Canadian Water Network liaison Liana Kreamer. If you ever get a chance to work with the Verschuren Centre or the CWN, I would strongly suggest you jump at the chance!

The title of this blog post is from a song called “The Island Song” which is the unofficial anthem of Cape Breton and was the de-facto theme song of our time out there (It also inspired the name of the workshop, “A rock in the stream”). 

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