Photo credit: EPCOR
Steph Neufeld (BSc ’02, MSc ’05) is drowning in water. When she’s not working as a Watershed Specialist for EPCOR, she’s probably volunteering her time as president of the Alberta Lake Management Society, promoting comprehensive management of Alberta’s water bodies. And if she’s not doing that, there’s a very good chance you’ll find her at one of Edmonton’s pools, swimming end to end for hours, perfecting her stroke. She’s immersed in water – literally and figuratively – for half of every day.
When she was an undergraduate in the Faculty of Science, Neufeld got a summer job as a technician working at the Utikuma Lake wetlands in northern Alberta. At the time, she was interested in landscape-level forest ecology, but spending her summer in the marshes during the tranquility of dusk and dawn resulted in an epiphany. “I realized,” she says, “that water and land are wholly interconnected and we need to study them as one unit, rather than segregating them into two different disciplines.”
When she returned to U of A to do her MSc with Professor David Schindler, she had planned to focus on “nice clean forest streams” but instead was diverted into studying slow-moving wetland streams near Lac La Biche. “In that area, there is a lot of land that’s been converted to agricultural uses,” states Neufeld, “It’s an area where the soil is generally marginal for agricultural uses to begin with.” As she waded through the wetlands daily, her thoughts drifted to wondering: what are the ecological costs of that agricultural land conversion and how can I measure it?
After finishing at U of A, Neufeld worked as a consultant with Mainstream Aquatics, and then moved on to EPCOR. “My role as EPCOR’s Watershed Specialist had largely been filled by engineers in the past,” she recalls. “Their focus was different and they generally looked at water quality from a drinking water treatment perspective rather than an ecological perspective ” As an ecologist-biologist in the job, though, Neufeld was able to bring a holistic perspective to water treatment. “Often we think we’re managing for the output of ‘clean water’’, but I don’t think that’s true. We’re managing an entire ecosystem that includes water. If we take care of the ecosystem, the water will take care of itself.” She notes that it’s far more fiscally and environmentally responsible to stop contaminants such as sediment, pesticides and pharmaceuticals from getting into the water in the first place, rather than trying to treat it afterwards.
Always an avid athlete and cyclist, in recent years, Neufeld has taken up long-distance running which has flowed into her becoming a triathlete. But there was one component she was always struggling with: despite the countless hours spent in hip waders, she wasn’t a great swimmer. “Generally, I find swimming pretty boring, so I never got into it” she says. “But swimming in a lake is amazing – you can see the algae and zooplankton right in front of you! There are grebes swimming along beside you!”Neufeld says that triathletes are often concerned about seemingly-poor water quality – but that’s usually because they don’t understand lake ecosystems. “People often scream because of the weeds or the fish or because the water is so green!” she laughs.
Always the optimist, Neufeld sees a role for the athletic community in influencing water quality: “triathletes tend to be wealthier individuals – maybe they can help put pressure on governments and industry to recognize the importance of watershed preservation.” She laments that she often has to travel far to find lakes to swim in, as many lakes in Alberta suffer from eutrophication, a process by which lakes become overloaded with nutrients, leading to heavy algae growth and fish kills. Often, it happens naturally, and is important to the lake’s ecology. But it can also be kick-started or accelerated by nutrient-rich runoff from agricultural land (termed ‘cultural’ eutrophication). By combining her work, volunteerism, and athletic passions, Neufeld hopes that she can help heal Alberta’s watersheds and continue spending her life surrounded by clean, crisp prairie water.