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Kathleen Johnson

Arrell Scholar, Engineering

Kathleen Johnson

Kathleen is an MSc student at the G360 Institute for Groundwater Research, hosted by the University of Guelph. Kathleen is working to understand how water flows through the unique fractured bedrock aquifer that supplies both people’s taps and industrial food processing plants in Guelph. The information gathered will allow her and her team to better visualize how the aquifer is affected by contamination, and will influence policy and decision making to improve water quality in the future 



The city of Guelph relies heavily on groundwater to supply people’s taps and homes for everyday use, and for use in large-scale food processing operations such as Sleeman Brewery. Groundwater is the water in underground spaces between soil, sand, and rock, and it moves through the earth through larger spaces called aquifers. The most common type of aquifers are made from sand, but the one that supplies Guelph is made of cracked bedrockWater in this aquifer flows to Guelph all the way from Tobermory in the Bruce Peninsulaand it flows faster and more complexly than the water in slower, more simple sand aquifers. 

Kathleen’s research program was directly inspired by an inquiry following the E. coli outbreak in Walkerton, Ontario in the year 2000. This contamination caused more than 2,000 cases of gastroenteritis and resulted in 6 deaths from gastrointestinal – related illnesses. Although the source of contamination leading to the outbreak was determined to be a nearby cattle farm, the severity of the outbreak was due to shortcomings of the policies in place for dealing with this type of public health concern, rather than the flow of the aquifer itself. 


Addressing the Problem  

Research is needed in order to properly understand how water flows through this unique aquifer. This is especially important when considering possible instances of contamination in the aquifer in order to minimize the impact to those who rely on it. Current models of the aquifer’s flow are very general, and are ineffective at detecting and dealing with agricultural or industrial contamination. In the past, this information gap has led to the closure and shut down of wells fed by the aquifer, as this is the only method available to maintain public health in communities that rely on the groundwater. By collecting flow data and improving the accuracy of flow models, it will be possible to avoid these shutdowns in the future and adopt a proactive approach to dealing with contamination instead.   

By digging wells and installing sensors in the aquifer, Kathleen will gather data to improve the accuracy of the current model describing how water flows through the aquifer feeding the City of Guelph. This will in turn lead to a better understanding of how contamination enters and flows through the aquifer. This accurate and up-to-date information will influence how policies and protocols surrounding groundwater usage are made, as well as future pumping and well development. Kathleen’s research will directly contribute to a proactive, rather than reactive approach to groundwater management in Guelph, elevating the lives of all those who rely on groundwater for daily use. 

Ensuring Stewardship

Kathleen has always been interested in the environment. She became particularly interested in groundwater due to its prevalence in her life growing up in Woodstock, Ontario, which is another community where people rely heavily on groundwater in their everyday lives.  

Groundwater research is a relatively new field, only really gaining interest from the scientific community in the past 40 years. Previously, people believed that once you dump something (like waste) into the water, it just “disappeared”. Now we know that this is not the case, and researchers are interested in developing better, more sustainable approaches to groundwater management to ensure they are preserved. Canadians often take water for granted, but it is important that we remember our responsibility to take care of it. Kathleen wishes to ensure stewardship of groundwater through her research so that people can continue to use groundwater without worry.