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At the Glacier Discovery Centre in Jasper National Park, water is a big theme. Its frozen entity comprises the 215 square kilometres of glacial ice that makes up the Columbia Icefield, encompassing the toe of the Athabasca Glacier.

Stepping off the Ice Explorer bus and onto the glacier itself, water is all around you. Hundreds of metres of ancient ice plunges beneath your feet. Melt streams energetically travel across the ice’s surface before cascading into crevasses. Above and beyond, frozen glaciers reach into the distance. And with a top elevation of 3,000 metres, the weather system here see all seasons. Snow and rain may also fall, even in the middle of summer.

This long-standing piece of Canadian Rockies history is often the pinnacle experience of a rich travel itinerary throughout the national parks. Over a million visitors per year travel here just to witness this natural wonder in person—often the only times they'll ever step on to a glacier in their lives.

But one element that may not come to mind is the water needed to sustain these visitation levels, which are only on the rise. From dining experiences to the less glamorous bathroom needs, efficient water systems are a necessity here—particularly because the population centre nearest to this fragile environment is over 100 kilometres away.

Steve McFadden, the Assistant General Manager of Columbia Icefield operations, says that this poses a unique challenge to the Glacier Discovery Centre.

“We’re off the grid, so we’re not tied to any urban infrastructure out here in the middle of the national park,” says McFadden. “We’re responsible for supplying our own potable water as well as treating all the waste that is generated—both from our staff camp and the Glacier Discovery Centre itself.”

With visitation levels ever-increasing and the importance of remaining sustainable in a delicate environment so clear, nearly $1 million were invested into the existing water treatment facility for major upgrades over the past few years—from the first concept planning in 2015 to project completion in 2016.

A One-of-a-kind Water Treatment System

AquaDiversities, a water and wastewater treatment technology business based in Nelson, BC, undertook the task—designing and constructing a brand-new system to replace the aging infrastructure. Their system brought advanced technologies that McFadden says allows the facility to not only meet, but to exceed the environmental standards set in place by Parks Canada. It employs an oxidization technology applied to all effluent or wastewater—raising the quality to a high standard by removing detectable nutrients—before returning the water to the local environment.

A gravel road leads to the water treatment plant at the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre. Ice-capped peaks tower in the distance.

“Years ago, the wastewater system at the original Glacier Discovery Centre was more of a lagoon that Parks Canada originally put in,” said McFadden. “All affluent had to be transported on trucks, with all liquid treatment taking place in Jasper.”

While the lagoon still exists today with an upgraded impermeable liner surrounding the clay walls, McFadden says that it isn’t always needed. When the plant is fully operational, the system is self-sustaining.

And so now visitors can rest assured that their presence in this fragile environment is being well-managed. Every drop counts, after all.

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