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Can nature based solutions mitigate water pollution?

As coordinators of the UPWATER project, Eike Thaysen and Enric Vazquez-Suñe, will be overseeing the complex task for partners to research and pioneer on protecting ground water from pollutants. First steps are already taken: ‘If we succeed in our ambitions, the overall impact of UPWATER could be significant.’

‘All of the partners are very complementary in both their experiences and capabilities’, Enric Vazquez-Suñe says with pride. The coordinator, acting on behalf of the Spanish Institute of Environmental Assessment and Water Research (IDAEA-CSIC), is accountable for ensuring that project partners fulfill their tasks within the UPWATER project. He also manages the relationships between all eleven partners working together. Eike Thaysen, project manager, is assisting him during the tasks.

The overarching goal of UPWATER is to prevent and mitigate water pollution by utilizing the expertise of each partner. We are looking for scientific advancements, Vazquez-Suñe explains, but also to strengthen relations between experts. ‘In order to provide end-users like municipalities with suggestions for implementing policies that enhance the quality of water.’

First steps are already being taken. ‘As the coordinating partner, we at IDAEA-CSIC have been very busy setting up the consortium and the proposal. Once it was approved for financing last summer, we transformed it into a Grant Agreement. In November we had the kick-off meeting, followed by more meetings with several partners’, he says. ‘We have an incredible team of geologists, chemists, biologists and many others with legal and social-economic expertise.’

Biggest challenges

A part of the project is to understand where pollutants come from, something we call source apportionment’, Thaysen says. Existing models can do that to a degree, but most of them can’t yet handle the full complexity of all pollutants. In the UPWATER project, these models will be developed further to understand the interplay of ground water flow and pollutants.

Thaysen: ‘That is a big pillar in the entire process. It will help us to understand how to prevent the decline of our water quality and how we as humans can clean up our mess.’

Another challenge in the project will be to expand upon techniques such as grab sampling, in which individual water samples are collected at a single point in time and space. A limitation of this method, as noted by Thaysen and Vazquez-Suñe, is that a single point in time does not provide a comprehensive understanding of the average concentration and presence of certain pollutants. Thaysen: ‘For example, there could be a release of a pollutant at the time of sampling that would provide misleading high concentrations. Based on the limited information from grab samplers, only, one could  make false assumptions.’

In contrast, using passive samplers – small, cost-effective monitoring devices – it is possible to measure over a period of a few days. This approach provides a more accurate average, according to Vazquez. In the UPWATER project, these samplers will be placed in the upstream parts of the river, in the ground water and in the sea next to the river delta.

‘Each case study is unique’

As coordinators, Vazquez-Suñe and Thaysen will be responsible for overseeing the progress of all three case studies in Denmark, Greece, and Spain. They hope that nature based solutions will lead the way to mitigate water pollution. Vazquez notes that each site is unique, providing the opportunity to test different solutions in varying contexts and gauge their effectiveness.

For instance, in Denmark, biofilters are utilized. Both Thaysen and Vazquez-Suñe are eager to determine if a case study like Barcelona would also benefit from the implementation of similar filters. Also, Vazquez-Suñe poses the question: “Can certain passive sampling methods be applied universally or do they exhibit variations in different local contexts?”

Given that the three case studies are situated in different settings (urban, rural, agricultural) and are located in different climate regions across Europe, the pollutants present will vary. Thaysen highlights that each case will be distinct, but the overall impact of the project, considering the effects of climate change and the growing demand for clean water sources, is projected to be substantial.

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