Just re-posting a blog I wrote for Waterlution! Original post is here.

I’ve known Maricor for more than 10 years. We were in the same class in environmental engineering and both stayed in the Waterloo area after graduation. She has completed a master’s degree and is nearing the finishing line for her PhD, where she’s specializing in drinking water treatment technologies for emerging contaminants. I’ve been working in environmental consulting and recently went back to grad school for research in stormwater management. We have a lot in common – mostly our passion for water and making that a reality in all of our projects.

I’ve learned a lot from her, and she is someone I regularly go to or advice. I asked her about grad school – she said go for it – and provided me with templates for reference letters and scholarship opportunities. Now I’m doing grad school and loving it. She recommended Waterlution’s Water Innovation Labs (WILs), and so I went to India for that. I even picked one of my post-WIL travel buddies on her advice!

When Maricor and I were getting together for another catch-up, she told me the most amazing story about her latest water initiative. She told it to me in a very humble way – as is her style – and I was so blown away that I just had to share it – and that’s what this post is about.

Now I’m going to bring Maricor in to have her tell that story.


Sylvie: Tell me about your experience at your first WIL in Kananaskis in 2013. How did that experience lead you to understanding your connection with water?

Maricor: I was finishing up my Master’s thesis (focusing on water research) when I came across the WIL Kananaskis web application and thought that a free trip to Banff would be a great way to end the grueling stress of thesis-writing. On Day 1, we were asked to gather around in circles and share our thoughts about our personal motivation of attending this workshop. I listened to a number of responses and was really touched by most of the answers. I obviously felt like such an idiot. For one, I thought water research was just a solid career choice and it did not have any relation to how I feel about water. So I was emotional and told everyone that I grew up in the Philippines, home to >7,000 islands but never felt the connection to water up until I heard everyone else’s responses. By the end of WIL 2013, I decided to dedicate my entire career to water research – not because it was a good career choice – but because water has such an important value to me and is worth protecting.



Sylvie: Tell me about your background in the Philippines & why you want to give back to where you came from.

Maricor: I was born and raised in the Philippines. My family moved to Canada when I was 18 in search of better opportunities. In the small Philippine town where I grew up (about 80,000 people), water issues were really not a priority for us since there were a lot more socioeconomic aspects to worry about. I came to the realization that no one really talked about major water issues, or asked themselves “Is there something we can do to protect our drinking water?” when there were so many other problems taking precedence.



Sylvie: Tell me about the scholarship you set up at your former school in the Philippines. Why did you want to do this? What are the questions that you asked?

Maricor: I started my PhD four months after I attended the WIL Kananaskis. I’ve had many dreams and visions that I want to put in place in my hometown since WIL. Maybe someday, I will go back and conduct a research project in the town I grew up or encourage the residents to just talk about water. But I really couldn’t think of any concrete plans. I was very fortunate to have received numerous scholarships during my PhD that helped with my grad school life substantially. So, I decided to pay it forward by sponsoring a scholarship essay competition that will hopefully encourage young minds to establish their connection with water – an opportunity that I did not have while I was there. It would also be a chance for me to learn about the watershed there. We called it “The Future of Negros Water Scholarship Competition”. “Negros” is the name of a Philippine island where my hometown, Victorias City, is situated.

Sylvie: What did you learn from the respondents about the island where you grew up?

Maricor: I was impressed by their responses – I definitely didn’t think the same way they did when I was their age (16 years old). Population growth, urbanization and the lack of water policies were considered the major drivers of the water quality issues in the watershed. All the entries definitely recognized the need for government involvement in providing access to clean and safe drinking water. At the moment, there are no watershed programs currently in place on the island.

I asked really broad questions about the watershed and clean drinking water. The questions were maybe a little bit long for a high-school essay competition – I will keep them shorter and more direct for the next scholarship round.

I will sponsor a second round of scholarship at the end of this year. A few family members I spoke to about this are already planning to contribute to the award. I am so excited.



Sylvie: Who did you award the scholarship to and what will they be doing with the funds?

Maricor: The recipients of this scholarship were even more deserving of recognition than I initially thought, as they not only demonstrated hard work and deep thinking, but they did so in the face of significant personal adversity as well. The funds will hopefully help all the winners with their university education expenses.


Sylvie: Do you have any final words on how to foster connections to water?

Maricor:  Start the conversation, talk about water, and inspire young minds as early as possible!


by Sylvie Spraakman and Maricor Arlos

Bios: Sylvie Spraakman is an EIT working on researching & implementing low impact development for stormwater management systems, and Maricor Arlos is a PhD candidate studying how changes to wastewater treatment technologies can affect emerging contaminants. They both love volunteering with community, environmental & political initiatives, and being subservient to their cat masters.

Greening Exhibition Place

I recently participated in WEAO’s 9th Annual Student Design Competition. The challenge was to come up with innovative stormwater management solutions for Exhibition Place, Toronto. “The Ex”, as it’s known locally, is a bunch of parking lots and buildings that house major events that attract thousand of visitors annually.

The problems are:

  • poor water quality of stormwater runoff – because of all of the cars and asphalt and no pre-treatment before the runoff enters Lake Ontario
  • urban heat island effect – hot days then feel VERY hot
  • flooding on Lakeshore Boulevard, which is south & downstream of Exhibition Place. The sewers on Lakeshore Boulevard receive runoff from Exhibition Place and the Gardiner Highway, so two very impervious areas that would have high peak runoff converge underneath Lakeshore
  • the systems underground are old and not necessarily “designed” for conditions like peak flow
  • the subsurface soils are mainly fill (because this area was Lake Ontario before it was filled in!) and likely contaminated
  • the groundwater level is probably pretty close to the surface, since Exhibition Place is so close to Lake Ontario – which means infiltration won’t be so easy
  • they need all the parking spots they can get!

Seven student teams from across Ontario went forth on solving this problem for the City of Toronto (our “client”). Our designs all implemented green infrastructure solutions – like bioretention, permeable pavement, green roofs, surface and subsurface detention (like cisterns for catching roof runoff). We showed that it was possible to reduce peak flow and runoff volumes from Exhibition Place by retaining it first, releasing it slowly. We also showed that we could improve water quality by filtering it, and reduce urban heat island effect by having lots of plants around.

The price tag was super high though! The range of estimates that our student teams came up with was between $5- and $12-million!!!

I’m left wondering if the City of Toronto will implement something as ambitious as this. I’ve seen many pilot projects get built to demonstrate the effectiveness of low impact development (LID) technologies – but it seems that there is some conservative faction that says “we don’t know enough, need more data, more time, more regulations” – and so we don’t build LIDs out at the large scale. Anecdotally, we’re often told that LIDs don’t work in the winter, or don’t work in urban areas, or need the best infiltrating soils possible to be effective. That line of thinking holds us back, especially when there are countless studies that prove the opposite.

What we proposed in the Student Design Competition is far more than a “pilot project”. I think it’s the right time to move beyond pilot projects for LIDs though. We have a lot of them already, we need to move into “normalizing” LIDs. That means including them in City development plans, ensuring that municipal operations staff (those folks who make sure streets are swept and sidewalk trees don’t fall on people) know what they are and how to maintain them. LIDs don’t work everywhere – I don’t think they are a be-all-end-all solution. But to adapt to climate change and reduce environmental and societal impacts of flooding, we need to normalize some new solutions that we know work.

I hope that Exhibition Place takes on the ambitious project of a green infrastructure re-design! And what better place for it? There are many green initiatives there already, like LEED buildings, waste management plans, and solar panels on roofs. The next step to normalizing LIDs is to implement them site-wide at a place visited by thousands of people every year – Exhibition Place.