Canadian Youth Unite for Lake Erie at AquaHacking Challenge 2017

As the African proverb goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together”. This was quoted by one of the judges to conclude the 2017 AquaHacking semi-finals competition. It epitomized a powerful theme for an evening that involved bringing people and organizations together that had been working to develop integrated water governance by promoting technological innovation in this sector. Moreover, to engage future leaders by bringing water problems to the forefront of public and private sector agendas and fostering commitment to solving them. 

Lake Erie has been under immense stress as of late. Its sustainability has been threatened by contamination from point and non-point source pollution, invasive species transforming its biodiversity, and the effects of climate change altering water quality and chemistry. Thus, helping to solve Lake Erie’s water issues was the primary focus of AquaHacking in 2017. In June 2017, 17 teams participated in the competition’s semi-finals at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, which were then narrowed down to five finalists to compete at the final AquaHacking Summit, held on September 13th, during Elsevier’s 4th Water Research Conference.

The teams were judged based on efficiency, innovation, sustainability, business potential, and effectiveness of their solutions. Below is a list of the finalists in the order in which they placed. To learn more about them and their entrepreneurial developments, please visit: Aquahacking's 2017 finalist website


1.     SIM Labs: Built a hardware device that quantifies and categorizes cyanobacteria.

2.     Emagin: Designed a system to predict the occurrence of storm events to optimize sewage infrastructure in order to minimize untreated wastewater overflow.

3.     Fertilizer Burn: Developed a hardware retrofit for agriculture fertilizer sprayers in order to detect nutrient levels in the soil and control how much is applied.

4.     Polygone: Created a way to reduce microplastics in wastewater by capturing microfibres that come off clothes in the wash.

5.     ImPONDerable: Engineered a science monitoring kit to allow citizens to know when algal blooms may appear.


The challenge’s winner, SIM Labs, was awarded the grand prize of $25,000. This also included a spot with a local, well-known incubator, a sit down with a venture capitalist, 25 hours of professional consultation & mentorship, and a produced promotional video about their solution and additional media coverage.

Photo of SIM Labs member obtained from Aquahacking 2017 website

As a student of Integrated Water Resource Management, I was most interested in the issue of excessive algal growth resulting in harmful algal blooms (HABs) and zones of low oxygen from aggressive inputs of phosphorous (P). The financial, social, and ecological implications of HABs are severe and rising. Along with environmental degradation adversely impacting tourism and recreational use on Lake Erie, HABs present risks to aquatic habitats and wildlife populations including the vitality of its commercial fishery. The Lake Erie basin receives 44% of total phosphorous from agricultural activities, more than any other Great Lake. Since fertilizer runoff is one of the main culprits, it was important to understand the techniques being implemented to mitigate this at the source and identify ways to improve current agricultural best management practices.

In order to gain a first hand understanding of the P issue and conceive of potential solutions to present for the 2017 AquaHacking Challenge, a large group of water scientists and engineers were brought together by agricultural specialist, Mel Luymes. We visited Elmira Ontario’s Floraview Farms to speak with Darcy Weber, a farmer and local advocate for soil health. Darcy explained and demonstrated the effectiveness of cover crops and field drainage tiles to reduce P runoff by promoting water infiltration in the field. We learnt about the application of precision farming tools such as Trimble’s Soil Information System (SIS) mapping process, which provides an incredibly accurate three-dimensional soil profile to identify nutrient holding capacity. Different soil types command more or less fertilizer; therefore, SIS minimizes excess P application by identifying where these areas are located. However, the main limitation to the implementation of this technology is that it’s financially out of reach for most farmers.


Photo of Farmer Darcy Weber speaking with the group at his farm

At the end of the day, it became evident that a new, more affordable method needed to be developed for farmers to conduct variable rate fertilizer application to reduce the discharge of nutrients into watersheds. In response to this, a few members in our group teamed up to form Fertilizer Burn, one of the 2017 finalists. They created a device to deal with this problem by giving farmers a feasible way to identify and regulate how much fertilizer they apply.           

Developing new and innovative approaches to solve water issues in the Great Lakes will be of considerable interest moving forward. AquaHacking is fantastic movement designed to facilitate these solutions by bringing together some of the sharpest minds in water management, entrepreneurship and engineering. It shows that “to go far”, we must act together in order to ensure the sustainability of economies, communities, and wildlife whose survival depend on these bodies of water.

*The de Gaspé Beaubien Foundation, in collaboration with the Water Institute at the University of Waterloo will be presenting Aquahacking 2018 again next year. They will work with Sierra Club Canada Foundation to conceive a potential challenge for the summit. To find out more about the Aquahacking Challenge, please contact us at "ontariochapter @".

Watch a video summary of the event here: AquaHacking 2017 Summit recap

This article was written by Joshua Papernick, Great Lakes Campaign volunteer at Sierra Club Ontario. Joshua was a volunteer at the “2017 AquaHacking Challenge: United for Lake Erie”, hosted at Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo ON.

Blog image of Aquahacking Challenge participants was obtained from Aquahacking 2017 website.

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