For the last 20 summers, Kim Sturgess has vacationed along the Athabasca River, in her home province of Alberta, with her dog Chinook. Decidedly a river person, and undoubtedly a water person, Ms. Sturgess is the founder and CEO of Alberta WaterSMART, a not-for-profit organization committed to developing and improving the management of Alberta’s water resources. She was recently elected as President of the Canadian Academy of Engineering, of which she is also a Fellow. She currently serves on the CCA’s Expert Panel on Water and Agriculture.
Q: What attracted you to your field of work?
A: I knew that I wanted to design and build things and solve problems at 10-years-old. Engineering is in my blood. The path to founding and building a water company was a bit convoluted. My first job was in gas pipelines and my second in reservoir engineering. Over the years I developed businesses in industrial products and business consulting. When I transitioned my last business in environmental technology, I decided that I wanted to do something that would make a real difference in the world. I have always had a passion around water, so I decided to build on that passion and my business building skills and found a not-for-profit company focused on improving water management through better practices and technologies. WaterSMART was born.
Q: Your organization is committed to developing and improving the management of Alberta’s water resources. What was your motivation for founding the organization? What were some of the gaps you saw in this area?
A: At the time we were setting up WaterSMART, there was still a large gap between industry water users and those who were focused on healthy aquatic ecosystems. We saw a gap in the system where we could help industry partners and larger communities think about managing water differently that would provide benefits to the ecosystem and would also improve their bottom line. The economic drivers for improving water management are compelling and it is our job to tell the story and make the case. Since over 80 percent of water in Alberta is touched by industry, good water management strategies and practices must work for businesses or risk not being adopted. Fortunately the business case is easy to make.
Q: What are some of your upcoming/new projects?
A: We are working on regional water management projects with the Oil Sands Leadership Initiative which I believe are fundamentally changing the way that we think about water in northern Alberta. We are also involved in a major initiative to develop better processes for managing water in the key river basins in water-short southern Alberta. Both of these programs could have major positive impacts on water management in our province, with lessons that can be applied in other water constrained areas of the world.
Q: The world population recently hit 7 billion. What do you think are some of the more pressing challenges the world faces when it comes to water availability and usage with a population of 7 billion and growing?
A: The world population is expected to grow to about 9 million by the mid 2030’s, at which time the demand for water will match the annual supply of water. Since two-thirds of the world’s water is utilized in agriculture and food production, the critical question is whether we will have enough water to grow the food that we need to support the population. As our climate continues to change, some of the world’s food baskets of today, such as Australia, may no longer be able to maintain their current level of food production. This will put increasing pressure on Canada to grow more food. This type of global pressure will be a major policy challenge for Alberta, where water availability in the food growing areas is limited and there are competing demands for urban development and energy production.
Q: As a member of the CCA’s Expert Panel on Water and Agriculture, which has now been working together for a few months, what do you believe the value to be of science-based assessments and what are some of your reflections on the expert panel process?
A: Most of the debates on energy and environment appear to me to be based on passion and rhetoric rather than on facts. The Council’s commitment to science-based assessments is a refreshing change to this trend. Credible, science-based analysis and conclusions provide a basis for balanced discussion that will better inform the decision makers on the key topics of our time. The process itself is engaging and rewarding. The panel members are experts in their fields and I am learning a great deal from all of them.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
A: The challenges facing our world are becoming more complex. I have found that my engineering education prepared me to solve complex problems and offer workable solutions. I value my engineering education more than ever and I would encourage young men and women to pursue this career. It has been a rewarding one for me.