To find underground water, researchers take to the sky

To learn more about water hidden beneath the earth, researchers are taking to the clouds.

This summer, a team of scientists backed by industry, First Nations and government will survey nearly 9,000 square kilometers of North Peace backcountry from the air.

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In July and August, a helicopter flying at 100 metres will buzz over a rectangular area stretching from north of Pink Mountain to Hudson's Hope. On a longline, the helicopter will carry a specialized array called a magnetometer that emits a magnetic field to find buried aquifers and river channels.

It's one piece of a sweeping study that will determine where water wells exist in the North Peace, as well as provide baseline data on the amount and quality of ground and surface water in the region. It's information that the natural gas industry, as well as farmers, First Nations and local governments are interested in getting their hands on.

"One of the hot button issues is groundwater," said Carlos Salas, a VP with Geoscience BC, the organization carrying out the study. "We don't really understand groundwater in the Northeast at all."

The $2 million study hopes to turn up potential water sources for municipalities and agriculture, as well as non-potable deposits that could be used in fracking operations. It will establish water baselines, in case drilling activity picks up with liquefied natural gas development. Once scientists have the broad strokes of where groundwater aquifers exist, they'll drill test wells to gather more information.

Geoscience B.C. is an industry-backed non-profit that collects and sells earth science data. The Oil and Gas Commission, Ministry of Environment, Progress Energy and ConocoPhillips are among the groups contributing money, data or personnel to the study. The Blueberry River and West Moberly First Nations have also asked their territories be included in the flyovers. A second phase will look at the South Peace.

"[Studying groundwater] is very important, especially given potential further development of natural gas, and the expansion of communities," said Salas. "Outside the major population centres, there just isn't that much information."

Another groundwater study backed by the Peace River Regional District focuses  on the area around Fort St. John. That study will focus on "stitching" together existing well data, said Salas.

"What we're trying to do is go into areas where we have almost no information and provide the groundwork," he said. "When we do have the information, we can guide further research."

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