Research Nova Scotia is spending $1.1 million to continue a Dalhousie University wastewater testing program that used sewage to track the spread of COVID-19 during the depths of the pandemic.

Researchers from the Centre for Water Resources Studies, which is led by director Graham Gagnon, will spend the new provincial money on genetic sequencing equipment that will save the team having to send samples to an external laboratory for testing, Research Nova Scotia said in a press release Monday.

Traces of viral genetic material are flushed out of buildings whose occupants have active infections, meaning the presence of coronavirus in wastewater can be used to monitor the pathogen’s presence in communities even if cases are going undiagnosed.

“Wastewater surveillance has been an important tool in monitoring SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 prevalence in populations and communities since the onset of the pandemic,” said Gagnon of the three-year-old initiative.

“Building on the success of this initial investment from Research Nova Scotia, we’re now working on applying the approach beyond wastewater and beyond COVID, to other water systems and other health threats in Nova Scotia.”

The same technology used for monitoring pathogens also has applications in tracking harmful cyanobacteria blooms. Previously called blue-green algae blooms, cyanobacteria consume much of the available oxygen in a body of water, leaving less for other organisms, and their prevalence has been increasing with climate change.

“Cyanobacteria can release toxins and other compounds that affect water quality,” said assistant professor of civil and resource engineering and Centre for Water Resources researcher Amina Stoddart. “Sampling and treatment approaches are needed to better understand, monitor, and prioritize risks.”

Precision water testing of the type used by the researchers could also be deployed to improve the efficiency of wastewater treatment plants by way of more precise monitoring during the treatment process, Stoddart added.