Imagine a Day Without Water – 2017 edition

Each year, on October 12th, focuses attention on water infrastructure needs.

This year, I’m going to talk about the water infrastructure needs in my own community, the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, Canada.

Water infrastructure is a complex topic, because it needs to take into account both supply and demand.  Most North Americans are used to vast quantities of clean, safe water pouring forth from their taps.

Here on the Sunshine Coast, our potable water is supplied mainly from the Chapman Creek water filtration facility run by the Sunshine Coast Regional District (SCRD).  The treatment plant is taking water from Chapman Creek, which is fed by Chapman Lake.    The SCRD has a helpful video here.

Chapman Lake is in Tetrahedron Provincial Park, so any changes to the level of the lake need to be approved by those concerned with maintaining the integrity of the park, lake & surrounding areas.

Because of the 16 km distance from the lake to the plant intake, the SCRD must release from the lake the anticipated amount of water required many hours before it will be needed.  For scheduling purposes, outside watering is limited to two hour periods morning and evening during the typical garden and lawn growing season. (May to October, typically)

Throughout the year the lake is replenished by rainfall and snow melt.  If there is no rainfall in the watershed, if there isn’t enough snow pack to last the summer, or if the snow pack melts too quickly in the spring,  the lake level will  not be maintained.

Due to environment regulations, the creek must always have a minimum amount of flow to support the fish that live in and use the creek for spawning purposes.

If the water level in the lake gets too low, the SCRD will impose watering restrictions.  The lower the lake, the more restrictions.  In 2016 & 2017, the SCRD imposed ‘Level Four’ restrictions, meaning that no outside watering was allowed.

In 2013, the SCRD published a water conservation brochure which showed the daily consumption of water, per person, on the Sunshine Coast, was 551 litres.  That’s 551 litres/day/person.  To visualize this:  a container 1 metre x 1 metre x .55 metre.  Each and EVERY day.  That’s more than the average BC’er, and a lot more than the average Canadian.

The average person in the world needs 5 litres a day to survive.  We on the Sunshine Coast are using over 100 times more water each day than we need.  That’s 10,000% more than we ‘need’.

But then we get into ‘need’ versus ‘want’ or  ‘entitlement’.  Many local citizens feel they have the right to use as much water as they like.  And because the vast majority of the coast is not (yet) metered, they can currently do so without impediment.

The SCRD has encouraged conservation.  They publish charts showing daily usage rates.  In 2016 the public actually responded and lowered the consumption rate considerably.  In 2017 the response was less noticeable.  Letters to the editor in the local newspapers and comments on the SCRD’s FaceBook page decried the ‘lack of planning’ on the SCRD’s part so that people could continue being wasteful of this precious resource.

551 litres/day/person

551 litres

per day

per person

Based on 30,000 residents on the Sunshine Coast that is a bit over 16 Million litres per day (MLD).  This is borne out by the statistics published by the SCRD showing daily consumption of over 16 MLD.

Common solutions offered in the letters section of the newspaper:  “Lower the lake level by pumping it down more”  “Build new pipelines to take water from other lakes” “Build a reservoir.”

Lower the lake level by pumping it down more:  See “Tetrahedron Provincial Park”

Build new pipelines to take water from other lakes:  the average cost of a big pipe (including engineering, site works, pipes, air valves, etc.) is $500/metre, and would probably cost more due to the terrain on the Sunshine Coast.    Add in the damage to the park from the access roads that would be needed to do maintenance on the pipelines. On top of this is the cost of ongoing maintenance on the pipelines.

Build a reservoir:  551l/d/person x 30,000 residents x 365 days = 6,033,450,000 litres, or (6.033 M m3) of water.  Where are you going to store that?  Currently Chapman Lake has storage of 680,000,000 litres, so to hold a full year’s capacity it would need to be 10 times larger.  Even holding enough for the ‘summer months’ would be a behemoth undertaking.

One of the factors not being taken into account is the cost of treating the water.   Water doesn’t just come out of the lake and into the distribution centre.  It needs to be treated.  Those of us who lived here before the new treatment plant was built remember every autumn when the water would turn yellow due to the tannins from the falling leaves staining the water.  The water was safe to drink, but was unappetizing.  There were also concerns about high turbidity, and the carcinogenic side effects of chlorinating water with high organic loads. The treatment plant eliminated these issues.

The Chapman Creek WTP was built in 2004 and has a peak daily capacity of 24.5 million litres/day (24,000 cubic meters/day).  That peak daily capacity is if the plant is running at peak capacity for all 24 hours of the day.  Right now the plant is running at peak capacity during ‘watering hours’.  The reservoir has a capacity of 15 million litres, or less than one day’s consumption.  If consumption increases, the plant will need to be expanded, and the reservoir capacity at the plant would  also need to be increased.  This all costs money.

One of the initiatives of the SCRD is to introduce water meters.  People are outraged.  “Use the money you’re spending on meters to increase the supply so that we can continue wasting water,” they say.

I, personally, am all for water meters.  Water meters can be used to find previously undetected leaks in the lines going from the water system into private residences.  My favourite story thus far was a woman who found out that their property didn’t actually have a ‘naturally occurring spring’, but instead their ‘spring’ was a large hole in their irrigation system, leaking treated potable water day and night.

But the main purpose for water meters is to create awareness. Like it or not, most people are motivated by ‘cost’, and if it suddenly starts costing them real money to leave a tap running, or watering the driveway (instead of the actual garden), they will be more inclined to turn off that tap or set the sprinklers to a shorter run sequence on the bit that really needs the water.

Right now, I pay the same ‘fixed’ amount for water as people who water their lawns every day.  We’ve lived in our house for over a quarter of a century, and have never watered our lawn.  It’s not the best lawn in the neighbourhood, but it has survived.  But why should others conserve when their costs are going to be exactly the same whether they conserve or not? Not many people on the Sunshine Coast have my background in water treatment.

We all need to reassess our ‘needs’, ‘wants’ and perceived ‘entitlements’.

In my other life (the one not on the Sunshine Coast, where we have water falling from the sky on a regular basis), I interview water professionals.  Most of these water professionals are located in California, which recently endured, and is still recovering from, a five year drought.

One of the lessons learned from the drought is that ALL water is precious.  During the drought all water resources were examined for ‘reliability’.  Water source decisions have a triple impact:  there are social impacts, environmental impacts, and economic impacts.  The cheapest water (that which falls naturally from the sky) is not the most reliable.

In California they discovered one of the most reliable sources of water is one which most people will not want to consider:  Wastewater.

In Sechelt, the ‘Water Resource Centre’ (WRC – formerly known as the wastewater treatment plant) has the capacity to treat a maximum of 12,000 cubic metres of wastewater per day.  A cubic metre is 1000 litres, so that works out to 12 million litres/day, or almost 3/4 of the current demand on the Sunshine Coast.

Now, would I want to drink the water from the WRC?  Not right now, because it is not treated to ‘direct reuse standards’.   But direct reuse is coming into use in areas where water ‘reliability’ is more important than the amount of treatment required to make it potable.  In California, ‘direct reuse’ is actively occurring.

Direct water reuse started in California due to their drought.  Automobile emissions regulations started in California due to their smog issues, but then spread worldwide due to increased awareness. With the effects of climate change affecting us all, direct reuse is the wave of the future.

The effluent at the WRC in Sechelt is currently treated to  BC “Indirect Potable Reuse” standard. This means the effluent is suitable for reuse for industry, park irrigation and agriculture.  Right now the majority of this effluent is discharged into Trail Bay.

There is no reason that the effluent can’t be used to water lawns.  But the infrastructure does not currently exist to run separate ‘non-potable’ water lines.  Use of the ‘Indirect Potable Reuse’ water already available needs to be part of the discussion.  We also need to discuss the real costs of ‘Direct Reuse’ versus less reliable sources of water.

My solution to the water ‘crisis’ on the Sunshine Coast?  Communication & education.  We have choices to make.  Reduce our wasteful habits.  Reuse the resources we already have.

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