Free water forever?

The days of long, luxuriant showers may soon come to an end.

Are BC’s days of abundant and free water near an end?

There’s an ominous passage in a recent novel by British author Ian McEwan, sort of a meditation on the future of water. In the midst of a long morning shower, the main character is lost in a moment of reflection, pondering how some day the elderly will reminisce about the time when one could mindlessly turn on a faucet and luxuriate beneath a seemingly endless flow of hot water. Similar, perhaps, to how we might regard with a certain amount of skepticism those grizzled old-timers who speak of a time long ago when BC rivers ran so thick with spawning salmon you could traverse the current without wetting your feet.

Here in Vancouver, we have one of those climates that lulls citizens into a false sense of smugness about H2O. The fall and winter rains arrive with biblical fury, and the take-away message for many folks is that we have more water than we know what to do with. However some of our assumptions about water, namely that it is a limitless, more or less free, public resource, are evaporating like dew on a summer morning.

Water, water everywhere…

Learn more about our water supply and get tips for conserving to ensure there’s plenty left to drink.

Turns out water isn’t nearly as abundant in BC and the rest of Canada as we think, and private corporations are eyeing our water the same way they would trees and minerals—as a potential lucrative investment.

An appropriate place to begin any discussion of water conservation and privatization is back home, where we indulge in time-tested suburban rituals like lawn sprinkling, car washing, and hosing dust, leaves and leaked engine oil from our driveway with freshwater. Water flows to our houses and offices courtesy of the Metro Vancouver Water District, a utility with a $160 million annual budget that supplies a billion litres of water to roughly two million customers every day. In 2006, per capita daily consumption was 559 litres. Even when you parse out industrial and commercial use, we still come in at an estimated household average of 320 litres, and by global standards that’s excessive.

According to the United Nations, an average Senegalese home uses 29 litres a day for washing, cooking, and drinking. That’s shocking when you consider that a traditional North American toilet flushes 10 to 20 litres down the drain with every flick of the lever. However, considering that in 1985 total per capita daily use peaked at 743 litres, we have made modest improvements.

“In the ’80s we were a less dense city, there was more rural and suburban water use and we had more industrial users,” says Stan Woods, a professional engineer and project manager for the Metro Vancouver water management plan.

Woods credits a number of initiatives that have helped reduce water consumption to levels well below the gluttonous 1980s. The first target was the archetypal North American locked into that Sisyphean struggle of watering and mowing lawns. Sprinkling regulations came into effect in 1993, restricting watering between June and September to twice a week, mornings and evenings only. Woods estimates these enforced privations have helped reduce consumption by 10 to 15 per cent.

A trend toward increased urban population density means fewer people living in single-family dwellings with big yards, and more families in condominium and multi-family developments with lower water needs. The recently released Provincial Water Action Plan is moving toward implementing a provincewide policy for low flush, six-litre-maximum toilets, following the City of Vancouver’s lead, when it introduced a similar standard in 1995 for all new construction and renovations. Modern appliances also make a substantial difference. Front-loading washing machines are up to 50 per cent more water efficient than their top-loading cousins and are making their way slowly into our homes.

[pagebreak]water conservationWe’re also paying more for water than we used to, and higher rates tend to motivate conservation, particularly among heavy commercial users, some of whom are on metred, or user-pay, water systems. In 1990 the wholesale water rate (charged to the Metro Vancouver Water District’s 18 member municipalities who then deliver it to their taxpayers) was roughly five cents per cubic metre. This past summer Lower Mainland municipalities were paying an average of 43.47 cents per cubic metre.

Education is a key part of water conservation, and Tom Lancaster, manager of advisory services for Smart Growth BC, says we’re slow learners. “We’re light years behind what they’re doing in parts of Europe,” Lancaster says. “There’s still this perceived abundance in British Columbia. But whenever you think you have a lot of everything, you tend not to think about conservation, and that’s when you use it all up pretty quickly.”

Lancaster says we should be learning lessons from our European friends, and from places like Senegal, where conservation is not an option but a necessity. Either that, or we allow imminent scarcity and crisis to be the engine of change, the way it so often is.

Smart Growth BC identifies a number of low-tech initiatives that could be implemented immediately in our built environment and would cost little, conserve vast amounts of water and even save us a little pocket change. For example, we could redesign drainage and gutter systems to capture runoff from our roofs, and instead of sending it to the storm sewer, use it to sprinkle the daffodils and rhododendrons. We could make grey water separation mandatory; a plumbing reconfiguration would direct septic to the septic field or sewage treatment facility where it belongs, while channelling the stuff that comes out of our dishwashers, washing machines and sinks to other secondary uses like, say, low-flush toilets.

On a broader level, Lancaster says we need to boost protection of ecosystems, and build communities with far less impermeable paved and blacktopped surfaces that at least attempt to mimic the natural hydrological cycles that existed before we arrived with our hammers, cement trucks and paving crews.

Unfortunately, as our cities expand we aren’t fabricating new watersheds to replace the ones we destroy, and healthy watersheds provide essential services to the planet, such as filtering freshwater in wetlands and marshes, recharging aquifers, and replenishing lakes and reservoirs with the very liquid of life.

The main barrier to recasting our communities as water efficient and conservation-minded Utopias, argues Lancaster, is a woeful lack of political will. Elected officials for the most part err on the side of caution when it comes to implementing innovative regulations and bylaws around water conservation, and building codes can seem as inert and immobile as Stawamus Chief granite.

So what do these water conservation efforts in Metro Vancouver have to do with debates about water privatization that are raging across the world? Water conservation and privatization are in fact intrinsically linked. Canada’s self-described water warriors, the Council of Canadians, believe freshwater scarcity, combined with poorly managed waterworks, will only play into the hands of private interests eying our blue gold.

The theory is that the more we squander our water, the more we tax our overburdened water utilities; hence the temptation will be greater for our cash-strapped towns and cities to look toward public-private partnerships to keep the water flowing. That’s why Meera Karunananthan, national water campaigner for the Council of Canadians, wants our government to recognize water as a “fundamental human right that should be kept in the public domain.”

It’s an appealing notion because for most of us, water inhabits a sacred realm all its own. Sure, you can lump it under the generic heading of “natural resources,” along with such commodities as gas and wheat; however some argue that water must be treated differently because it is the very building block of life on the planet and is essential to survival.

Water and survival were on the minds of bureaucrats at Environment Canada when they authored a recent report titled “A Federal Perspective on Water Quantity Issues.” This sobering indictment of Canada’s weak control, understanding and management of freshwater warns that we can “no longer take our extensive water supplies for granted.” Furthermore, Environment Canada predicts droughts in the Prairies and groundwater shortages in BC, and says incomplete data on aquifers shared with the U.S. “places us at a strategic disadvantage.”

As Americans become increasingly thirsty, it’s reasonable to expect that private interests will be eyeing Canadian water. One reason is that the Colorado River, the lifeblood of the American Southwest, is in catastrophic decline.

Researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego say Lake Mead, a man-made reservoir along the Colorado, could run dry by 2021. That’s why blockbuster deals to export BC water in bulk have surfaced sporadically at least since 1991. That’s when California-based Sun Belt Water Inc. signed a precedent-setting contract worth $105 million to the BC government in exchange for the right to import water by tanker ship to the U.S. Four days after inking the deal, the then NDP government got the jitters and quickly cancelled the contract.

Since then, Sun Belt has been seeking compensation from the Canadian government under the North American Free Trade Agreement. The ongoing fight lends credence to the Council of Canadians’ assertion that the free trade agreement is a leaky vessel when it comes to protecting water.

According to American author Elizabeth Royle, water privatization is being foisted upon society in a more insidious way. In her new book, Bottlemania: How Water Went On Sale and Why We Bought It, she argues that “the more bottled water we drink, the less investment we will make on existing public water systems.”

And investment in Canadian municipal infrastructure, which includes waterworks, is exactly what this country needs, to the tune of $60 billion, according to 2004 estimates from the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers.

Not that long ago, the private-water debate surfaced in Vancouver, when the Metro Vancouver Water District, looking for a financing model for its $600 million Seymour-Capilano filtration project, floated the idea of a private partnership to design, build and operate the system. Taxpayers proved hostile to the idea, and Vancouver city council passed a motion asking for public hearings and cautioning the city’s water managers that such a partnership would have “serious implications for the public supply and regulation of water resources and services.”

In the end, the water district decided to build and manage the Capilano water filtration plant itself, keeping the entire Lower Mainland water system as a publicly owned and operated utility—at least for now.

“We had public meetings to discuss our plans,” says Metro Vancouver’s Stan Woods. “Basically the public that came to the meetings expressed opposition to any private involvement in our system.”

Whether or not we uphold water as a public resource and fundamental human right, or increasingly treat it as a private commodity to be bought, sold and traded on the open market, is an issue that will no doubt be furiously debated. In the meantime, like the character in Ian McEwan’s novel standing in the shower and watching the swirling drain, many of us recognize but still cling to our careless, wasteful ways.

Sure we’ve made some progress in Vancouver on the conservation front, but millions of people from countries far less fortunate than ours would walk 10 kilometres for the mere chance to fetch a pale of the stuff that flows from our taps day in, day out. If those folks could see us washing cars and sprinkling lawns with it, they’d think that we do indeed come from that mythical planet where water is as infinite as space.