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The Columbia Journal
P.O. Box 2633 MPO,
Vancouver, British Columbia,
Canada V6B 3W8
Phone: 604-266-6552
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  • Volume Eight, Number Seven: October 2003

    Water, Water, Everywhere?

     Ivan Bulic 

    Vancouverites are water pigs. Because we live on the edge of a rainforest, we assume there is an endless supply of pure, cheap water. But with the Great Drought of 2003, Greater Vancouver Regional District residents now realize that, like everything else on this finite planet, water is not limitless. And providing clean drinking water is not cheap.

    Canadians consume about 1,600 cubic meters of water a year per person. That compares to 180 for the UK, 720 for Japan and 840 for Australia. Only the US at 1,800 uses more. Vancouverites top the list of global water users at 546 litres per person per day, way above Seattle’s 426 litres. This summer’s drought has turned many Vancouverites into water conservationists. But will those good intentions dissolve with the first autumn rains? And what will it take to tackle the increasing cost of supplying the region with clean water?

    Two hundred and thirty GVRD Water District workers are responsible for delivering one billion litres of water that is consumed every day by industry, agriculture, institutions, businesses and 750,000 households across the region. The water comes from three North Shore Watershed reservoirs with a combined capacity of 220 million cubic metres. The 2003 budget for getting it from the watersheds to your tap is $86 million. That budget is expected to jump as a new $600 million water filtration plant comes on line by 2006. And if demand keeps going up, water may have to be piped from the Coquitlam reservoir, adding a hefty chunk to the budget.

    Unfortunately a lot of that expensive water is wasted. Fully 30 per cent of all water goes down the toilet. Unlike most of Europe, Asia and Australia where 6-litre toilets are the norm, the average Vancouverite uses 16 litres of water for each flush. Showers use another 15 per cent, while 10 per cent simply drips away through leaks in the system. In the summer months, 40 per cent of water is used for lawn sprinkling even though botanists say grasses are adapted to dry conditions and don’t need to be watered.

    Industry is a big water user. Burnaby’s Chevron refinery tops the list at 1.5 million cubic metres a year, followed by the Port Authority at 1.2 million and Molson’s Brewery at 1.1 million. Golf courses are notorious water users as they lay their fairways over sandy surfaces that quickly drain moisture. Industrial use is metered, but at relatively low rates.

    Most GVRD households now pay a flat rate for water. The average is about $200 a year no matter how much water is consumed. Except for White Rock and Langley City, where all homes have water meters; and Surrey, North Van, West Van, Richmond and Maple Ridge, that now require meters in new developments, the GVRD remains the only metropolitan area in North America without universal metering.

    Municipalities have been reluctant to take on the cost of metering: approximately $400 for a meter and another $30 a year to monitor and maintain it. And until this summer’s drought it has not been on the political radar screen. But the arguments for metering are undeniable.

    Victoria has had metering for decades and uses 15 per cent less water than Vancouver. In Surrey, which has a program for retrofitting meters in older homes, some households experience savings of up to $130 a year in their water rates. In Ottawa, consumption dropped by 27 per cent after meters were put in.

    So what is stopping metering? When asked, most municipal politicians say they support metering. During the 2002 municipal elections in Greater Vancouver, SPEC polled almost 500 candidates in the 15 largest municipalities of the region. Fully 79 per cent of candidates said they support residential water metering. Yet there is little political appetite for the issue.

    Water is clearly a regional issue. Every new residential development in the GVRD should require a water meter. Grants allowing homeowners to retrofit existing buildings with meters can be implemented. Surrey already has such a scheme in place.

    Building codes can be amended to encourage low flush toilets, water-smart showers, washers and other appliances. Existing houses can be modernized.  Seattle offers a $65 rebate to anyone who installs a water-efficient toilet.

    Simple things such as installing rain barrels to collect water for gardening and washing saves precious tap water. The City of Vancouver sells 75-gallon rain barrels at a subsidized rate. More than 1200 are already in use across the city.

    High volume commercial uses such as car washes and golf courses can be reconsidered. Is it necessary to wash cars as often? Do we have to play golf?

    The Great Drought of ’03 is a wake-up call. We must change from a culture of water wasters to an attitude of respect for a precious and limited resource. The residents of Greater Vancouver and their policy makers need to take some clear decisions before the taps run dry.


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