Monday, July 1, 2024

Down To The Waterline

The broken water main in Calgary this past month quickly brought home how much big city dwellers take the supply of fresh water and their sewage systems for granted.  Without clean water a lot of things come to a screeching halt including eating, cleaning, and bathing. Pity this didn't spur further action on repairing the water and sewage systems of all the First Nations communities in Canada that still don't have clean water after all these years.

The Metro Vancouver area apparently uses 400 billion litres of water per year and, as the population expands, this is expected to grow to 600 billion litres per year by the turn of the next century. To prepare for this, new infrastructure at the Coquitlam Lake watershed is being planned at a cost of over $1 billion dollars. The possibility of expanding capacity at both the Capilano and Seymour watersheds is also being reviewed.

But securing an adequate water supply is only half of the problem, the other is handling the wastewater and sewage. It's also a very expensive proposition. The cost for the North Shore sewage treatment plant currently under construction has ballooned from an original estimate of $700 million to $4 billion dollars. How this has occured is something for the courts to ultimately decide but in the meantime the taxpayers are on the hook.

The North Shore treatment plant will be the first in the Lower Mainland to offer secondary treatment for wastewater as per federal government regulations. Until now there has only been primary treatment of the wastewater which is still the case at the Iona Island wastewater treatment plant. The estimate for upgrading the Iona wastewater plant is close to $10 billion dollars. There are 3 other wastewater treatment plants in the Lower Mainland and together these five treat over a billion litres of wastewater every day.

Canadians can be forgiven for thinking they have an almost unlimited supply of fresh water, given that we hold 20% of the world's fresh water. In actual fact less than half of this is renewable with the rest stored in lakes, underground aquifiers and glaciers. Furthermore half of the renewable water flows into the Arctic Ocean and Hudson Bay which is unavailable to the vast majority of the Canadian population since they mostly live near the 49th parallel. With global warming and lower snowpacks the water that is accessible is dwindling, and this spring in Southern Alberta the Bow, Oldman, and Saskatchewan Rivers were all at dangerously low levels.

Recently a broken sewer pipe leaked sewage into False Creek and the nearby beaches prompting a water quality advisory and closure. It doesn't take much to contaminate a fresh water supply, or the ocean itself, and we go about our daily activities without a thought or care for the billion litres of wastewater flowing through the city's pipes, unless of course we come across a road being dug up.

As we approach the 8 billion mark for people living on Earth you have to wonder if there is truly enough water to go around. While the vast majority of water is used for agriculture, the per capita consumption is not equally distributed. Millions of people are facing water scarcity and this in turn leads to poor sanitation, disease, and death. Without water nothing can survive and perhaps it's time we focused more attention on how we use it instead of taking it for granted. It all comes down to the waterline.