COLUMN: Conservation isn’t a simple water solution

How can it be that a city situated on the Wet Coast of B.C. is facing a looming water shortage?

How can it be that a city situated on the Wet Coast of B.C. is facing a looming water shortage?

After all, Abbotsford receives an average of 1,500 mm of precipitation annually.

Yet, according to a series of studies, this community faces a situation where water demand exceeds supply, as early as 2016.

The fact is, copious rainfall doesn’t directly feed the daily water demands of this city. Precipitation does fill the lakes and aquifers that supply water to Abbotsford and Mission, but those sources are soon to be stretched – initially during peak use periods such as dry summer months, but eventually, on a more prolonged basis.

Presently at just over 140,000, the population of this city is projected to be close to 200,000 by the 2020s. That represents a great deal of water.

Conservation is a solution identified frequently during debate over Abbotsford’s water issues, often by opponents of a proposed public-private partnership to create a new water supply and treatment plant at Stave Lake.

I’m all for conservation, but that alone is not the simple panacea some would make it out to be.

A recent theoretical study of Abbotsford and Mission’s water needs referred to as the POLIS report suggested a 45 per cent reduction in water consumption would be required in 20 years in order to hold off the need for a new water source.

That is a massive undertaking, considering that the infrastructure required to achieve such a goal just doesn’t exist at present.

Existing homes do not have rainwater collection capabilities, other than perhaps an odd rain barrel here and there.  The impact of those is virtually nil.

Only the newest and most sophisticated houses are designed to re-use “grey water” from sinks and showers to flush toilets – one of the highest water uses. It’s a great concept – one that should be mandated in all future home construction – but the fact is, it can’t be implemented in homes already built, other than through major, expensive renovations.

Are you going to spend tens of thousands of dollars tearing your house apart so it can be replumbed?

Ditto for businesses and industries.

There are measures that can be undertaken to lower water usage, but in many cases, they require expensive redesign of equipment and process.

A flat-out order to industries to make those investments in but a few short years will result in an exodus of business from this city, and along with it, the jobs and economic spin-off they create.

The POLIS report also recommended tiered water rates, and the implementation of watering restrictions.

Abbotsford has done both.

Watering bans are now in effect in summer, and a considerable number of people think those are draconian.

You also pay more for water as you use more, specifically in peak demand periods – as it should be.

But, given the relatively cheap cost of water here, and the generally affluent community using it, these measures are not going to hugely reduce demand.

The city’s efforts to implement conservation initiatives have resulted in about a 10 per cent water saving. That’s good, but not nearly enough. Even 20 per cent doesn’t stave off the point where overall demand exceeds supply.

Is water conservation going to become increasingly important in future decades? Absolutely.

Moving forward, should we be looking to demand more of builders and businesses in terms of reducing water demand? Without question.

Is this going to solve Abbotsford’s water issues in the next five years? Not in isolation it won’t.

In order to continue to be vibrant, growing community – and that’s how a healthy economy works, by the way – this city is going to have to expand its water supply.

Regardless of whether it’s by a P3 arrangement, or a solely public project, we will need more water in the near future – and the answer isn’t going to fall from the sky – yet.

Andrew Holota is editor of the Abbotsford News.