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Global Warming's Threat to BC: Seeking Solutions

Floods and droughts on the radar. Can we adapt?

Chris Wood 31 Aug

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Creative approaches in demand.

[Editor's note: "Rough Weather Ahead," Chris Wood's series on B.C. water and what we can expect from global warming, is funded by a Tyee Investigative Reporting Fellowship. Today we publish the fifth and final of his reports. To learn more about Wood, his series and Tyee fellowships, go here.]

I find groundwater engineer Scott Schillereff on the patio at Joey's, a popular lunch spot in Kelowna. The evening before, he had been to see An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's movie about global warming. Scott describes it as a "life-altering experience." As if to drive the experience home, today temperature records are melting all across southern B.C. We sit in the blazing sun but the air around us is pleasantly cool -- thanks to the fine spray of water puffing every few seconds from a device somewhere overhead that appears to be modelled on the ones supermarkets use to keep produce fresh. Beyond a leafy hedge, SUVs and pickup trucks weave among the RVs travelling through town on Highway 97.

For me, the scene captures perfectly the reality, the irony and the reasons for optimism wrapped up in our conflicting and conflicted responses to climate change. We are a fortunate lot in British Columbia, so spoiled by earlier generations' modifications of nature that today we can afford to indulge in the illusion of a special relationship to the environment even as we squander its most essential gift -- clean, fresh water -- with an extravagance that ought to shame us.

The heat, however, is on. It is becoming harder to ignore the change in the weather. Soon it will be impossible as, in one way or another, events compel even the most somnolent among us to respond. As I have reported in previous articles in this series, that wake-up call may be a spring flood that overtops dikes defending Vancouver's suburbs. Or perhaps it will be a killing drought that pits neighbour against thirsty neighbour in the Okanagan. Or it may come invisibly, as unregulated wells pump countless litres of water out of the ground until they suck it dry.

Or perhaps, and more hopefully, more of us will have the kind of experience Scott Schillereff has had, and embrace not only the urgent need to act differently, but the numerous ways we can do so. Climate change presents a complex problem -- in its nature and in what it asks of us by way of response. But despite the doomsday scripts some have taken to calling "climate porn," the climate threat to our water is not insoluble. Indeed, promising countermeasures are being modelled all across British Columbia. Others are on the menu of possibilities -- if we can summon the nerve to try them.

And paradoxically, our very extravagance may be an asset of sorts. "The myth of the abundance of water is in our psyche," Scott observes. Immersed in that myth, British Columbians waste water at rates far "higher than the Canadian average," he notes. "And the Canadian average is multiples higher than the world average." In our profligacy, however, lie enormous opportunities to make water go further without sacrificing either comfort or wealth. And one stunningly simple key could unlock those opportunities: a little more realism about what water is worth at the tap.

Too much and too little

Our problem, to recap, is one of extremes: far too much water at some times and places, far too little at others. And because water is involved in everything -- everything -- else that we do, our response must be similarly comprehensive. We must attack the challenge both up-stream and down, as well as at mid-stream: considering where our water comes from, how we use it and how we dispose of it, as related parts of the same puzzle.

The most effective solutions will often not be dramatic ones -- nor require the heavy engineering and environmental disruption associated with "big pipe" projects of the past. Instead, they will be creative, often subtle and integrated with other goals, including aesthetic ones. And they are as likely to come from innovations in the marketplace as from massive investments in public works.

Most visitors to a new Maple Ridge subdivision, for instance, probably miss its many special features designed to help torrential rain soak into the ground rather than overflow drains, run off into nearby creeks or wash pollutants into environmentally sensitive Blaney Bog. Pocket gardens along narrow roads (narrow both to slow traffic and reduce impervious "hard" surfaces) are planted with attractive native shrubs and flowers; they also contain hollows where rainwater can collect and seep safely into the earth. Lawns conceal extra absorbent topsoil and buried, rock-filled pits where rainwater is retained to "infiltrate" slowly, instead of rushing downhill.

Such details, designed into the development at the blueprint stage, were considered radical when they were pioneered a few years ago at Surrey's East Clayton subdivision. Their latest successful application -- phase one of the "Silver Ridge" project quickly sold out -- is an encouraging sign that what was then "experimental" may soon be "business as usual."

'Private sector will jump on this'

Forward-thinking Vancity Credit Union is one of the investors sinking $600 million into an even more ambitious development in Victoria.

Under construction on a former industrial site across the Gorge waterway from downtown, Dockside Green's 26 planned buildings will incorporate super-efficient appliances and bathroom fixtures that cut water needs by nearly half compared to conventional suites. Twinned plumbing will distribute potable water to taps, but carry recycled waste-water to flush toilets, irrigate landscaping and maintain the ornamental stream that will run down the centre of the project; any recycled water left over will be sold to local industry. By treating residents' sewage on-site, the development expects to save $81,000 a year in city charges -- and generate space heat.

If other builders take up the same ideas, the project's sales materials hint, the capital might be able to postpone spending an anticipated $100 million to develop new water supplies by the early 2020s.

Purchasers who snapped up 80 of 95 units in the first four Dockside buildings in one day like what Joe van Bellingham, the project's promoter and lead cheerleader, calls its "future-proofing" quality. "It was a way of distinguishing the product in the marketplace," Joe candidly admits. At the same time, by designing to a "triple bottom line" of economic, social and environmental returns, Joe slashed his usual costs of securing community approvals and marketing, more than offsetting the modest extra expense of adding innovative features. In fact, the chartered accountant has become a bottom-line fan of designs that spare water and other environmental values: "The more we understand, the better we get at it, the more money we're going to make," he enthuses. "I really think the private sector is going to jump on this and lead the market."

New wave of water recycling

Admittedly the idea of "recycling" water carries a certain, what shall we call it, odour? Yet in truth, every drop of rainwater that falls from the sky is "recycled" -- evaporated from salty (and increasingly soiled) oceans, condensed in the atmosphere and returned to the ground in what amounts to a planetary-scale distillery. But as human demands exceed the global still's local deliveries, a growing number of cities are doing the job themselves. In San Diego, recycled water is returned directly to the mains; Las Vegas pumps cleaned-up sewage into Lake Mead to blend with nature's product before it gets served back to tourists on the Strip.

Dockside Green isn't the first to pioneer the idea in B.C. Amid the vast domed digesters and settling ponds of the GVRD's 126-acre Annacis Island sewage treatment facility, the pilot recycling plant commissioned earlier this month looks like a diminutive school science project. Nonetheless, its open hopper tank and metre-wide U-shaped horizontal tube are big enough to accommodate one per cent of the larger facility's treated effluent. Already as clear as most mountain streams, the effluent is filtered further through sand (in the hopper), then disinfected with chlorine (in the U-tube).

What flows out the other end will replace half the drinking-quality water the Annacis facility now buys from Delta, saving more than $200,000 a year. (No, it won't be served up at water coolers; it's destined for various "process" needs and landscaping.) If everything checks out, the recycler may be expanded and its product sold to neighbouring industries that include metal-platers and a film-processor as well as a dairy and candy maker.

Desert landscaping

In the increasingly water-stressed Okanagan, the towns of Vernon and Oliver have been recycling sewage for a while. The water sparkling in the sun as it sprays across the infield grass surrounding Oliver's municipal airstrip is recycled -- as is the water in fire hydrants identified with special purple paint.

But using water twice may not be as important as using it sensibly once. Kelowna's residents consume some 25 million litres of water a day in the winter. Come summer, that amount nearly quadruples to 95 million litres. "The difference is what's going on grass," says city WaterSmart co-ordinator Neil Klassen. A few "radical" residents, he says, are replacing bluegrass with hardier varieties or cutting back on fertilizer to slash the thirst of even ordinary grass by 25 to 30 per cent. Their innovations may become compulsory before the decade is out. The city is revamping its landscaping codes.

"We're not looking at the Lower Mainland [for guidance]," Klassen says. "It's not relevant to Kelowna. Our models are cities like Tucson and Irvine, California." His bottom line? "The type of landscaping that's going on now can't continue. It can't. We don't have the water."

'We're in crisis now'

Water sustainability campaigner Kim Stephens hopes the same insight sinks in across British Columbia. He leads an initiative funded by government and industry to bring good examples like these to the attention of municipal planners and local governments. His goal is to see the innovative become the standard.

"A lot of the [development] standards we brought in 25 years ago, nobody thought them through," Kim argues.

Now, the waste embedded into building and plumbing codes, development guidelines and landscape habits, magnified by ever-growing populations, are crashing into the new reality of extreme weather. Despite B.C.'s rainy reputation, "we're in crisis now." Leaving the future to business-as-usual, he fears, will put us squarely in the crosshairs of devastating water shortages alternating with downpours that overwhelm creeks, drains and dikes.

Still, Kim remains a guarded optimist. "If we act now, we'll never have to know what the alternative future would have been like." Action is up to all of us: each of us makes daily decisions about what appliance to buy, garden to plant or tap to leave on. Businesses, civic activists and citizens choose what investments to make, causes to promote or oppose, parties and programs to vote for or against.

Where's government's strategy?

But government can also help. Sources tell me that the provincial bureaucracy has been tasked to draft a "comprehensive water management strategy" laying out "the role of government, industry and citizens in how to interact in a way that preserves and protects, and still uses, our water resource." The mission is to cover as much as possible, from energy and fish to public health and flood safety.

It's a tall order—and could be a hopeful development. But after Environment Minister Barry Penner's office declined to respond to more than half a dozen requests for more information about the rumoured strategy -- the most recent in just the last few days -- I'm left to wonder how serious the government's intentions really are.

If a new B.C. water strategy is in the works, the more than 30 experts I interviewed for this series hold a unanimous view of what should be its top priority: changing the economic signal attached to water from what amounts to a green light to "waste at will" to something closer to a flashing red, "wake up: danger ahead!" Our choices, after all, are ruled more powerfully by price than almost anything else. And right now in British Columbia we pay a pittance for water from the tap, its real cost of water hidden under layers of financial and environmental subsidy. We can hardly help making bad decisions. As the University of Victoria's POLIS Project on Ecological Governance put it in a recent report: "Low pricing encourages people to think of water as relatively free and…strengthens the myth of superabundance."

Pay the true cost

It's a myth we need to dispel. Sitting in the heat of Kelowna's hottest July on record, cooled by puffs of gentle, nearly free water, Scott Schillereff points out the obvious: our decisions must "be based on the true value of water. If water you get through your tap cost closer to what it cost to produce, people would use it better."

There's a straightforward way to get "real" about our water: support local and provincial politicians who have the courage to raise the price of tap water to its actual cost, and to institute universal water metering to make sure each us pays our fair share of that price. In this, if only this, we British Columbians need to shake off our infamous 'lotus-land' detachment from inconvenient truths -- before we're either carried away by the flood, or left out to dry.

Veteran journalist Chris Wood is recipient of a Tyee Fellowship for Investigative Reporting, which provided the funds necessary to do the in-depth reporting in this series. Tyee Fellowships for Investigative and Solutions-oriented Reporting are supported by donations from Tyee readers and intended to support independent journalism to educate the public about critical issues facing British Columbia. If you are interested in making a tax-deductible donation, please go here. If you are interested in applying for a fellowship, please go here.

Wood is working on a book, Dry Spring: When the Water Runs Out, forthcoming from Raincoast Books.


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