Water issues not going away

Misuse and failing infrastructure just some of the problems

So much rain and snow fell during this spring we’d just endured, it’s a bit hard to accept that by June, White Rock’s EPCOR and Metro Vancouver imposed lawn-watering restrictions.

Two different themes necessitate these controls. One is the apparent desire for immaculate lawns; an obsession or an unnecessary competition not just to keep up with neighbours, but perhaps to surpass them?

To achieve lawns of the quality depicted by advertisers – uniform, weed-free and deeply green – one must apply fertilizer and herbicides, mow and water frequently, which, environmentally, are all very questionable.

How much area of lawn is really needed in a garden? How far can thoughtful landscaping go to minimise or even eliminate lawns?

The second theme deals with how we use, or misuse, water.

I’m sure everyone has seen sprinklers in operation during rainstorms, or sprinklers set so that water falls on driveways and roads where it serves no useful purpose and may even contribute to storm-water pollution.

Is it so onerous to sweep a path or driveway instead of hosing it down and again generating potentially harmful run-off?

Water quality is a separate but parallel issue.

Last August, White Rock was under a boil-water order and, now in consequence, costly chlorination, filtration and reservoir upgrades are in hand.

Of course, White Rock’s problem is in no way unique. In many of B.C.’s parks and campgrounds, water is unfit for drinking; the southern Interior has over 400 boil-water notices in effect; and the 2000 Walkerton, Ont. tragedy – in which seven people died as a result of e. coli-contaminated water – has not yet faded from memory.

There’s the immediate problem, but it’s far from being the only one.

All across Canada there are problems with aging infrastructures, which include water and sewage systems – problems inherited from past neglect and, possibly, faulty construction.

New bridges, hospitals and schools are much more likely to provide photo opportunities for politicians than repaired sewer pipes, which tend to be ignored.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities lately estimated that a current national infrastructure repair bill exceeds $100 billion, of which about two-thirds is needed for sewers and roads. A recent article in The Economist put the figure at $238 billion.

This problem will not go away if we ignore it. On the contrary, it will worsen.

The Build Canada Fund ends in 2014 and, since there’s little possibility that all of the needed repairs will have been completed by then, the choice is additional funding or further deterioration.

Quite specifically, one reason Surrey would like to obtain 20 per cent of its water requirement from aquifers which lie deep beneath us is that the pipes which bring our water from the North Shore mountains and pass under the Fraser River are no longer fully reliable, and are very much at risk in the event of an earthquake.

This dilemma is compounded by the paucity of really good data on the age or volume of water stored in the aquifers under the Lower Mainland or the recharge rates – essential information for comprehensive and cautious planning.

How much water can be drawn without depleting the capital? How will all the adjacent expanding municipalities correlate their demands?

These are local and national issues. Beyond them is the question: is water a right, or a tradable commodity – a commercial ‘good’ to be sold for profit?

There’s also the question of meeting demands for water from a thirsty United States, and the difficulties of ensuring an adequate supply of potable water in impoverished Third World countries.

Dare we ignore these issues?

Dr. Roy Strang writes monthly on the environment for the Peace Arch News. rmstrang@shaw.ca


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