Metro may face surprise $300-million bill to filter water

Coquitlam reservoir supplies Surrey, east half of region

Metro Vancouver may face a big bill to ensure drinking water from the Coquitlam reservoir is also filtered.

Metro Vancouver may face a big bill to ensure drinking water from the Coquitlam reservoir is also filtered.

Metro Vancouver taxpayers may have to pay $300 million to filter drinking water from the Coquitlam reservoir if a proposed federal target is adopted calling for a higher level of water clarity.

A draft Health Canada guideline could force Metro Vancouver to add a costly filtration plant at the reservoir to ensure the turbidity, or water cloudiness, of drinking water does not exceed 1.0 NTU (a water clarity measurement), down from the current limit of 5.0 NTU, which is still not normally visible to the eye.

Metro has objected to the proposed change, arguing it is unjustified and would bring no significant health benefit.

“We think it would be a requirement that would be extremely onerous and costly to the region and not needed,” said North Vancouver City Mayor Darrell Mussatto, who chairs Metro’s utilities committee.

“We want to be very clear to them: Make the decision based on sound science and not emotion.”

The regional district is already spending $110 million to build an ultraviolet light disinfection plant at the Coquitlam reservoir that could be redundant if a filtration plant is also required there. The ultraviolet plant, to be finished in 2013, would supplement the current ozone disinfection now used there and all but eliminate the risk of contamination by cryptosporidium parasites.

A filtration plant would add operating costs of $5 to $10 million a year on top of the capital cost of $300 to $400 million, according to staff estimates.

Mussatto said Metro’s strategy of protecting its reservoirs from access while using a combination of filtration and advanced disinfection serves the region well.

Filtration at Coquitlam would bring “no demonstrated public health benefits,” senior Metro engineer Stan Woods said in a report to Metro’s utilities committee.

“These changes are not supported by science and are consequently inappropriately more stringent than regulations in other parts of the world.”

The Coquitlam reservoir supplies the east half of Metro Vancouver, including Surrey, and is the least prone of local reservoirs to rare bouts of cloudy water when extreme rain brings fine silt down from the mountains.

In contrast, a boil water warning was briefly issued in 2006 when a storm sent turbidity levels in the Capilano and Seymour reservoirs soaring to more than 30 NTUs and resulted in slightly discoloured water flowing from taps.

That’s not expected to ever happen again as Metro spent the last several years building its Seymour-Capilano Filtration Project at a cost of $813 million.

It cost much more than a Coquitlam plant might because tunnels had to be drilled to deliver water from the Capilano reservoir.

Although the federal guidelines have no force themselves, B.C’s health ministry tends to require cities comply with them, as happened when medical health officers mandated the upgrade to filtration at Seymour-Capilano.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall said the province is working with Health Canada to ensure the changes to the federal guidelines are “evidence-based and cost-effective.”

Readings Monday showed the turbidity at Coquitlam measured 0.3 NTU, compared to 0.12 for Seymour water after it had been filtered.

Turbid or cloudy water has been associated with higher levels of organic matter and increased potential for water-borne illness and Metro adds more chlorine to disinfect it when turbidity exceeds 1.0 NTU.

Water from the Coquitlam reservoir was between one and five NTUs 0.3 per cent of the time in 2010 and three per cent of the time of 2009.

The last time it went above five NTUs was in March of 2007.

In the future, Metro will be able to take the Coquitlam source off line if its water gets too turbid and the entire region can be served by Seymour and Capilano.  That won’t be possible until early 2014, when work on the North Shore project is done.

A big new bill would be a blow to the regional district, which has repeatedly warned it must raise regional utility fees dramatically to pay for water and sewer upgrades mandated by Ottawa.

Metro spends $223 million each year to collect and supply drinking water.

The average water charge of $220 for each home is up 66 per cent in the past five years due to the Seymour-Capilano project and is to rise another 35 per cent to $300 by 2015 — even without any surprise bill for Coquitlam filtration.

Add in regional taxes, sewer fees and waste fees, and the typical home now pays Metro Vancouver $524 a year.

That’s expected to rise further because Metro is preparing to spend $1.4 billion upgrading its Iona and Lions Gate sewage treatment plants to secondary treatment.