When it comes to fresh water, British Columbia has it all: glacier-fed streams, flowing rivers, beautiful lakes, rainy winters, drinking water from the tap, and hydroelectricity powering our homes. Water is our most valuable resource and because it is ubiquitous it is easily taken for granted. Much of the world is not so fortunate. According to Water.org, a staggering 780 million people have no access to clean water. Over 3.4 million people a year die as a consequence of poor sanitation and hygiene. Some parts of the world struggle with irregular cycles of drought and flood. Our water-rich province has laws protecting its quality and use, yet we need to be vigilant. Politicians should be reminded that water is still an important and sometimes controversial topic. Since today (March 22) is World Water Day, it seems a good time to not only celebrate our water wealth but also to think more deeply about water issues.
Where does our drinking water come from? Over two million people drink Metro Vancouver water, which is among the healthiest on the planet. Copious rain and snow falling on three forested watersheds in the North Shore mountains gradually seeps through the ground in a natural filtration process. Water streams downhill into the Coquitlam, Seymour, and Capilano reservoirs, steep-sided mountain lakes contained by dams that were originally built between 1905 and 1954 (and since upgraded). Water from the North Shore reservoirs undergoes filtration and disinfection before being piped to our homes, providing drinking-quality water straight from the tap. The Coquitlam site is also used for B.C. Hydro electricity generation, and there are plans to build hydro schemes at the other two dams, to benefit from excess spillage during winter rains.
Keeping the 585-square-kilometre watersheds secure from contamination is extremely important, so they are closed to the public. This restriction, which has been in place from the start, somehow failed to prevent logging activities between 1967 and 1992. Will Koop of the B.C. Tap Water Alliance wrote how despite citizen protests, roads were built and thousands of hectares of old growth forest were cut down, under the guise of enhancing and improving water quality. With the damage done, the logging roads were eventually deactivated and the watershed reverted to a protected area, though probably too late to save the spotted owls that lived there. Times changed. The current Metro Vancouver drinking water management plan has a much more positive approach: “providing clean, safe water” and “ensuring the sustainable use of water resources”. There are 291,000 watersheds in B.C. and many of them need enlightened water management plans and comprehensive protection too. Some are threatened by industrial developments, polluting activities, or other unsuitable uses. Not everyone in B.C. can drink water from a tap.
Groundwater is the source of domestic water for 750,000 British Columbians, including residents in Langley, Abbotsford, and Chilliwack in the lower Fraser Valley. Contamination of groundwater and aquifers by badly maintained septic fields and by pollutants such as herbicides, pesticides, oil, and manure, is a major concern. Despite widespread public support for a provincewide ban on cosmetic pesticides the B.C. government has now opted against such legislation, in contrast to a majority of other provinces.
Canadians are profligate with water, and British Columbians’ daily use is above the national average. This may be because a majority of homes still have flat rate pricing for water, rather than meters. Or perhaps our casual approach is because water conservation on our rain-swept coast seems unnecessary? Only about three percent of municipally-treated water is consumed. The rest is flushed down the toilet, washed away in showers, laundry, dishwashers, or cleaning the car, or sprayed on the lawn. Much of it gets wasted through dripping taps and inefficient appliances.
Water conservation is advisable for a number of reasons. It is a resource that needs time to renew through its natural cycle. Climate change is predicted to affect ocean evaporation, precipitation levels, and snow pack melt, all stages in this cycle. The cost of storing, treating, and delivering clean water is rising. Domestic, agricultural, and industrial requirements increase with higher human populations. A relatively new issue for B.C. is the use of water in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for natural gas production. Demands may also arise for bulk water export to provide for people in less water-rich countries. This has met with strong opposition in the past, and the B.C. Water Protection Act prevents it, but with a growing world population needing fresh water, it may be only a matter of time. Wise water use, including conservation measures, must ensure that supplies are maintained in the face of growing demand.
There are ethical dilemmas around water. Would we be less wasteful if water were given a higher price? Is it right to be flushing drinking water down the toilet when others in the world lack this most essential resource? Should water become a commodity, traded on the open market? An Ipsos Reid poll showed that over 90 percent of Canadians believe that access to water is a human right, and should not be commercialized. Yet Canada, along with the United States, continues to abstain from support of the UN resolution on the human right to water and sanitation. Maude Barlow of the Council for Canadians believes that this political position is driven by multinational corporations pushing to accelerate the privatization of water and integrate water trading into the futures markets.
A number of B.C. ministries share responsibility for water: the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, and the Ministry of Agriculture. The use of surface water in B.C. is governed through a registered licence system, and there are over 40,000 active licences for extraction of water from streams, rivers, and lakes. B.C. is alone among Canadian provinces in not licensing groundwater, and anyone is free to drill a well on their land and draw water from a common aquifer. The provincial Water Act allows for groundwater licensing yet this will probably not occur until the new Water Sustainability Act, designed to replace the Water Act, is brought to the legislature in the next year or so (it was originally intended for 2012). Changes to the act should also include better provision for the ecological values of rivers and streams, such as fish and wildlife habitat.
With a provincial election coming up, now would be a good time to get in touch with local candidates and let them know your interest in water issues. Whatever your opinion, we all need to be part of the discussion.