Water Water Everywhere

“Water, water everywhere / Nor any drop to drink”

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Like a thirsty mariner adrift at sea, it is one of the ironies of life in BC’s lower mainland that we live in a temperate rainforest yet are annually called upon to conserve our water use.

Two summers ago, the region flirted with water restrictions so tight that public pools would be closed and sprinkling your vegetable garden would be illegal. A gloomy June prevented similar issues last year, but the question remainswhy are we so worried about saving water in a place where more than metre of it falls from the sky every year?

The simple answer is cost.

The City of New Westminster receives all of its drinking water from our regional government, Metro Vancouver. The regional water utility collects, filters, treats, and delivers about 1 billion litres of water per day to the municipalities of the Lower Mainland. They take 30,000 samples of the water every year to ensure its quality, and operate more than 500km of pipes and related infrastructure.

The City pays for this water by the cubic metre, just under nine billion litres annually. That amount has gone down quite a bit over the last couple of decades, as our per-capita consumption has dropped faster than our population has grown. The shifting of our local economy from large industry to commercial and service industries is a big part of this drop, as is the trend towards apartment living and smaller households. The end result is that New Westminster has one of the lowest rates of water use per capita in the Lower Mainland. This is reinforced by society-wide efforts towards conservation, from summer-time watering restrictions to building more efficient appliances.

The cost of delivering that water, however, continues to increase. This is in part a reflection of inflation, and the increasing cost of energyit takes a lot of energy to move water, which should be obvious in BC, as we extract so much of our energy from moving water!and part of it is the ever-increasing demand to provide the highest quality water possible.  

In the industrialized world, especially in Canada with our abundance of fresh water, we take for granted what is one of history’s greatest public health interventions: the widespread delivery of pathogen-free drinking and washing water. Through a century of infrastructure investment and public works, residents of greater Vancouver receive an almost limitless supply of pristine, clean water to their home for a fraction of a penny per litre. The ubiquitous nature of the resource makes us neglectful of its actual value to society, and the cost related to its management.

The recent completion of the Seymour-Capilano Filtration Plant and extensive upgrades to the Coquitlam Treatment Plant alone constitute more than one billion in infrastructure spending. They are part of a complex, multi-tiered system (backed by 30,000 analytical samples collected and tested per year) to assure that every drop of water that comes out of your faucet or garden hose won’t make you sick if you drink, bathe, or wash your food with it.

This is at least part of the reason why the City of New Westminster and Metro Vancouver try to encourage alternatives to watering lawns and washing your driveways with it. Water may be limitless, but the high-quality drinking water we expect and rely upon is not.

A basic truth of resource management is that you can’t manage what you don’t count. When it comes to managing our limited resource of clean, potable water, water metres are a basic tool of conservation.

In New Westminster, all commercial and industrial users are metered, and pay for their water per cubic metre consumed. Every multi-family residence is also metered, and residents may pay by the cubic metre or a bulk rate to their property manager. Only single-family residences are currently not metered, with all houses paying a flat fee for a year of water service, regardless of their actual consumption.

According to a 2008 report by City staff, about 80% of the City’s water hook-ups go to single family homes, and are unmetered. However, almost 75% of water use is metered, as it is delivered to multi-family dwellings or commercial users. We therefore have a system where the largest pipes are metered, but not the majority of pipes. This points to why we New Westminster has not been all that motivated to implement a potentially costly universal-metering program for single family homes.

Putting water metres on the 8,500 single family homes in the New Westminster is an expensive proposition, for the utility and the homeowners. The added costs of billing and system maintenance create a long-term expense the utility will have to include in water rates. The 2008 study by the City determined these costs were not warranted. Simply put, it was cheaper to pay for a little more water every year than to invest in a complicated system to (perhaps marginally) reduce consumption.

It is yet to be determined if these numbers have shifted significantly in the past ten years. The cost of water from Metro Vancouver has risen significantly, and continues to rise, as a result of the major capital investments required to keep the system running. Similarly, the cost of treating our liquid waste is increasing, and reducing the amount coming out of our taps brings a concomitant reduction in the amount going down our drains. The cost of metering may also be going down as more cities implement universal or voluntary metering programs, and the technology becomes more ubiquitous.

Ultimately, Metro Vancouver may force the City’s hand. The regional utility is studying whether mandatory residential metering should be required for all customer municipalities. The 2015 water shortage, increasing capital costs, and expanding population are putting the pinch on them to find affordable solutions to the supply problem. Meters may prove to be a more affordable short-term solution than building larger reservoirs.

Placing a cost on a valuable resource can be an effective way to manage it, however, cost is only part of the public policy conversation. Some argue that pricing water “commodifies” it, and turns a public good into something that is distributed based on wealth, not need. In this sense, municipal water can be placed alongside health care and schools. Alternately, there is an increasing call to use pricing to control the overconsumption of many things we typically consider free: the use of public roads for driving, and the use of our atmosphere to dump pollutants.

In New Westminster, we currently have a “two-tier” water system. Those in single family homes are free to consume at will, and are not incentivized to conserve except in times of severe restrictions. Condo dwellers, renters, and businesses are forced to pay increased costs for their metered supply, in part because of limited conservation of non-metered properties.

The conversation about what is “fair” is not a simple one.

However, this is a dialogue we need to have in New Westminster. Trends suggest that climate change will bring hotter, drier summerseven as our winters become wetter and population growth is not expected to slow any time soon. Beyond pitting neighbour against neighbour in conservation shaming (and bringing a new meaning to the phrase “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”) and decrying the “cash grab” of increased supply costs, we need to talk about how valuable this nearly invisible resource is to our quality of life, and whether we can afford to pour it on grass.

Water, by the numbers

1,000,000,000 Litres of water treated and delivered by Metro Vancouver every day
500 Kilometres of water mains operated by Metro Vancouver to deliver water
30,000 number of samples collected of Metro Vancouver water every year to ensure quality
24,000,000 Litres of water used in New West on an average day in 2015
39,000,000 Litres of water used on New West on 2015 “peak use” day (July 1)
8,700,000,000 Litres of water consumed in New Westminster in 2015
$5,500,000 Amount New Westminster pays Metro Vancouver for water per year (2015)
$0.00063 Metro Vancouver cost of delivering that water, per litre
$0.0011 City of New Westminster cost of delivering water, per litre
966 Litres of water used per day per capita in New West (1990)
343 Litres of water used per day per capita in New West (2015)
280,000 Litres of water used per year in typical New West household (2015)
560,000 Litres of rain that fall annually on a typical 6,000 sq ft residential lot in New West