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How safe is our water?

On World Water Day, March 22, give thanks for our local water supply; but spare a thought for the less fortunate and for our own future.

Down in Vancouver it seems to rain non-stop for months on end, drowning the streets in an average of about 1.5 metres of water each year. Up in the mountains, we have clean glaciers and crystal-clear mountain streams filled with melted snow. We even have a local company, Whistler Water, that bottles up filtered groundwater from a 22-metre deep well near Spetch Creek, Birken, and sells it internationally. So it feels almost obscene to worry about our water.

But even here, where nature's bounty is plentiful and relatively clean, our drinking water shouldn't be taken for granted: it has to be gathered, treated, and watched for temporary blips in quality, lest we end up with an outbreak. For Canadians, the perpetual fear is a repeat of what happened in Walkerton, Ontario, in 2000 when seven people died and more than 2,000 fell ill from E. coli bacteria in the water — the same bug that causes food poisoning and occasionally plagues foods from hamburger meat to spinach. The cause was simple: farm run-off into a local well. But the town's utilities commission called the water 'okay' even as diarrhea swept through the population of 5,000. There were accusations of loose government standards, ignored bacterial tests and falsified reports, culminating in a couple of jail sentences and a giant wake-up call for Canadians over their water systems.

Today, teams of people are employed to keep tabs on our water quality here in the Sea to Sky region. Through a quirk of geology, we have ended up with extremely clean natural water and the water that comes out of the tap in the local centres of Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton is of top-notch quality for a bargain-basement price. But the outlying areas of smaller communities still hit troubles and boil-water advisories often enough. A report last year highlighted ongoing problems particularly with First Nations communities, of which a third in Canada have "high risk" water systems, with British Columbia as the worst offender. And others are campaigning to make us stop squandering the good water we have: right now, locals use 1.7 times more than the national average and more than 10 times as much as people in some water-restricted nations. Though we seem to have water coming out of our ears, wasted water means wasted cash, and possible shortages during summer droughts. Such shortages could get worse in the far flung future as snowcaps recede and glaciers disappear thanks to climate change.

Of course, things are much worse further afield. This month, the United Nations released a report on the state of the world's water (a report that's updated every three years, in time for World Water Day on March 22). The good news is that the world has met, ahead of schedule, the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people without safe drinking water from 1990 to 2015. But because world population is booming — due to hit 9 billion people by 2050, up from 7 billion in 2011 — there are still nearly a billion people at risk from bad water. The problems are worst in the crowded slums of some cities — there are more people without tap water in cities today than there were at the end of the 1990s — and in small, isolated communities as you might find in Africa. Communities around the globe face everything from poisons in their wells that can cause blindness and death to salt that sucks life-giving hydration out of their aquifers (see sidebar: Something in the Water).

Demand for water is ever-rising thanks to the rising global population, an increased demand for water-hungry foods like meat, the energy-needs of places like China and India (a lot of electricity-producing plants, from coal-burning generators to nuclear power plants, use water to cool down the machinery), and booming industries. Yet water availability is growing ever-more strained. Some dryland regions of the planet saw a steep drop in rainfall in the early 1970s which has stuck, leading to 20 per cent reductions in rainfall. Climate models generally predict that the wet parts of the world will get wetter and the dry parts drier, drowning us in increased floods and withering crops in increased droughts. By contrast, Whistler is heaven.

Luck of the draw

"We're very fortunate here," says Vancouver Health Authority drinking water protection specialist Len Clarkson, who makes his home in Squamish.

Whistler, Squamish and Pemberton — the biggest communities in the Sea to Sky region — have stellar track records for their water. Whistler has scored 100 per cent on water quality from the Whistler 2020 environmental assessment team for at least four years running.

"I can't remember the last boil water advisory in Squamish," says Clarkson. "The last one would have been in Whistler, maybe five years ago when there were two water main breaks at the same time."

The main cause of this good fortune is our geology, which provides us with plentiful groundwater aquifers to draw on with wells for our main water supplies. "Others don't have that luxury," says Clarkson. Down in Vancouver they rely more on surface water supplies — like the Capilano dam that holds water for North Vancouver. Ontario, too, largely relies on lakes. Those supplies are much more vulnerable to contamination by anything from wildlife feces to spilled motor oil. Even fast-flowing surface rivers, though less stagnant, tend to kick up a lot of sediments and organics into the water making it cloudy or, in the jargon of water quality specialists, giving it a "high turbidity." That gunk can carry along material you might not want to drink, but more importantly, it also stops most water disinfectant systems, like chlorine, from working as well as they should. Groundwater, on the other hand, is naturally filtered by passage through sand and gravel underground.

The problems with surface water mean that Clarkson is wary of drinking from a mountain stream — no matter how crystal clear it might appear. On hikes, he'll boil it if he can or otherwise add a chemical disinfectant or use a ceramic filter. If you don't, he says, "it's just a matter of time before you get sick."

In Squamish, the municipal water comes exclusively from "Powerhouse Springs," an area known to locals as the base of the Powerhouse Plunge bike trail, named after the run-of-river hydroelectric power station in the area. The springs lie above a natural aquifer which has now been drilled into with a handful of wells, each popping up to the surface in a steel pipe about 24 inches across and 2 feet tall. These are connected underground by pipes to the local control station and treatment plant — if you can call it that. "There's really no treatment at all other than a trace amount of chlorine is added," says Clarkson. "It's just luck to have such high-calibre water that it essentially doesn't require any treatment."

Whistler has a bigger and more complicated system. About 60 per cent of the water in Whistler comes from about 14 groundwater wells; 40 per cent from surface sources, mainly 21 Mile Creek by the Rainbow Mountain hiking trail. Those surface sources create some minor causes for concern with recreational activities in the area — there's a sign on the Rainbow Creek Trail asking people not to bring their dogs along (though many ignore this prohibition), and motorized vehicles up on the glacier could conceivably add contaminants to the water.

"I know Whistler is concerned about sledding above 21 Mile Creek," says Clarkson. In 2011 they airlifted two abandoned sleds off the glacier, just in case they leaked into the melting ice.

Whistler also has about a dozen wells that add groundwater to the supply mix. The creek water is doused in ultraviolet light to kill any bacteria, viruses or parasites. Chlorine is added to both sources of water, at about twice the concentration used in Squamish. The chlorine not only kills any remaining bugs in the source water but also continues to protect the water from any contaminants that might seep in along the distribution network.

Pemberton, as the smallest of the three communities, has the simplest system: two 40-metre-deep wells right in the village, including one in Pioneer Park (where summer festivals like the Slow Food Cycle beer garden are held) and one in Foberg Park by the Rona store. The treatment centre, tucked in behind the firehall, gives the water a tiny dash of chlorine for safety. That program only started in 2009, before which the water wasn't treated. "We are fortunate to have access to water that is considered safe to drink with very little chemical treatment," says Jeff Westlake, assistant manager of public works for the village of Pemberton.

All three communities send water samples weekly to a lab in Vancouver for microbial testing and have constant monitoring of their turbidity and chlorine levels. But Clarkson can't remember the last time an alarm was set off — perhaps five years ago when in Squamish the wells weren't producing quite enough water and they had to rely on the older, surface sources — Stawamus River and Mashiter Creek — for a boost. Long before that, when Squamish was reliant entirely on those surface sources, there was a problem once when a logging truck ran off the road, Clarkson recalls, potentially leaking oil into the water catchment.

With the current systems, Clarkson isn't expecting a crisis anytime soon. He admits his job is a little dull; not that he minds. "It's good when my job's boring — it means things are under control."

If there's any problem with the local water it's that it is at the acidic-end of normal, with a pH of about 6.5 to 7. That makes it slightly more aggressive at corroding pipes, so if you're living in a home built before 1980 that maybe has lead-tin solder on copper piping joints, it's worth running your tap for a bit in the morning before brushing your teeth, says Clarkson.

The smaller outlying communities, however, aren't always so lucky.

Outliers

At the north end of the corridor, Pemberton's Lillooet Lake Estates (a cluster of houses on about 150 lots at the northeast end of the lake) is under a seemingly-permanent boil water advisory, with its water system officially under suspension. And Mount Currie, one of the province's largest First Nation communities, earned a "moderate risk" rating from the federal government in 2011 for its water system. About half of the tiny water systems around Squamish, many of them serving campgrounds, get a "moderate risk" rating too. Whistler is cleanest, with nearly all of even the tiniest water systems rated as "low risk," including the non-potable water in the temporary toilets at the tube park. (You can look up the rating for your own community on http://www.healthspace.ca/vch — click on "drinking water", then pick your community from the left-hand list and zero in on your specific water source.) Many people living in the outskirts rely on their own personal wells for water and have to get their water tested for themselves.

The general trend of smaller communities having riskier water holds true across Canada. A February 2011 report, Safe Drinking Water Policy for Canada — Turning Hindsight into Foresight, from the C.D. Howe Institute, noted that more than 95 per cent of drinking-water advisories are in communities of 500 people or less. A lot of those are reserves. Last summer a national report found that out of 571 First Nations communities, 39 per cent had "high risk" water systems. About half of these were flagged for having had high levels of bacteria in the water; the rest fell afoul of other regulations, like not testing their water often enough or not protecting the system from possible floods, for example. The province with the worst track record was British Columbia — 53 per cent of our communities were ranked "high risk", probably because many of them are smaller or more remote.

Madjid Mohseni, an engineer at the University of British Columbia who works on water treatment, says that B.C. in general actually has fewer checks and balances on its water than Ontario does today (since Ontario beefed up its regulations after Walkerton). He'd like to see more financial resources made available to small communities to fix up their systems.

"If you expect communities of 300 people or less to follow these rules, they need more financial support," says Mohseni. "If they're not a municipality they currently have very limited ways of getting support — maybe a couple of thousand dollars, which isn't enough."

Plenty can be, and is, being done to improve the situation. Mohseni is leading a national network of researchers with the aim of improving water for small and remote communities. His focus is on ultraviolet light as the best way to kill off anything nasty in the water, particularly since UV, unlike chlorine, will kill parasites like cryptosporidium and giardia (a.k.a. beaver fever) that can end up in streams from wildlife feces. They are working with local companies that produce UV purification systems to make them more practical: "We're making smaller, cheaper, more robust systems that don't need to be constantly monitored," Mohseni says. He's also looking at making new systems with lower-wavelength UV bulbs. These blast water with a higher-energy radiation that not only kills biological contaminants but can also break apart chemical contaminants like pesticides. This would be good for communities that rely on lake water prone to gathering agricultural runoff, he says. These are trickier to design as the bulbs are more expensive and the light only penetrates a little ways into water, so the water has to be funnelled past the treatment centre in a narrow pipe.

For the municipalities which already have extremely clean sources, Clarkson says the focus isn't on further treatment of the water but rather on its protection both upstream and downstream of the treatment plant. In Squamish, for example, an effort is currently underway to map out the area feeding the groundwater so steps might be taken — like putting up signs — to urge caution above the source.

"Groundwater is far less likely to become contaminated. But if it does, it's a much bigger problem," notes Clarkson.

Further efforts are being made, too, to stop any possible back-wash from users back into the system. "Say you had a bucket of water with a hose in it and you're at high altitude and we lose pressure in the system. Theoretically it could back-siphon," he says. "That happens; it tends to be an under-reported problem." Clarkson says there are examples of this causing problems in other parts of Canada, but not here.

As for campgrounds, where you might expect to have to boil your water, the move is to upgrade them too. "We're not happy with the situation there," he says. Most campgrounds have switched from shallow wells with hand-pumps to deeper ones with powered pumps. And if they're not clean, they should add a treatment facility, Clarkson says.

All in all, Clarkson is not expecting anything like Walkerton to happen here. "Walkerton was a classic example of multiple concurrent problems," he says. "Here we've been doing a better job of it from even before then. We treat it. We protect the source. We monitor the distribution system. We hire trained operators. And we inspect them. Each of those is like a barrier to prevent the transmission of disease."

Running low

Even if our water is clean, however, there's still another potential problem: quantity.

Locals tend to squander our good-water fortune. In 2007 Whistler residents used up 4.76 billion litres of water, or 487 litres per person per day. By 2010 that had ramped up to 5.7 billion litres, or 558 litres per person per day — and that doesn't even include snow making and golf course maintenance, which do not draw from the municipal water system, or hotel laundry that's done outside of Whistler. To put that in perspective, the Canadian average is just over 300 litres per person per day, which is about eight times more than people in the most water-conserving countries like Denmark and Britain. http://www.conferenceboard.ca/hcp/details/environment/water-consumption.aspx#water

While we're not exactly short on water most times of the year, wasted water means wasted money. "Typically we're pumping it out of the ground, so wastage means higher hydroelectric bills and overloading the sewage system, so you're paying at both ends," says Clarkson. In Whistler it costs about $125 to supply one person with drinking water for a year, and about $120 to treat their wastewater.

Right now, Whistler takes steps to guard against possible shortages in summer: there's a sprinkler restriction, for example, and new housing developments are encouraged to use low-flow toilets. But things may get more strained in the future, thanks to climate change.

Climate models predict warmer winters and more precipitation in B.C. At first, warmer conditions generally make for an earlier snowmelt, which lets summer sun hit exposed glaciers and start to melt them too, leading to a longer melt season into the autumn. That means more river water might be available in summer. But eventually warming means the glaciers get smaller and the snowline moves up the mountain. While there might be more snow above a certain elevation it will fall on a smaller area, meaning less river water in summer.

Dan Moore, a glaciologist at the University of British Columbia, has assessed B.C.'s mountains and found that most of them are in this second phase, with less water running down the mountains in late summer. Late summer runoff from Place Glacier above Pemberton, for example, has been decreasing (see story page 38). And the Lillooet River, like many rivers in B.C., has seen a shift in its peak flow to earlier in the summer. In the 1970s peak flow was in August; now it's more in June or July. Vancouver too is predicting the snowpack on the North Shore mountains to decline over the next few decades. More rain but less snow could mean more and bigger landslides into reservoirs, muddying the water, and a reduction in the amount of water available in late summer.

It's unclear what will happen to groundwater supplies. Diana Allen of Simon Fraser University notes that groundwater could be replenished more quickly by increased rainfall. But if the rain falls in more sudden bursts then the water is more likely to run off into the ocean than to recharge aquifers. So the impact of climate change on groundwater is uncertain, she says.

In California, the department of water resources adopted a climate change adaptation strategy in 2008 to address some of these issues. Their problem is two-fold. First, they're having more extreme weather conditions, from floods to droughts: in a span of only two years Los Angeles experienced both its driest and wettest years on record. Second, they're losing the winter snowpack that has traditionally provided Los Angelinos with water through the dry summer (about a third of the water they use each year). The average early spring snowpack in the Sierra Nevada decreased by about 10 per cent over the last 100 years and they expect a 25 per cent loss by 2050. They're responding with programs aimed at improving water use efficiency, reducing waste, improving water storage facilities and changing the balance of groundwater and surface water that they use at various times of year.

Canada isn't necessarily responding so well. Last October, Simon Fraser University's Adaptation to Climate Change Team released a "water governance" report shaming governments for just coping with the effects of climate change, rather than adapting to them. The last federal water policy, they point out, was tabled in parliament over 20 years ago and has never been fully implemented. Today, less than 20 per cent of Canada's groundwater sources have been mapped, so we don't even know what resources we have or how fast they are disappearing, they argue.

"We don't manage groundwater in Canada at all, really," says Allen. "In B.C. there's no regulation on how much can be extracted unless you have a project that requires a specific environmental assessment."

These issues aren't exactly pressing concerns for the Sea to Sky region. But Clarkson hopes that awareness of such problems will at least make people a little more thankful for the water that comes seemingly effortlessly from their taps. And, he hopes, a little less likely to waste it.

If Clarkson celebrates World Water Day it will undoubtedly be with a glass of pure, clear water — and not of the bottled variety. "Unlike wine, water does not improve with age," he says with a grin. He prefers it straight from the tap.