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Increase in water use a concern

Water metering may be part of solution but finding equitable means of charging residents and visitors is difficult

By Andrew Mitchell

Although Whistler has not experienced any serious water shortages in recent years, including during some significant periods of drought, the steady increase in water usage is a concern for the Resort Municipality of Whistler.

According to the latest figures, Whistler’s water consumption was up to 5.1 billion litres last year, an increase of 6.1 per cent over the previous year’s total of 4.9 billion litres.

That increase came as per person water use appears to be decreasing, according to statistics compiled by Whistler 2020. The goal is to reduce per capita water use to 425 litres per person, per day. The 2005 average was 514 litres per person, per day.

According to Mayor Ken Melamed, the RMOW is looking at ways to address the situation.

“It’s obviously an issue of great concern for us, because a) we know the responsible thing to do is not to over consume, and b) that there’s a tremendous cost associated with providing that service,” he said. “It’s important for taxpayers to be good stewards of the environment, and both reasons suggest we should be doing more.”

One of the challenges is the fact that Whistler is a destination resort that plays host to two million visitors a year, all of them with different habits when it comes to water use. Finding a solution to the problem will require coming up with a water metering formula that is fair to locals and businesses, but doesn’t stick residents with the cost of providing water for visitors.

Some actions have already been taken, said Melamed. Given the amount of development and increasing visitor numbers, those actions have probably resulted in a smaller increase in water usage than might have been expected.

“We have done some significant things. We’ve mandated the use of dual flush toilets and low flow appliances in various projects, and we’ve been trying to implement that in our housing projects with the Whistler Housing Authority with the installation of low flow appliances,” he said. “Our Whistler Green construction guidelines also have a huge section on water.”

The RMOW has mandated the installation of water meters on new developments for several years, which will allow the municipality to charge residents and businesses based on their actual water use. Water metering has already been embraced in other municipalities as a proven way to encourage people to curb their own consumption and as a way to save money.

However, Melamed says metering will not be an option until a fair formula can be created.

“The outstanding initiative we have to complete is how we move to pricing mechanisms for water conservation,” he said.

“We’ve already redone most of the municipality’s irrigation systems to reduce water use as much as possible, and we’re using more untreated water on our grass, and (we’ve) looked across the board at other low hanging fruit. We need to continue looking at that, as well as the challenging aspects of water metering and making serious reductions in how we manage the incremental costs of treating water and of adding new well capacity.”

One of the stumbling blocks is the fact that most water metering formulas would increase costs for local residents substantially, which Melamed says contradicts the municipality’s commitment to affordability. One solution would be to recover some water costs from visitors, which creates the issue of potentially raising accommodation prices and reducing the number of visitors to the resort.

Some regions already charge visitors a separate tax to cover the cost of airports, sewage and water, although Melamed says that the municipality will work with hotels to come up with a fair solution before implementing a metering program.

Water is not the only indicator that is going the wrong way, according to Melamed. Whistler 2020’s environmental monitoring shows greenhouse gas emissions are also increasing, with a projected increase of 20 per cent by 2020 in a best case scenario. The plan calls for reducing community emissions six per cent below 1990 levels.