Friday, August 28, 2015

"There Is No Water Shortage". Really?

Sometimes, even accurate media quotes in local newspapers need some context.

Such is the case with a statement which was (accurately) attributed to me in the August 28th edition of the Cowichan Valley Citizen.

The quote was in the context of a story that says North Cowichan is going to review the maintenance schedule for the Aquatic Center - the annual emptying and refilling of the pool.

Because of this summer's drought - coupled with the CVRD's "New Normal" campaign on water conservation - there has been a lot of public concern expressed about the appropriateness of going through more than 1.5 million litres of water in this process at a time when residents are being urged to cut back on their water consumption.

Here's the way my quote showed up in the newspaper, in context:
"(Citizens have been urging) the municipality to rethink the schedule in attempt to at least use less water when perhaps conservation is needed most.
'I very much appreciate the people who are out there watching and they're very concerned about any use of water,' (Mayor Jon) Lefebure said. 'There are real definite benefits to the municipality to conserve water and to have a culture of conservation.'
Councillor Al Siebring noted that despite public perception, there is no water shortage in the municipality.
'We don't have a water shortage when it comes to the aquifer,' Siebring said. 'It's healthy.'

It may well be, (Chief Administrative Officer Dave) Devana noted, but the longterm health of the aquifer is unknown."
I can hear the responses already:  "Seriously, Al?  With all the stuff we're being told about the drought - with all the restrictions on watering lawns, washing cars, and power washing driveways - how can you say there is 'no water shortage'?"

Please note, though, that my statement was not contradicted by Mr. Devana. 

The fact is that our (now-retired) Director of Engineering Services, John MacKay, has told us several times in recent months (both at the Public Works Committee and in Council), that our aquifer is indeed healthy.  That there is no evidence of a "water shortage" when it comes to the wells that supply our south-end water system. 

Perhaps what's needed is the full context of the newspaper quote, which I've transcribed from the video of the Council meeting.  (You can click here to see it for yourself - go to the 02:58:20 mark to see the full discussion on this issue - I think you'll find it enlightening.)

Here's what I said: 
"The real problem with this whole thing is that in spite of the public perception, the aquifer is actually healthy.  John Mackay has said that to us in Public Works and here in Council.  We don't have a water shortage when it comes to the aquifer.  It's healthy.  But we've gone along with the CVRD (in making) watering restrictions universal to lessen the confusion among the users.  I supported that and I'll continue to support that.  But we end up wearing it when we act on reality by flushing the pool instead of the public perception that we've helped to create.  It may not be a terribly politically correct thing to say, but I think that's the reality."
This sparked a bit of debate.  Mayor Lefebure countered me by insisting that we are trying to create a "culture of conservation", and that flushing the pool runs against that effort.  I responded that "I'm not saying we shouldn't conserve water, but the public perception that's driving (the concerns over the pool) is that the aquifer is running dry.  And it's not."

Water conservation makes sense, but 
not because of a perceived "shortage".

Some of this goes to the underlying reasons for water conservation.  Which the mayor summed up very well:  "We have very strong reasons beyond the aquifer to conserve our water (usage), which tends to peak in the summer.  If we have unfettered use our pipes aren't big enough, we have to pump it, we have to maintain the equipment, we have to maintain the pipes... (So) we benefit financially.. from limiting our water use in the summer." 

To be clear, I absolutely agree with the mayor's statement.  Water conservation makes sense, but not because of a perceived "shortage".  "It's not a supply problem," I said.  "If it was, maybe we shouldn't have a pool." 

One other thing about the Council discussion.  Our CAO, Dave Devana, talked about the fact that the Province is continuing to study the aquifer, and the impacts that this summer's drought may have on that supply.  "We've been monitoring the aquifer for 40 years," he said.  "We know how much water is in there at what times of year, and how much water we're taking out.  (But with the study), things are going to evolve and we're going to know more and be more educated, and hopefully that'll change our management practices in some way." 

To which I responded:  "Or not.  What if the study shows there's no problem?" 

"Then that'll be good", Mr. Devana said, "but we're looking at it.  We know what we know, and we don't know what we don't know."

And here's what we know.  The aquifer is a complicated ecosystem, and what's happening on the surface isn't reflected in the underground supply for a long time  For example, our monitoring shows that the temperature of the water when it enters our wells in the south end is coldest in the summer time.  That may seem counter-intuitive, but the engineers tell us that this shows a 6-month time lag between the time surface water enters the aquifer and the time it goes into our distribution system.  Which means that the water that's coming out of your tap right now probably went underground in late February.  And this may infer that if this summer's drought has an impact on the aquifer, that impact may not be felt until sometime this winter, when demand is lowest.  Which is why further study on this is a good idea.

To get back to the original discussion, we also know that replacing the water in the Aquatic Center involves about 1.7 million litres.  And that the average daily usage out of our south-end water supply is just over 16.5 million litres.  So the pool replacement represents just over 10 percent of a single day's average use.

All of which is to say this.  Yes, water conservation is a good idea.  And perhaps we need to look at the pool maintenance schedule. 

But we need to do this based on science, and not "public concerns" about a "shortage".  Because those concerns don't appear to be based in hard reality, but rather on public misconceptions that have been created by well-meaning local governments in an effort to justify conservation. 

We need to continue with the study.  And then base our decisions on facts rather than perceptions.

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