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Conservation-minded Metro urges water metering

BCLocalNews.com, August 16, 2011.

Metro Vancouver will press area cities to consider universal water metering as part of a broader strategy to conserve water and forestall the need to expand local  reservoirs.

Metering single family houses – so residents pay for what they use and water wastrels are hit hardest – is one of the planks in Metro’s newly approved Drinking Water Management Plan.

Not all Metro cities back the idea.

“It’s simply a scam to make the consumer pay more money,” says Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan.

He said the provincial government has repeatedly pressed Metro cities to adopt water metering so private firms can “satisfy a phoney need” and profit from the policy.

“The numbers don’t work,” Corrigan said, adding there’s no solid evidence that water savings justify the steep costs of metering.

He puts water meters to reduce waste in the same category as smart meters to block power theft by grow-ops and TransLink’s installation of turnstiles to block fare cheaters.

“It preys on people’s fear of being ripped off,” Corrigan said. “If you think someone’s ripping you off, no cost is too much to stop that.”

Most cities in the region require water meters for multi-family and commercial buildings.

But several are moving to require meters in new single detached houses or that they be added when there’s a major renovation.

Some charge high flat rate fees that create an incentive for households to voluntarily go metered and cut consumption.

Langley City and West Vancouver meter all homes while Surrey and Richmond now have most of their detached houses on water meters.

Metering does deter waste, according to Belcarra Mayor Ralph Drew, who sits on Metro’s water committee.

“People conserve more,” he said. “When municipalities switch to metering, consumption is reduced by about 20 per cent or more.”

Area residents might think water is abundant in Metro Vancouver, particularly during the rains of winter.

But with the population growing by 35,000 a year, the region is steadily closing in on the limits of what it can deliver at peak demand periods in the summer.

The plan warns climate change may bring longer, drier summers and smaller mountain snowpacks, increasing stress on the water system.

Metro has already banned evening lawn sprinkling in favour of early mornings only, when demand is lower.

The region also charges member cities a higher wholesale water rate of 64 cents per cubic metre in the summer than the off-peak rate of 56 cents the rest of the year. (It’s up to each city how those costs are passed on to residents.)

Other conservation steps – from low-flow appliances to the use of rain barrels for garden water – are also advocated.

But a day of reckoning is coming when more water will be needed than Metro can now supply.

The Coquitlam Lake reservoir would be the easiest way to open the regional tap wider.

Right now, Metro gets 10 per cent of the lake’s discharge, while the rest is reserved for B.C. Hydro to generate power at Buntzen Lake.

“It’s a very large reservoir with a very deep catchment area and could easily extend service for Metro Vancouver for many decades to come, just by increasing the share that goes to Metro from 10 to 20 per cent,” Drew said.

But that would require Hydro’s consent and Metro would presumably have to pay to compensate the utility for the energy it could no longer produce.

Depending on the price tag, it might be cheaper to pursue alternatives, such as building small new dams to increase storage in small alpine lakes high in the region’s watersheds.

Raising the Seymour dam to create a bigger upstream reservoir above North Vancouver is another option, Drew said, as is eventually ending recreational use in the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve and turning it into a reservoir.

The problem isn’t just the storage capacity of reservoirs, Drew added, but also the eventual need to increase the capacity of the pipes and pumps that carry the water to each city in the region.

“By conserving, you put off the demand and extend the timeline of having to do those kinds of things,” Drew said.

The cost of the water system has already been rising steadily and there’s no end in sight.

Metro now spends $223 million each year to collect and supply water for the region.

The average water charge of $213 for each home has risen 66 per cent in the past five years as the region starts to pay for the $800-million Seymour-Capilano water filtration plant on the North Shore, built on orders from health officers to eliminate occasional bouts of turbid water.

Metro water rates are projected to rise another 30 to 40 per cent over the next five years.

Some of the increase will pay for a project now underway to add ultraviolet disinfection of water from the Coquitlam reservoir to reduce the risk of contamination by cryptosporidium. That reservoir, which serves the eastern third of the region, currently uses ozone disinfection.

The drinking water plan also calls for generation of hydroelectricity at Metro-run dams, reforms to price the cost of water more accurately and more action to find and plug leaks in the system.

Metro is also to explore the use of alternative non-potable water sources, such as rainwater harvesting for irrigation, reclamation of grey water and waste water for select uses and the potential use of river and sea water by waterfront businesses.

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