The myth of water abundance

The myth of water abundance

By Amy Huva

May 08, 2012

I had a conversation with a Canadian friend recently who suggested I shouldn’t really worry about conserving water here in BC because it’s a renewable resource, so it doesn’t matter how much we use. Well technically that’s true, but by that standard so is coal – it’s just that the rate we’re using coal and the rate it regenerates don’t align.

This is not yet happening with water supplies in BC, but as an Australian, I can tell you that when it does happen it’s not pretty.

Climate change is going to make future weather patterns unpredictable. We will no longer be able to rely on consistent rainfall each year to fill the reservoirs that supply our cities with drinking water and a growing population will place even greater stress on our water systems.

Hosing down the streets in Yaletown, Vancouver. In Australia, this is not legal

It may seem a bit odd to talk about things like over-allocation of rivers and sustainable use of water resources in a place like BC where it seems to rain endlessly, but as the Okanagan Water Stewardship Council are increasingly finding out – the myth of water abundance can be dangerously misleading. Groundwater and surface water are closely interconnected. This means that when the river runs dry, it’s likely the well on the farm will be running dry too. As the aquifer is drained, a lack of surface water means there’s little seeping through to regenerate the aquifer.

In the Okanagan basin, residents use an average of 1000L of water per person per day in the summer. Compare this with the target that was set by the State Government in Victoria, Australia at the height of the drought in 2008: 155L of water per person per day. At the time, these kinds of water restrictions were normal. Showers for no longer than 3mins, with a bucket between my feet to catch run off that our family would use to keep the nectarine and lemon trees in the backyard alive. Sometimes in the height of summer, it would get to level 4 restrictions:  no outside watering with tap water at all. Compare this with someone I saw in Yaletown, Vancouver on the weekend hosing down a concrete sidewalk; there’s going to have to be a cultural shift around water consciousness in Canada.

The myth of water abundance also means water allocations can be given out in areas that are already close to or fully allocated. This doesn’t create a crisis in a rainy year where not everyone uses their full allocation, however in dry years, which will become more common with climate change, this could be catastrophic.

There is a way to avoid ending up in an Australian-style catastrophic water shortage where rivers stop running all the way to the ocean – put in place conservation measures to ensure sustainable water use in a changing climate. For example, the BC Provincial Government, along with technical advisory groups like the WWF are working to modernise the Water Sustainability Act.

Boat parking sign - Green Lake, Horsham, Victoria, Australia

If the Province can get some robust legislation in place now – before we need it – with clear water scarcity plans, conservation and efficiency plans and drought trigger points, we will be better prepared to adapt to changes in our climate in the future. It will involve agreeing upon how much water is available and how it can best be used and conserved, including environmental flows to ensure continued river health, hydro power, irrigation for farming, industry and human consumption.

Such efforts will mean better river and ecosystem health in the long term. This will provide an environment for better human health in the communities around rivers, and a better quality of life for everyone. Action is required now, before over-allocation turns our BC lakes into something like this.

(Icon photo courtesy of Tim Keegan/Flickr, Yaletown photo courtesy of Roland Tanglao/Flickr, Green Lake photo courtesy of John Carney/Flickr)



Also from Carbon Talks