There’s this mindset prevalent in Vancouver that water is unlimited. After all, it falls from the sky, comes out of the ground, pours off the slopes of mountains. It surrounds us with lakes, rivers and streams on one side and the ocean on the other.
Yet for how ubiquitous this resource is in our region, our consumption is often ironically out of sight.
The reality is, we consume an enormous amount of water: on average 438 litres per capita every day. That’s two to four times more than our European counterparts.
But the issues much more systematic than individual consumption.
There are three main problems when it comes to water management in Vancouver: how we use it, how we get it and how we dispose of it. At the heart of all three, you’ll find the same issue: an aversion to doing things differently.
We don’t have to keep doing things the same way we’ve always done them. We don’t have to patch up a broken system when we can find a better way to do things.
As developers, homebuilders and architects, we have the ability to influence water management practices in Vancouver, to provide innovative solutions that will transform our system. At the end of this post, we’re going to look at one solution that we’ve implemented that explores a completely different way of addressing the problem.
But before we get to that, let’s take a look at the problem we’re facing. Ready to dive in?
Where does Vancouver’s water come from?
On the North Shore of Vancouver run rivers of freshwater that bring melted snow caps from the mountains to the sea. To get our water, we’ve dammed those rivers and built massive infrastructure projects to bring it from a reservoir to a treatment centre and into our homes.
A prime example of this would be the recently completed Seymour-Capilano Twin Tunnels, one of the largest infrastructure projects in North America.
These enormous tunnels under the mountains connect the Capilano Reservoir to the Seymour-Capilano Filtration Plant, where the water gets treated with state-of-the-art processes before flowing to us.
This is all part of the city’s plan to have the highest quality drinking water in the world.
If we’ve got this state-of-the-art infrastructure bringing water to us, surely must have a similar system to dispose of our water.
You’d expect that. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Where does Vancouver’s water go?
When you build a house, you’ve got your stormwater pipe that collects the water off the roof and your wastewater pipe, where the water from our toilets, showers and sinks goes.
Vancouver is interesting: it has a combined sewer system. That means the water going off the roof and the water from sewage both end up in the same pipe. From there, it’s taken to a sewage treatment plant before getting dumped into the ocean.
There’s a problem: these pipes are old. Vancouver’s population is growing in size and density which the system was never built to sustain. On top of that, we get a lot of rain in Vancouver and that saturates the storm system.
As a result, we flush more water than we’re able to treat. What happens to the excess water? Where does it go? To avoid sewer backups, when the treatment centre is overcapacity, overflow valves direct the surplus untreated water into the ocean.
Last year, we pumped 32 million cubic metres of raw sewage into the waters of the Lower Mainland.
The Empire State Building is 10 million cubic metres. In just one year, we dumped more than three Empire State Buildings full of sewage into the ocean.
Metro Vancouver recognizes they have a big problem. As a result, the city has undertaken a massive infrastructure project to uncombine the sewer system by 2050.
How much of metro Vancouver’s budget is spent on water?
With all of these massive infrastructure projects, it should come as no surprise that the amount the city of Vancouver spends to manage water—transporting, filtering, storing it and disposing of it—is astronomical. In 2018, it took up 36% of the city’s budget. That’s over a quarter of a billion dollars.
Close to 60% of that was to service our debt (money we’ve had to borrow to build those large, impressive projects) and to pay for capital expenditures (new projects). Managing the water we have, or operations, took up the remaining 41%.
Where does Vancouver’s world-class drinking water go?
If we look at the journey of 100 litres of water in Vancouver, 60 litres go to houses, 24 litres get used inside the house and of that, only 2.4 litres are for drinking and cooking.
To put this into perspective, we’re using 57.6% of this high quality filtered water that costs us one-quarter of a billion dollars to manage to water our lawns, wash our cars and fill our toilets.
Why would we continue to spend millions of dollars to build and upkeep a system that creates the most potable water in the world, taking it from hundreds of kilometres away while we flush our rainwater and overwhelm our sewage system if we’re only drinking 2.4% of it?
It doesn’t seem like a very efficient—much less sustainable—system. But it’s the way we’ve always done it.
How to solve Vancouver’s water management problem
If you think about a dam, what is it? It’s basically a way to capture and store water. But homes are already built with a way to capture water.
It’s called a roof.
How it works is exactly like a dam: it has downspouts that go over the side to collect the water. All you need is a reservoir to store it.
On the corner of West 21st and Quesnel, we built a West Coast modern home, beautifully designed by BattersbyHowat. But what you don’t see is what’s underground: a completely self-sustaining stormwater management system.
The home is designed to collect the rainwater off the roof and the perimeter drainage around the house and, instead of flushing it down the drain, it stores it in a collection tank. Once that tank is full, the water goes into a second tank, a percolation tank, where it gets dripped into the ground at a rate the earth can absorb, replenishing our underground aquifers.
We’ve removed rainwater entirely from the city’s storm system and use that instead of the city’s premium drinking water to water the plants.
There’s still a long way to go. We could save our premium drinking water for drinking and cooking and use rainwater throughout the house. However, municipal red tape currently makes it impossible.
The sad, frustrating irony is that in spite of all the money and efforts, a recent study still found an unacceptable amount of lead in Vancouver’s drinking water.
We need to change the system. And time’s not on our side.
The future of water
In Vancouver, we’re very fortunate that we have a lot of water. There are many places in Canada where today, that’s not the case.
Globally, the situation is even more dire as water is very quickly becoming a non-renewable resource. According to the United Nations, by 2025, less than five years from now, 1.8 billion people around the world will live in absolute water scarcity.
We have to ask ourselves, as Vancouverites: if we live in a world where water is so scarce, do we want to be the people who waste 98% of our drinking water while two-thirds of the world does not have adequate supply?
What kind of people do we want to be as global citizens?