Impact of a Changing Climate: 2015 Drought Triggers Stage 2 Water Restrictions in Metro Vancouver
Note to Reader:
On July 3, 2015 Metro Vancouver moved to Stage 2 water restrictions for the first time since 2003. This meant that lawn watering was reduced from three times a week to once a week. Following the announcement, CBC Radio guest host Gloria Macarenko interviewed Kim Stephens, Executive Director of the Partnership for Water Sustainability in BC, about short-term and long-term considerations for water conservation. To listen to the interview, click on the image below.
Water Supplies Continue to Dip in Metro Vancouver Region
Metro Vancouver announced that the region is moving into Stage 2 water restrictions due to lower reservoir levels. This is the first time the Metro area has invoked Stage 2 since 2003. One of the reasons for this is because volumes in water storage reservoirs are at 79 per cent right of capacity, compared to the same time over the past couple of years when the level was about 91 per cent.
“Metro Vancouver takes water conservation and protection of our sources of drinking water extremely seriously,” stated Metro Vancouver Chief Administrative Officer Carol Mason when making the announcement. “Over the last several years, our lawn sprinkling regulations have had a significant positive impact on reducing water demands in the peak summer season, and we are asking residents and businesses to further conserve water at this time.”
Lawn Watering Reduced to Once Per Week
“We need to reduce our discretionary use of water including lawn sprinkling and washing cars,” said Board Chair Greg Moore. “Our reservoir levels need to be maintained for priority needs in our homes and businesses, and for community needs like fire protection.”
“We are seeing record temperatures and there was virtually no rain in June when normally we have rain on about 12 days,” added Moore. “We all have to do our part and conserve water whenever possible, and that now includes only watering lawns once a week.”
In the two decades following introduction of seasonal water restrictions in 1993, per-capita water use in the Metro Vancouver region has declined 27 percent.
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Beyond just lawn watering restrictions, public and commercial fountains are not allowed to operate under Stage 2. Metro Vancouver officials point out that just one hour of watering your lawn can equal 25 toilet flushes, five loads of laundry, and five dishwasher loads.
2015 is Another ‘Teachable Year’
When Gloria Macarenko interviewed Kim Stephens hours after the announcement of Stage 2 water restrictions, she noted that it has been more than a decade since Metro Vancouver last saw conditions such as those being experienced in 2015. “How do you think we are doing as a region in responding to this drought? Is it enough to comply with restrictions? What should be individuals doing,” she asked.
Accommodating a Growing Population
“2003 was our teachable year. That’s why local governments and other water authorities are actually able to respond so well right now early in the season. A lot of the lessons have been learned,” responded Kim Stephens, Executive Director of the Partnership for Water Sustainability in BC.
“In the short-term, in view of the situation that we are faced with, the short answer is obviously that people need to follow the rules and not take water for granted. I use the words ‘teachable year’ because it really does take a drought to get the attention of the average person.”
“When you look around this region, you see water everywhere, and it rains a lot during the winter. And so we keep thinking it is plentiful. Yet we have a growing population and a fixed amount of storage. That fixed supply has to be continually stretched. Now we have the combination of (population growth and) a changing climate where our summers are longer, hotter and drier.”
“In terms of water use in this region, the graphs put out by Metro Vancouver show there has been a reduction. The summer months are when you have a peak because of outdoor water use. (This occurs) at a time when water supply (the inflow) is at lowest. The last of the three reservoirs was built 55 years ago. They have carried the region but we are at the point where every person counts now.”
Measure Water Use in order to Manage the Resource
Gloria Macarenko then focussed on what works in terms of changing behaviour. “Is getting out the message about not wasting a drop enough to change behaviour? Metering has certainly been at the heart of the debate around water conservation in this province for quite a while. If we don’t start making it mandatory to measure how much water we use individually, do you have any hope that we will ever stop taking it for granted,” she asked.
“In the short-term, dramatic restrictions now in effect for the first time since 2003 get people’s attention. Long-term behaviour takes more than a bit of messaging. It requires fundamental changes in the way we build and develop land,” observed Kim Stephens.
“Things have changed. I can recall 25 years ago making presentations and people would be questioning WHY do we need to save water in this region when it rains all the time. Since the 1987 drought, there has been a higher level of awareness. Over the past 30 years, the way people think has changed. But we still have to go further in terms of how we manage our way through these longer, drier, hotter summers.
“How can you manage water unless you measure it? That’s the simple answer. When you ask that question in this region, it’s a hot button one. In 1922 Ernest Cleveland, the first Commissioner of the Greater Vancouver Water District, wrote a report that said in Vancouver there was innate hostility to metering at a time when Seattle and Winnipeg were implementing metering. This attitude has changed over the decades. But half the population always seems to be opposed to it in this region, and half is in favour of it. Ultimately, if you are going to manage the water resources and implement the appropriate pricing schedules, then you do have to measure what you use.”
Restore the Absorbency of the Landscape
Gloria Macarenko concluded the interview with a question about changing behaviour for the most effect, not just for today but for a future in which there will likely be less water.
“Our biggest impact in terms of water supply is in the summer months when water is being used outdoors. When you think about, historically we have used almost as much water for our lawns and gardens as we drink and consume,” replied Kim Stephens.
“It really comes down to, how over time, property by property we will restore the absorbency of the landscape. Absorbency of the landscape comes down to soil. Typically when we develop, we strip the land and put down a strip of turf and then we wonder why we have to pour the water onto it. But if you have a foot of soil, you will have a well-rooted garden and lawn, and you will use less water. You will take less out of supply and you will be able to survive longer in terms of keeping things going.”
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Circa 1990 Kim Stephens was the team leader for a series of 11 watershed hydrology studies over a 5-year period for Metro Vancouver. These provided the cornerstone for development of the master plan for regional water supply expansion and drought management to serve a population of 3 million. Subsequently, he was responsible for the regional cost-benefit study on residential water metering for Metro Vancouver.
During that same period, Kim Stephens was also the team leader for a study undertaken by the Province of British Columbia to assess the potential for domestic and irrigation water conservation in the Okanagan Valley.