Monday, 20 February 2012

Water in All the Wrong Places

This really is ironic.  When residents and businesses in Charlottetown turn on the tap they draw almost all the water from wells drilled  into what's called the Winter River watershed, and it's a lot of water: 18 million liters a day (about 750 thousand two-fours of beer), the highest draw during August (probably drinking the most beer then too).  The people who care about the environmental health of this watershed say it's too much. It's more than the sustainable re-charge (essentially rain that trickles through the sandstone into underground aquifers). In fact a section of the Winter River  went dry last summer, killing fish, and sending an important warning.

And when it rains, something else happens too:  Charlottetown's storm sewers send so much excess water to the waste treatment plant that raw sewage has to be dumped into Charlottetown harbour, shutting down shell fishing, and giving Charlottetown a black eye.  The City of Charlottetown is now trying to deal with both issues.

Lessons? There are certainly some when it comes to sewage. In the 1970's when the communities surrounding Charlottetown  like Parkdale, East and West Royalty etc, tied into the waste treatment plant on the waterfront a lot of money was saved by combining real sewage and storm drainage into one pipe from each community rather than two.  Now millions more will have to  be spent to separate storm run-off from sewage, something that could have been done properly in the first place.

The shellfish closures are the result of a change in policy by Fisheries and Oceans and Environment Canada, not really  any increase in pollution or run-off from the plant.  It's to protect U.S. markets for shellfish that the departments developed protocols to shut down harvesting when there's any risk of contamination. The departments do the same in several bays and estuaries.  And Environment Canada was doing it's job when it ordered Charlottetown to fix the problem. It did the right thing.

Solving the supply of water is going to require more than just spending money.  It's almost certain that Charlottetown will drill new wells on land its bought in Miltonvale Park.  (Residents of Miltonvale Park have been warned that if Charlottetown does this it will draw a lot of water and limit the number of new home lots the community will be able to establish.)   But even this new supply of water won't be enough to get the drawdown from the Winter River back to sustainable levels, and cope with any  future growth.  All this is happening as Stratford and Cornwall, the two fast growing communities on either side of Charlottetown face their own water supply challenges.

Basically it means residents and businesses will have to change the way they use water (conservation, what a concept). Water meters will be part of the mix. Any new homes being built now must have them installed, and everyone interested in this  topic says they're coming.  It's never easy when we're asked to think about the real cost of things that feel free (water, medical care, creative material on the web, etc.). Perhaps the more important consideration is how much we're wiling to pay for carbonated sugar water, fancy coffees, and hundreds of cable tv channels that offer so little worth watching.  It seems sensible to price reasonable water use at a reasonable price, and then quickly increase the cost for residents and businesses using more.  Residents may have to sweep their lane rather than use the hose. It'll be OK.

A tip of the hat to Summerside for encouraging people to use off-peak wind power to create and store heat during the night which can be released during the day.   Any effort that can "store" renewable energy  is very important.

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