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May 22, 2014

The Water Haller – May 2014

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The following is an article I prepared for the Toronto Star for an issue about Climate Change.  I thought I would share with all of you:

We all know how important clean water is to life. Sometimes we worry if there will be enough, but then, when it rains ... it pours ... as witnessed in southern Alberta and the Toronto region last summer. These flood events are not so rare and can be expected more frequently in the future. Putting aside the arguments around why there is global warming, the realities of climate change demand a reaction by municipal governments and by their citizens. Climate change affects our water in three ways: the quality, the quantity and then the storm events.

Warming temperatures can affect quality as they influence what is going on in your water source, such as algae that can affect your water source.  Teams of chemists are working on how this will change the way we treat the water before we pipe it to your house.  New technologies and treatment methods must be considered as communities look to replace their aging treatment plants.

Warming temperatures affect quantity by holding greater volumes of water in the atmosphere. For every 1 degree of warming, 7% more water is held in the air. With the average global temperature rising just a couple of degrees, that’s 14% or more being held from our accessible use. There are a lot of additional reasons for water shortages, but most can be attributed to waste. To counteract the effects of climate change, we all need to think like scouts and be, "wiser in the use of our resources." Treating water to make it safe for drinking and then pumping it to the consumer is expensive and very energy consuming. The highest electrical bills for most municipalities are for their water and wastewater systems — and this massive energy use is only adding to the warming problem. While the practice of turning off the tap when brushing your teeth is a good philosophy of water use, it has a minimal saving overall. Meanwhile, 15–30% of treated, drinkable water never makes it anywhere, but is lost through leaking pipes. Then rainwater is caught up in the wastewater system and treated along with the sanitary waste. Then there is the amount of "drinking" water we use to flush each toilet, or water a garden or water a golf course. Lawns can be a good thing for a community, if we choose the right grass and if we learn to water it wisely. Fixing the leaking pipes requires billions of dollars of investment by all levels of government, but the return on investment will be tremendous while the cost of allowing systems to fail can be catastrophic to a community. Then we need to rethink the way we use treated water and encourage new alternatives like recycling grey water or old school ideas like capturing rain water. 

As for these storm events, this moister air is forming "atmospheric rivers" that, when released, can lead to the unprecedented storm events that we have been experiencing. This is when water can be too much of a good thing. Communities must properly plan for these storms and be able to mitigate the effects of prolonged heavy rains. Yes, the municipal engineers need to redesign or upgrade much of their stormwater collection and conveyance systems, but we are far better to deal with water where it falls than to funnel it so quickly into collection ditches. In response to lessons learned following last summer’s storm, the City of Toronto is investing billions into their stormwater infrastructure system to eliminate bottlenecks and to detain more water longer. The Insurance Bureau of Canada has developed new tools to assist municipalities in this project and to help them identify priorities. In order to reduce the potential damage of storm events, floodplain mapping needs to be reviewed and remapped in every community — which will mean greater restrictions as to "where" we build our homes.           

Meanwhile, all communities are advancing efforts to reduce how much stormwater needs to be collected. Everyone needs to take greater responsibility for the rain that falls on their property. There are legal liabilities for letting water drain from your property onto your neighbour’s but catching it and rushing it to the street is not the answer either. The concepts of green spaces, lawns, gardens and permeable driveways not only reduce urban temperatures but retain water on your property longer and allow for a more naturally timed drainage after a storm.

Water is essential for the health of any community and critical to the economic well-being of a region. While there are many challenges facing communities to replace old treatment plants and aging pipes, we must approach the solutions with a mindset for efficiency and adapting to the effects of climate change.


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