By Jim Harding
Over a decade ago we moved from an inner city to a rural community. When you live in urban Saskatchewan you can delude yourself into thinking that our water sources are limitless but when you live by a lake that’s downstream from urban sewage you soon realize that all our water comes from the same watersheds.
Regina and Moose Jaw depend upon Buffalo Pound Lake for their water. Like the rest of us who depend on the Qu’Appelle River waterways, urban residents have a huge stake in protecting this watershed which supports both quality of life and life itself. There may be some legitimate differences in rural and urban priorities but protecting our common watershed is not one of them.
GROWTH IN DEMAND
Regina and Moose Jaw’s dependence on Buffalo Pound has grown markedly over the last half century. In 1955 the two cities drew 4,000 megalitres (4,000,000 litres) of “raw water” from the reservoir; by 2010 the volume had risen nearly ten-fold to 37,000 Megalitres. Regina’s growth was largely responsible: in 1966 the city bought 9,000 megalitres from Buffalo Pound, but by 2012 this was up more than three-fold to 29,000 megalitres.
The rate of increase in Regina’s demand declined somewhat in the early nineties. Finally people started to admit that there were ecological limits to the amount of water that could be extracted from a watershed. But the economic growth pressures presently being perpetuated by provincial and corporate policies will surely continue to place increased pressures on Buffalo Pound. Will the Qu’Appelle River watershed be able to meet this, especially considering the potential demands from a rash of proposed new potash mines?
Water conservation is vital to any sustainable watershed plan; water can always be used more efficiently and it can be recycled. How effective has Regina been in this regard? According to the City’s 2013 Water Utility Budget there has been some success. The five year average for the consumption of Regina’s metered water peaked at 24.4 million cubic meters between 1995-99. It started to fall slightly after that, to 23.8 between 2000-04 and then to 22.7 between 2005-09. And the figure for 2010 also dropped further to 21.1 million cubic meters.
But the consumption has started to rise. In 2011 it was back to 22.1 and the projected consumption for 2013 is 23.1 million cubic meters, near the 2000-04 level. Even if per capita water use declines, population growth and growing non-residential uses of water will push consumption upwards. Nearly one-third of Regina’s water is presently consumed for non-residential purposes.
There is still a lot of room for improvement. One of the most important aspects of water conservation is reducing the water wasted through leakage and breaks in a deteriorating infrastructure. But according to Regina’s own data, the percent of water being wasted continues to rise. (This is fairly easy to estimate; you just subtract the total amount of water billed to all property owners from the total amount purchased from the Buffalo Pound reservoir.) The percent unaccounted for in 2007 was 16.8%, in 2008 it was 17.2%, in 2009 it was 18.1% and in 2010 it was 18.8 %. There was a very slight drop in 2011 to 18.2 %. That’s nearly one in every five gallons that comes out of the expensive Buffalo Pound plant.
Regina uses an index of water loss called Infrastructure Leakage Index (ILI). In 2011 the ILI for Regina was 3.63 which the City says is within the “good” though not the “excellent” range. If the loss of nearly one in five gallons of water is “good”, what would “bad” mean?
Regina admits “there is potential for marked improvements” but in its 2013 Utility Budget it adds “that further water loss reduction, although possible, may be uneconomical”. What does it mean by “uneconomical”? That it’s cheaper to withdraw even more water from the Qu’Appelle River watershed than to upgrade its own infrastructure? That improving its waterworks is not politically sellable with the coming multi-million dollar costs of a waste water treatment plant that is years overdue?
The City also faces costly challenges regarding the quality of water coming from Buffalo Pound’s plant. Due to algae and other organics the lake “has required higher levels of treatment to provide water that meets the City’s water quality objectives.” Yet the continued use of chlorination for disinfection creates “byproducts known as trihalomethanes and heloacetic acids” which the city finally admits “are dangerous to human health”. Its Long Term Water Utility Plan recommends “reducing the use of chlorine, if possible in conjunction with the addition of ultraviolet light disinfection”. This study also notes that “The percentage of time that taste and odour control is required has been increasing for a number of years” and that “the existing wastewater lagoons are overloaded”. Also, due to the corrosive effect of the treated water there is “softening of concrete tanks in the water treatment plant and slow deterioration of piping and fittings”, though it adds “this is not a cause for immediate concern”. Is this another cost being displaced onto future taxpayers?
Regina’s backup system is nine wells in and around the city which are “available for emergency water supply in the event of a failure in the Buffalo Pound water supply”. But these wells provide “less that the City’s typical daily needs” and further, they have “levels of iron, magnesium and hardness that do not meet”, what the City calls its, “aesthetic objectives”.
THE VALUE OF WATER
Every five years a Waterworks System Assessment (WSA) is required to ensure, among other things, the “sustainability” of the system. At present Moose Jaw and Regina “contribute an amount equal to 10% of the general water charges to a Capital Replacement Fund.” Regina’s share is 73%. But is that Fund accumulating enough resources to enable Regina to address all these pressing challenges? And what value is being given to protect the source, the watershed itself?
The Buffalo Pound plant uses a cost-recovery system with the 2013 water rate set at $225.02 for one million litres. Compare this to $1.50 for a litre of bottled water. Regina’s 2013 Utility Budget says the 3.9% increase over 2012 is “primarily due to rising costs for electricity, increases in unit prices for treating chemicals, equipment price increases and increases for wages and benefits”. The cost of the actual water going to Regina is only $6.4 million for 2013, “about 53.5% of the total costs” for supply, pumping and distribution and “about 13% of the total utility costs”. The water and the watershed are pretty much being taken for granted.
The panacea to ensure economic and urban growth still seems to be “more”. Rather than seriously investing in water conservation, infrastructure upgrade and water quality, extracting more water is seen as the “economic” way to go. So we find in Buffalo Pound’s 2012 Annual Report that in consultations with the Water Security Agency, the South Central Enterprise Region is proposing a “plan for a flow rate of up to 25 cubic meters per second in the Upper Qu’Appelle River; more than three times the volume the current channel can presently accommodate. One suggestion”, it continues, “is the construction and operation of a channel out of the valley, on the south side of the river”. And what will this huge channel cost the provincial taxpayer? And how long can we carry on with the delusion that there will always be more?
Regina’s long overdue decision to upgrade its wastewater treatment is a start but it has a long way to go to do its part to protect our common watershed.