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11th May 2022
Conserving water in Metro Vancouver still vital even with cooler, wetter summer ahead, experts say

Dwindling snowpack, growing population adding to pressure on region's reservoirs

Kiran Singh CBC News Posted: May 04, 2022 8:18 AM PT

Although this summer in British Columbia is forecast to be cooler and wetter compared to 2021, experts say the need to conserve Metro Vancouver's water supply is more important than ever.

While a cool, damp spring has made the recent introduction of lawn watering restrictions appear unnecessary, such measures are required to preserve the region's water supply through to the end of summer.

Unlike last year, when a deadly, record-breaking heat dome settled over the province in June, the hottest time in 2022 is predicted to be mid-July to mid-August, according to Environment Canada when reservoir levels are much lower.

Data from 2015 to 2021 shows average water levels for the region during this period when extreme heat can result in water loss from reservoirs due to evaporation is 170 billion litres, compared to around 300 billion litres during the month of May.

It's an added strain on Metro Vancouver's water supply, which is already facing the increasing pressures of a growing population and a dwindling snowpack feeding reservoirs.

Snowpack depletion is accelerating, research shows

The snowpack is the seasonal accumulation of snow that feeds streams and rivers as it melts. For the Metro Vancouver region, the snowpack in the Coast Mountains which feeds the reservoirs of Capilano, Seymour and Coquitlam lakes is a key source of drinking water.

As of Jan. 1, the province recorded above-normal amounts of snowpack, with the exception of the Okanagan, according to the B.C. River Forecast Centre.

However, the amount has gone down drastically in the last few decades, says CBC meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe.

"The amount of snow we get that is seasonal in this decade means something so much different than it looked in the '50s and '60s," Wagstaffe said. "The baseline has already shifted."

This trend is reflected in research from the University of Northern British Columbia, which shows that B.C.'s snowpack was depleting at a rate of 298 billion tonnes per year between 2015 and 2019 an accelerated rate from about 227 billion tonnes per year between 2000 and 2004.

"We have to get used to conserving water because this year is an anomaly," Wagstaffe said.

Population growth

Population growth is another big factor affecting the region's water supply, says John Richardson, a professor in the department of conservation sciences at the University of British Columbia.

According to Metro Vancouver planners, the region will be home to 3.8 million people in 30 years' time, an increase of over one million residents from 2.7 million in 2021.

But while the population is set to grow, there are no plans to build a new reservoir, Richardson says.

Increasing the holding capacities of existing reservoirs or building a new one "comes with the loss of some amount of forest habitat and potential water quality issues," he said.

Malcolm Brodie, chair of Metro Vancouver's water committee, says the regional district has the option to source more water from Coquitlam Lake, the area's largest water reservoir.

In 2020, the region announced a $1-billion investment over the next seven years to build new infrastructure to double its ability to access, treat and distribute the lake's water supply.

According to the region's website, the project is undergoing permitting and regulatory processes, and construction is set for the late 2020s with completion slated for the late 2030s.

But Brodie also says the need for more water supply infrastructure is on the horizon. In the meantime, residents are being encouraged to do whatever they can to conserve water, even when it doesn't seem necessary in cooler, wetter weather.

"If we're wiser in the use of our water at this stage, when, you know, the pressure isn't on so much ... the people of the [water services department] believe that the new infrastructure that is going to be needed at some point can be delayed for a great period of time," Brodie said.

Simple ways to conserve water include washing only full loads of laundry, thawing frozen goods in the refrigerator instead of running them under a tap, and fixing leaky toilets and taps. People with pools can lower the water level.

For gardeners grappling with watering restrictions, Richardson suggests planting more drought-resistant species and letting your grass go brown during the summer months.

"Grass becomes green again when the rains return. Grass is a very hardy plant," he said.