Charlottetown asking residents to conserve water as watershed levels drop
© Guardian photo
Cathy Corrigan and Bruce Smith stand in a river which had a high enough water level for canoeing.
Residents in Charlottetown have been ratting out their neighbours this past week as the fight to conserve water begins.
Earlier this week, the City of Charlottetown asked people to stop watering their lawns and driveways and washing their cars in an effort to preserve water.
The weather has been hot and dry and it’s taking a toll on Charlottetown’s one and only source of water — the Winter River Watershed, a source whose levels were running low before the weather turned so dry.
Charlottetown water officials indicate that the city’s water system is running at more than 92 per cent capacity, an alarming statistic considering 50 per cent is considered sustainable.
Mayor Clifford Lee calls the situation serious but not dire, yet, and talk is surfacing about bringing in water-use restrictions.
“We are currently asking the community not to wash their cars, not to do a lot of things that aren’t necessities right now,’’ Lee said.
People have taken notice.
Calls began coming into City Hall less than 24 hours after city council asked people to stop using so much water for outdoor purposes. People are ratting on their neighbours who continue to sprinkle their lawns.
But the numbers so far are not trending in the right direction and the city is very serious about legislating restrictions if people don’t turn off the taps.
“I can assure you and the citizens that if we appear to continue to move in that direction then we will be instituting restrictions,” said the mayor. “We will not be waiting until there is a shortage of water in the city.’’
Craig Walker, manager of the Water and Sewer Utility, said if the demand continues the way it’s going there will be problems.
“If we trend this way for the next two months we will start to struggle supplying water and people would need to make a choice,’’ Walker said.
“Right now with the dry weather we’re seeing heavy demand by our customers because daily flows are higher than what we would consider average. We’re also seeing the reservoir storage not recovering to the elevations we would normally expect or hope to see at this time of year.’’
The city has turned on its emergency backup station on the Malpeque Road. The last time the city used that backup was in 1999.
“It looks as though it might need to come on line because our existing pumps and our well field in the (Winter) River just can’t keep up with the water that’s being used and no precipitation,’’ says Ramona Doyle, the city’s water conservation officer.
Discussions are being held with big users such as the Belvedere Golf Course and Fanningbank, asking them to cut back.
“The situation is we’re just above average and it’s been above average for a couple of months now,’’ Doyle said. “We’re seeing the precipitation levels being so low that it seems to have increased the amount of water people are using and a lot of that is outdoor water use.’’
Cathy Corrigan, co-chair of the Winter River Watershed, says they’ve been raising red flags with the city for years. She stood in a dry stream in one of the creeks at Winter River, a creek people could canoe in earlier this year, to demonstrate her point.
“It’s very low and in some parts of the summer it’s completely dry,’’ Corrigan said. “People think the problem is a lack of rain. That’s only a bit of the story.’’
In 2002, she said eight wells the city was drawing water from went dry before it brought on a new pumping station that same year.
“They had to dig new wells. They need to start acting like this is important. Our wells, streams and rivers are important.’’
Corrigan said people need to start conserving water before it’s too late and they need to do it year-round, not just when the weather is hot and dry.
“Three years ago when we had ample rain we were still low because rain only puts so much (back) in the river, the rest of it is fed by groundwater.’’
The city has begun the process of developing a new well field in the Milton area. The land has been purchased and the necessary permit from the province is in hand. But it’s going to cost $18 million to put the necessary infrastructure in place, a cost the city cannot afford on its own.
Lee says it’s the city’s top priority but it has two choices, borrow the money and jack everyone’s water and sewer bills up, or wait until the next federal infrastructure program begins in 2014 and split the cost three ways. It will probably cost the city about $6 million.
Corrigan said the new well field will take some pressure off the Brackley pumping station but not much. They answer is convincing people to be smarter with water use.
The watershed recently did a presentation at Stonepark Intermediate School and found some alarming information.
“We polled kids at Stonepark and found, on average, they were taking 20- to 30-minute showers. You’d have to be mud wrestling to need a shower that long. We need to get people away from that.’’
Rob Reddin, P.E.I.’s water conservation education co-ordinator with the Sierra Club of Canada, said behaviour is a major factor.
“It’s something in Canada we take for granted,’’ Reddin said. “We’re not going to be able to anymore.’’
Lee says the city isn’t enforcing water restrictions yet and won’t as long as people heed the warning and cut back.
“If everyone wants to continue washing their cars, filling their swimming pools three times a day (and) watering their lawns then, yes, we’re going to bring in legislation. It’s the last thing we want to do but, at the end of the day, we have an obligation to the citizens of Charlottetown to have a water supply that is a healthy water supply. We must allow the basic necessities to flow.’’