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Water Management for Vancouver, BC

Vancouver, British Columbia is situated in the SW part of the province where the Fraser River meets the Pacific Ocean in the Georgia Strait, just north of Washington State in the US NW.  Vancouver was originally settled by Europeans in about the year 1862. It is situated on lowlands near the sea and is partly located on the Fraser River delta near the Coast Mountains. The North Shore Coast Mountains as they are locally known rise to 1200 to 1700 metres or a moderate elevation and they include steeply incised glacial valleys of principally from west to east, the Capilano watershed, the Seymour and the Coquitlam watershed. All three of these valleys/watersheds have been dammed. The first two were dammed to provide a supply of drinking water to the Vancouver area residents. The Coquitlam watershed was dammed mainly to provide electric power to the BC Hydro grid for use in the Lower Mainland but also to supply water to the residents of New Westminster (“Water Services”). The Lower Mainland is the geographic area that stretches from Vancouver and east along the Fraser River Valley to places like Abbotsford and Chilliwack. While the Capilano and Seymour watersheds are derived from inflow to the valleys of the Capilano and Seymour large streams, the Coquitlam water comes from Coquitlam Lake (“Our Water Supply” 1). The water from Coquitlam Lake is essential to provide water to the cities of New Westminster, Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam in the eastern part of Metro Vancouver.


Figure 1. Water storage dams and water mains (blue) throughout the Metro Vancouver  area (Regional Water Systems Map, Metro Vancouver)

Before global warming affected the climate much, the North Shore Mountains used to receive a lot of snow such as back in the Hungry 30’s and the the slowly melting snow in the spring and early summer filled the reservoirs. In 1886 the Vancouver and Coquitlam Waterworks was founded. A succession of dams, were built on the three watersheds and the Greater Vancouver Water District was created in 1924 and in 1942 chlorination of the water supply was begun (“Water Services”). Also of historical interest is that in 2001, there was an attempt by the Vancouver municipal leaders to privatize the planned Seymour Filtration Plant but there was such a storm of protest at public meetings in June and July that they had to back down. This was partly due to concern over the negative implications of NAFTA due to making water a commodity. This was a local manifestation of the attempts to privatize water on a world-wide basis at this time and another similar successful struggle took place in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 1999 and 2000 and led to the ultimate victory of the pro-social government of Evo Morales. 

The water system of Vancouver, then, consists of the three watersheds covering 60,000 hectares and approximately 500 km of piping to serve all the cities in the Metro Vancouver area. The usage varies between about 1 billion liters per day and up to 1.5 billion liters in the summer, partly due to watering lawns. The water from the Capilano and Seymour watersheds goes through the new filtration plant that removes particulate material from turbidity caused during rapid run-off in rainstorms and spring snow melt. Before this state of the art plant was in place sometimes Vancouver residents had to buy bottled water to drink due to brown silt in the water. The plant also kills parasites with ultraviolet and ozone treatments. Parasites come at least partially from wild animals like bears and beavers. Some chlorination is done to control microbes (“Water Services”). Metro Atlanta, Georgia with a combined population of almost 5.5 million now, used 512 million US gallons per day in 2009, down from 2006 (“Facts About Water Use in Georgia and Metro Atlanta”). The peak Vancouver figure would be about 400 million US gallons per day for less than half of the population so Vancouver water usage is quite high and needs to be controlled more especially in times of drought such as occurred in 2015. With climate change it is no longer acceptable to assume that as Canadians we have an unlimited supply of water. It is recommended by Dr. Hans Schreier that water meters be installed for the majority of residential users in the Metro Vancouver area so that the true consumption can be determined and steps taken to reduce water usage (such as was done in Atlanta). In April, May, June, July and early August of 2015, there was very little rain. Water restrictions for lawn watering did not come into place until about mid-June-too late to reduce the water levels in the reservoirs.  The estimate used by Dr. Schreier was that about 40% of drinking water was used for lawns then. His recommendation was that lawns should be left without water from about mid-May to late August to preserve essential drinking water and he knows from experience that yellow lawns come back to life when water is resumed after such a period.. Monitoring with meters could indicate the extent to which lawn water usage needs to be reduced in dry periods. Also, as well as lawn watering restrictions, automatic watering systems can cut back by ½ the amount of water used for this purpose and still maintain the lawns. These then are some of the issues that have been involved with the water supply of Vancouver and shows that the sentiment of the residents has played an important role in affecting the ownership of the water and will play an important role in water conservation in the future (Schreier, Hans).

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