Spring runoff has begun, raising water levels in Lake Windermere. For many residents of the Upper Columbia Valley, this time of year can also mean a change in the water coming out of their taps, since runoff often affects water turbidity.
The runoff coincides with B.C. Drinking Water Week — May 20th to May 26th — which is put on by provincial officials and the B.C. Water and Waste Association to raise awareness about drinking water issues across the province.
Some visitors assume that the municipalities of the Upper Columbia Valley, nestled as they are between two ranges of snow capped mountains beside big, clear lakes, should have perfect water flowing through their pipes year round.
This, however, paints an oversimplified picture — the presence of copious amounts of water is just one part of the puzzle. In fact, large amounts of water frequently goes hand-in-hand with large snowpacks, bigger spring runoffs and corresponding increases in drinking water turbidity. The water quality of any given community is affected by a host of other factors, including geology, soil, temperature, surrounding land uses, climate, type and location of each particular water source as well as — critically — the cost and effort involved in implementing, maintaining and upgrading water treatment and distribution infrastructure.
“It’s absolutely more complicated than just having a lot of water,” said Ted Molyneux, past president of the B.C. Water and Waster Association.
“Even if you don’t have water supply issues, you still have the cost of treating it.”
People tend to be sensitive about the cost of water, which makes it hard to convince communities of the need to pay for water system upgrades, according to Molyneux.
“The public often doesn’t really understand what it takes to get water safe for them — all the people, equipment and expertise that goes into it,” Molyneux said, adding that even basic chlorination comes with a cost.
Small drinking water systems, of which there are many across the province, including in the Upper Columbia Valley, face particular funding challenges compared with municipalities such as Invermere, he said.
“Small communities have no economy of scale. They’re looking for the same level of service and quality from their drinking water systems as the bigger centers but they don’t have the bigger number of people to spread the cost around,” said Molyneux. “We’ve just got to somehow ramp it up.”
Another potential problem is that the Upper Columbia Valley is in many ways a vacation destination rife with second-home owners.
“They’ll (second homeowners) come to a small little place and expect to be able to do what they do at home because they’re not aware of how different water systems can be,” he said.
A quick rundown of the drinking water situation in the Upper Columbia Valley:
The Village of Canal Flats has two drinking water systems, one for Eagle’s Nest and Painted Ridge subdivisions, and one for the rest of the village.
The Eagle’s Nest system, which serves approximately 60 homes, has been on a boil water advisory for about 10 years and does not meet Interior Health’s new water quality standards, said Canal Flats mayor Ute Juras, adding that the main village system also needs some upgrades.
The village received a $400,000 grant in 2006 to help pay for water system upgrades, but upgrading is likely to cost much more. The grant has yet to be fully used — partly because Eagle’s Nest residents have in the past expressed concern about the costs they will have to bear — and was set to expire in March 2013 when a crucial one-year extension was granted. The village is holding a town hall meeting on Saturday, June 8th to get public input on the different options.
“Hopefully we’ll have a lot of people come out and we can get some community input,” Juras said.
The issue is complicated by the legal need for B.C. municipal governments to gauge public opinion, often by holding a referendum, before spending borrowed capital.
The District of Invermere has a dual water system, which includes the Paddy Ryan Lakes above the Castle Rock subdivision and a groundwater source in Athalmer. Some of the Paddy Ryan system goes directly to Castle Rock, Pineridge subdivision and other nearby homes; the rest goes to a reservoir in Mt. Nelson Park. The Athalmer system also goes into the reservoir, which is a mix of surface water and groundwater.
This means some parts of town receive just surface water some of the time, and other parts get just groundwater some of the time, but most of the town is getting a mixture of the two most of the time, said Invermere mayor Gerry Taft.
“There are some people who make comments,” said Taft, when asked about residents complaining about the taste of Invermere’s water. “But we’ve always been within the safe parameters for the amount of bacteria and pathogens in the water.”
The piping in the water distribution system has several dead ends, which become collecting points for silt and other materials, according to Taft. Events such as spring runoff, the annual system flushing or using a fire hydrant can stir up these materials and affect the water in certain parts of town for a short period of time.
“A lot of the complaints centered around the water aesthetics are based on the distribution,” he said. “We’re going to do more work to narrow down which parts of the town tend to have those problems.”
The district is also working with Interior Health on filtration deferral. Interior Health takes a multiple barriers approach to water treatment — and implementing the full gamut can come with a hefty price tag. Since Invermere’s water is already clean, the district would like to focus principally on disinfection rather than extensive filtration.
“It makes it a lot easier to put those other barriers in place,” Taft said.
The Village of Radium Hot Springs was the first B.C. community to be totally compliant with Interior Health’s water standards, according to Radium mayor Dee Conklin.
“We take pride in having the best drinking water in the East Kootenay,” Conklin said. Radium’s CasaVino restaurant, run by Conklin and her husband Rod, proudly serves water from tap, which Conklin said draws nothing but compliments.
Regional District of East Kootenay Area F has several small water systems, some managed by the regional district, some not. Most of those not managed by the district do not meet Interior Health water quality standards, according to Area F director Wendy Booth.
Of the four Area F water systems managed by the regional district, two have water that is compliant with Interior Health standards (to the 4-3-2-1 level) thanks to installed systems or system upgrades recently completed with grant money, and one receives compliant well water from the Shuswap. The remaining water system, that of Windermere, has been on a water quality advisory since 2006, which occasionally gets bumped up to a boil water advisory during spring runoff. Windermere residents voted against a proposal in 2011 to buy bulk standard-meeting water from Windermere Water and Sewer Company Inc.
“We’re currently working with the community on other options,” said Booth.
Regional district Area G also has a mix, with some water systems managed by the regional district and some not.
The community of Spur Valley recently voted (with 88 per cent in favour) to let the regional district manage its water system, according to Area G director Gerry Wilkie. The regional district will put in a new system to replace Spur Valley’s old water system, which has been on a boil water order since 1994. The new system will draw from deep wells and the water will be chlorinated.
The regional district also runs Edgewater’s water system. Over the course of the past year, Dry Gulch and Wilmer were unable to take advantage of almost $1.8 million in grant money for water system upgrades after votes in both communities on proposed upgrades failed to achieve the required approval of 50 per cent of property owners representing at least 50 per cent of the given community’s total assessed property value.
Raising citizens’ awareness about their water in general and their local drinking water systems in particular is the one of the best ways to get support for upgrades as well as help users conserve water, according to Molyneux.
“Most British Columbians don’t have a good idea of where their water comes from and where it goes to,” he said.
B.C. Waste and Water Association CEO Daisy Foster echoed similar sentiments in a recent press release.
“Aging infrastructure and new regulatory requirements mean many communities will need to upgrade or replace systems such as treatment facilities and pipes. Yet 86 per cent of British Columbians do not see a need for major investment now,” said Foster, citing a 2013 RBC Canadian Water Attitudes Study.
For more about B.C.’s Drinking Water Week and the associated community water challenge, check out www.drinkingwaterweek.org.