When someone turns on a tap in Greater Victoria, the water they get is clean, plentiful and cheap compared to most places in B.C., Canada and the world.
Glen Brown would know. From his office in the Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development in Victoria, the civil servant has a bird’s-eye view of water systems across the province.
Holding the title of executive director of local government infrastructure and finance, he and his team are tasked with helping hundreds of small communities keep the water flowing in ways that are affordable, sustainable and safe.
For his efforts over the past decade, the B.C. Water and Waste Association has bestowed Brown its 2013 individual award of excellence, a big deal if you are in the business of figuring out better ways to provide drinking water.
“Glen is one of those people encouraging local governments to implement water conservation plans and to help individual residents manage water better,” said Daisy Foster, CEO of the B.C. Water and Waste Association. “It takes a lot of resources to turn on a tap, but a lot of people take it for granted that safe, clean water will be there to drink.”
The 48-year-old Saanich resident and former commercial fisherman works with the many small communities in B.C. without the resources and expertise to create long-term financial and infrastructure plans around water management.
The province has some 4,000 to 6,000 individual systems of varying sizes that deliver drinking water. Brown engages with local governments and health authorities to find ways to keep the systems up to date in terms of public safety, but in ways that won’t bankrupt a town.
The Gulf Islands, for instance, struggles with consistent water quality due to surface water algae or salt water infiltration into groundwater, but doesn’t necessarily have the tax base to absorb large filtration projects. “The Gulf Islands have huge issues with quality and quantity of water. You have a demographic of people who own second homes and then people on fixed incomes. For the ability to pay, the difference is huge,” he said.
Closer to home, Brown points out Greater Victoria is unique and fortunate within the province. The Capital Regional District owns a 11,000 hectare watershed free from logging, mining or recreation, unlike other areas of the province. That allows the CRD to avoid filtering drinking water beyond chlorination and ultraviolet disinfection.
He pointed to Nanaimo, which is trying to finance a $65-million water filtration system for a city one-quarter the size of Greater Victoria.
“The CRD has good quality water without filtration. That saves a lot of money for residents in the CRD. That doesn’t happen in other places in B.C.,” Brown said. “If we had to have filtration, which is the general requirement for surface water, we’d see a similar price as (regional) wastewater treatment. Well, maybe not that big, but it would be substantial.
“In the CRD we should be jumping for joy we have it so good. We have a significant robust service and don’t pay much.”
A key part of Brown’s job is encouraging local governments and communities to finding ways to reduce water waste and consumption. Conservation strategies are often the only way a municipality can avoid expensive system upgrades, such as building new reservoirs or installing bigger pipes in the ground.
“Conservation is about using water more affectively. There’s an environmental component and an economic component, and you’ll save as a taxpayer.”
Water management can have unexpected cost increases, even if done properly. Conservation in the CRD has worked too well – consumption has dropped enough to cause the regional water commission to boost water prices last year to make up for operational shortfalls.
“On the other side of the coin, if you use more water, you require more infrastructure,” Foster said. “That adds cost to residents.”
Overall, B.C. communities have done well to adopt long-term water management and conservation mindsets, Foster said. “Water management in B.C. has improved significantly in the past five years. We’ve seen a difference on the ground.”
Brown doesn’t disagree, but points out some communities have been surprisingly resistant to pay a few pennies more in tax to maintain their water systems. It’s a service that tends to be out of sight, out of mind.
“Water is undervalued in the province, across the board,” he said. “We still have the lowest rates for water in Canada and the world. It impacts future infrastructure needs. We’ve got communities that pay 25 cents for a cubic metre of water, where in Europe they’ll pay $6.
“Understanding the cost to deliver water to the home, and the environmental costs … we have to start becoming more aware of that. We are going in the right direction. Education is still a big of it.”
Drinking Water week in B.C. is May 20 to 26 See drinkingwaterweek.org.