Water metering is already working in some B.C. municipalities. Why isn’t it universal?

With its rainy disposition and oceanside location, B.C. seems an unlikely candidate to be suffering from abnormal dryness and persistent drought.

Yet, some experts say without further action on a seemingly simple measure, the province’s parched condition could only get worse.

While residents all over B.C. have become accustomed to electricity meters measuring their usage, the same practice for water remains scarce throughout the province. In Budget 2024, the provincial government announced $50 million for water metering pilot programs in 21 communities across B.C. However, some experts are saying the government needs to fast-track this measure — which could be critical in the province’s race to manage the impacts of climate change — and set aside others.

Despite recent wet weather, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada states the majority of the Pacific Region remains in drought conditions, including 94 per cent of B.C.’s agricultural landscape. Due to the human-caused climate crisis, western North America is experiencing an increase in drought severity and likelihood. While heat and drought are two separate extreme weather events, when combined, the events can also result in more severe impacts, such as wildfire.

A water metre
A water meter. (Photo courtesy of City of Vancouver)

This trend has become increasingly clear throughout the province, as B.C.’s water conservation measures become tighter every year and intense wildfires ravage the region year-round.

Hans Schreier, a professor in the University of British Columbia’s land and food systems faculty, is advocating for a universal water metering system in B.C. as a way to make its water infrastructure more climate-resilient.

“We now have water meters which are equally as efficient as the BC Hydro system,” he said. “That means you could actually monitor every individual house on a computer system and charge them according to the amount of water they use. “

Currently, only a handful of municipalities across the province have water metering systems in place for residential buildings, many of which only come when new units are built.

West Vancouver is a unique example where universal metering was achieved in 2007 after mandatory residential water metering was introduced in 2005. According to a report by the Metro Vancouver Regional District, the main drivers of this measure were to “improve public perception” of the district’s residential water use and to “make a long-term investment in the local water supply.”

Schreier says this measure has proven very effective in West Vancouver, where the large metering fees racked up by residents who are careless with their water use go back into improving the system overall.

“So, even if you have people who don’t care about water conservation, if you charge them according to the water they use, you could have a lot of financial possibilities to pay for the rest of it,” he said.

“And this is an equitable situation because people who are at the low end of income, if they are very conservation-minded, they don’t have to pay very much for the water.”

In Vancouver, it wasn’t until 2012 that a bylaw was introduced to require water meters be included in all newly constructed or majorly renovated homes.

In 2019, that meant only six per cent of single-family/duplex homes in Vancouver were metered. The city estimates that about 1,000 new meters are installed in single-family/duplex homes per year.

Schreier adds that with the turnover of old to new houses in Vancouver, it could take about 30 years until every home is new, and by then, the water metering technology being installed will have changed a couple of times to create a mishmash of systems.

“So why not bite the bullet and do it all at once? And go from there?” Schreier asked.

According to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, the $50 million announced in Budget 2024 will go toward purchasing and installing water meters in yet-to-be-selected communities across B.C. The current funding has been provided for 2024/25, with the intention of determining how feasible a universal water-metering program could be in the future, the ministry adds.

Wastewater more useful than salty sea

Professor Madjid Mohseni, who works in the faculty of chemical and biological engineering at the University of British Columbia, says the province’s wastewater is another overlooked area of water usage that stands to be improved.

The majority of water going into our homes is coming out as wastewater, Mohseni says, but it isn’t being reused to its full potential.

“We just dump wastewater… back into the river or ocean. So we have this source that we could utilize,” he said.

“If we do additional treatments or work towards making the quality of that wastewater a bit better, we could potentially use it for a variety of activities within our local urban environments, whether it’s for landscaping parks, industrial activities, irrigations, and so on.”

Both of these improvements could make huge differences in the amount of water that’s available in the province.

Among the possibilities, there’s one option experts agree simply isn’t worth relying on: the ocean.

Schreier says the electricity needed to desalinate enough water to make this technology a feasible source for the province is beyond what B.C. is currently capable of — partly because of its signature dreary weather.

“If we try desalination, which is quite energy intensive, we would need lots more electricity. And this is in competition with electrical cars, it’s in competition with everything else,” Schreier said.

“I don’t think large-scale desalination would be a really good option for B.C.”

In a place like the Middle East, Schreier says abundant sun provides enough solar energy to make this option more viable.

As a comparison, Mohseni explains the amount of energy needed to make wastewater potable again is only half of what would be needed to make seawater drinkable.

“In terms of energy consumption, especially when you’re looking at climate change, which is related to our energy consumption, seawater desalination would be my last choice, in terms of the adoption of a solution.”

Schreier adds the salt that’s produced as a byproduct of desalination can prove challenging to dispose of or redistribute.

But before any of these solutions can prove successful, experts say the public’s perception of a dire situation must be refreshed.

As Metro Vancouver reservoir levels creep back up due to accumulating snow, Schreier stresses the biggest problem facing B.C.’s water supply continues to be public education.

“Because you look out right now and we have had so much rain, nobody says, ‘Why worry about water?’ But my worry is the summer,” he said.

“So, public education would be the first step to make people aware that this situation isn’t as easy as people think it is.”

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