Most people don’t think about water conservation when they live in a wet climate like the West Coast of British Columbia. However, dry summers like 2021 are becoming more prevalent. A recent article in The Narwal, explains how the extreme drought conditions on the Sunshine Coast this summer resulted in the area almost running out of water. In order to mitigate water loss we can learn from California. After years of ongoing drought, Californians have developed some creative solutions for coping with the results of global warming such as drought conditions. The Pacific Institute reported in August, 2020 that “Los Angeles and San Francisco use the same amount (or less) water today as they did 30 years ago despite increasing growth”.

Government Driven Solutions

Reducing water use requires a shift at the institutional level as well as the individual level. As one might guess, the best way to accelerate this change is through regulation. Asking citizens to volunteer does not obtain the same results. Governments also need to plan for future droughts by updating policies and preparing  infrastructure ahead of disaster. A key component of this strategy is understanding how much water is used in homes and businesses on a daily basis. One of the many benefits of California’s water conservation policy, according to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an international environmental advocacy group, was that “the state saved more money with water restriction than all energy efficiency solutions combined.”

Below are some solutions used by the state of California and other jurisdictions.

  1. Set standards and update building codes. According to the NRDC “new homes built to code can use as little as 35 gallons of water per person per day. Toilet use makes up 25% to 35% of indoor water use.”4 By regulating sales of efficient water use appliances and features only, such as low flush toilets and low flow shower heads, consumers can contribute to water saving changes. Set standards for landscaping to avoid the use of hard scape such as concrete and pavement. Greenscape sequesters carbon and absorbs run off. Another downside to having concrete and paving is that they absorb heat making the surrounding area hotter. According to research from the Pacific Institute, “appliance and fixture upgrades, leak repair and landscaping changes could reduce urban water use by 5 million acre feet annually. That is enough water to supply 13 million families per year. Add to this changes in agricultural use such as precision irrigation and other water use solutions, farms could decrease water waste by 6 million acres annually.”
  2. Stormwater capture is vital. As water runs off pavement it picks up contaminants. This water then becomes a source of pollution. If it is captured and treated it can be reused and not wasted. When floods occur the storm waste can overcome wastewater management plants and lead to flooding. One solution is to separate stormwater and sewer water.  According to Stormwater Planning – A Guidebook for British Columbia, “stormwater runoff from industrial landscapes can be as high as 70% compared to a natural rainforest at only 10%”.
  3. Create a fee structure that incents people to save water.
  4. Provide education and subsidies to replace lawns and create rain gardens as seen in the City of North Vancouver and Peterborough, Ontario.
  5. Reuse water. “The city of San Francisco has regulations for onsite reuse of water in commercial buildings.”Precious drinking water does not need to be used for flushing toilets, watering greenscape or cleaning. As cities densify, wastewater treatment centers need to constantly expand and upgrade. If grey water is separated, water treatment facilities do not need to increase capacity at such a fast rate. Again from the NRDC: “In California, non-potable water is delivered in purple pipes. It is used for irrigation of parks and golf courses”.
  6. Ground water replenishing. Orange County’s ground water replenishing is the largest in the world. Controlled by the Sustainable Groundwater Act, the management of groundwater can basically deal with contamination.

Individual Solutions

As individuals we cannot wait for governments to make all the necessary changes. Small behavioural changes can help conserve water if everyone does their part. According to McGill University’s research, “Canadians use on average 329L of water each day. Of that 35% is used for bathing, 30% is used for toilets, 25% is used for cleaning and laundry and 10% for drinking and meal preparation”9. Green Building has a guide to water efficiency for building and renovations. Here are some changes we can all make to improve water efficiency:

  1. In the home, install/replace low flow shower heads and toilets. Repair leaks in pipes. Purchase high-efficiency dishwashers and washing machines. Remember to fill them to capacity. Consider installing a greywater system. According to the Green Building Guide to Efficient Water Use, “this can reduce your water consumption by about 50%.” Shower instead of bathing and when you do shower shorten the time. The Greenage, a UK energy advice portal, states that “the average shower is 8 minutes, this can use up to approximately 62 liters of water. Running a tap can waste over 6 litres of water per minute”. Turn off water when brushing teeth or washing dishes.
  2. In the garden, use water efficient hose nozzles and low-volume pressure washers. “Hand-held watering is the most water-efficient method for plants” according to the Environmental Protection Agency ( EPA). Remember to water in the early morning or early evening to avoid evaporation. Drip irrigation and smart irrigation control are good choices. Sprinklers are the least efficient and waste water due to evaporation.  Build a rain garden. Guides are available such as this one from the City of Toronto. Design gardens with less turf grass and more native and drought tolerant plants. If grass is required for a play area ensure that it is a drought resistant variety. Last, install rain barrels for water collection during wetter months. Of course, this water would not be potable as water that drains from the roof is contaminated.

Groundwater depletion and dryer summers are creating pressure on our water systems. Water conservation takes planning, innovation and collaboration between government, business and local citizens. If all levels work together and learn from other communities, drought can be mitigated but it takes awareness, education and political will to make that shift.