Plenty of water to go around

He’s calling for a revolution in how Canadians think about water and how they use it — whether it’s for washing their cars, rinsing their hair or flushing their toilets.

MONTREAL — He’s calling for a revolution in how Canadians think about water and how they use it — whether it’s for washing their cars, rinsing their hair or flushing their toilets.

A prominent water expert says Canadians shouldn’t fear warnings that the resource could someday be in short supply, because the country is flooded with it and likely won’t run out.

What he wants Canadians to keep in mind is the energy cost associated with using water.

John Carey, a former senior executive at Environment Canada, says Canadians should be reminded of the vast amounts of power used to treat, heat and pump water to their taps.

One possible way to do that, he suggests, is by introducing water meters in homes or businesses.

“Energy is important, it’s going to be important in the future . . . we’re not really wasting water, we’re wasting energy,” Carey said Wednesday after addressing an international water conference in Montreal.

“When we withdraw water to flush a toilet what does it really matter if it’s seven litres or 15 litres if it all goes back? All we’ve done is borrowed it.”

In his speech, Carey called on Canadian experts to persuade the country’s water-rich citizens to cut back on their usage for the sake of energy conservation — and for their wallets.

This approach, he insisted, would have a better chance of hitting home with Canadians than existing water-conservation campaigns.

He said it’s difficult to persuade Canadians to conserve water when most of the population lives near the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River, home to 20 per cent of the planet’s freshwater.

“They’re trying to make us feel guilty for how much water we use and trying to get us to do something about it,” said Carey, the recently retired head of Environment Canada’s water science and technology directorate.

“None of these campaigns, I would argue, have truly captured Canadians’ attention.”

But he thinks economics could.

Carey estimates that one per cent of all electricity generated in Canada is used for wastewater treatment, while as much as 10 per cent is spent to produce drinking water.

He suggested that municipal governments also get involved by installing water meters that charge meaningful rates — instruments that have been known to cut water consumption in half.

When Carey’s own southern Ontario community installed water meters, he says he was compelled to install low-flush toilets and high-efficiency shower heads.

He has since seen drops in his household’s water usage and its power bills.

“I know what a motivator it was for me,” he said.

The head of the Canadian organization representing municipal water and wastewater systems says that promoting energy efficiency has always been an element of conservation campaigns.

But Jennifer Jackson, who did not attend Carey’s speech, called his take an interesting philosophy.

Encouraging people to turn off the faucets can be challenging, she said.

“I think however we can get the message out will be a good way to do it,” said Jackson, executive director of the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association.

“If voluntary programs and bylaw restrictions don’t necessarily do the job then maybe you need to come at it from a different angle.”

The association estimates that the energy and chemicals used to pump and treat water represent less than seven per cent of the overall costs.

The rest is fixed, tied up in infrastructure such as underground pipes and worker salaries.

The association supports the installation of water meters across Canada to identify heavy users and promote conservation.

About 68 per cent of Canadian municipalities are metered.

Jackson believes it will take time to bring meters into the remaining communities because of considerable setup costs and user resistance.

But meters have proven that they can save money for communities, she added.

“You can’t just meter everyone overnight,” she said. “It will be a cultural shift.”

Carey’s remarks come just weeks after an alarming Statistics Canada study found that more than one million Olympic-sized swimming pools could be filled each year with all the renewable water that dries up in southern Canada.

These figures represent an average annual loss of 3.5 cubic kilometres over the last three decades — or an overall dip of 8.5 per cent of the water yield between 1971 and 2004.

Carey, Canadian co-chair of the Great Lakes science advisory board, believes that decline is due to natural cycles that are often decades long.

“At this point, all I can say is that the levels are still within the natural variations that we’ve seen in the past,” he told a news conference after his speech.

“I don’t know if they’ll turn around or they’ll keep going (down). It’s just too early to say.”