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Every drop counts

Water, water every where,Nor any drop to drink.

Water, water every where,

Nor any drop to drink.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote the famous lines in the The Rime of the Ancient Mariner about a sailor at sea who was surrounded by salt water.

It’s a situation that no one wants to be in where there’s plenty of water but none fit for consumption.

The issue of water quality and supply is increasingly important in Alberta, due to the threat of climate change combined with the province’s growing population and an often-booming economy that laps up water.

“While potential impacts are uncertain, there is agreement that climate change will cause the water cycle to become more dynamic, leading to an increase of extreme events like floods, droughts and blizzards,” says Facts About Water in Alberta, an Alberta Sustainable Resource Development report.

In Alberta, that could mean changes in location, duration and intensity of precipitation, overall decreases in river flows, changes in the timing of peak flows and the increased potential of scarcity of water.

Governments at all levels have begun to address climate change through long-term strategy.

At the municipal level, it has become an increasing point of emphasis.

Improving water quality and reducing water consumption are two focus areas within the Red Deer’s Environmental Master Plan.

A water quality study on the Red Deer River is underway. Water monitoring began in 2012.

Tom Marstaller, City of Red Deer Environmental Planning superintendent, said the city wants to quantify the impact that the stormwater, water and wastewater treatment plants have on the river.

“We know we are having some sort of impact on the river,” said Marstaller. “We don’t know what it is but we felt we should start understanding what it is before it becomes a regulated thing and try to be more proactive.”

The monitoring is being conducted in stages at key points along the Red Deer River and creek tributaries. It will help determine the city’s impact on waterways, analyze the river’s capacity to handle pollutants and eventually help to develop methods to mitigate impacts.

A report on the initial testing results is expected to come to city council in the coming weeks. Baseline data and targets will be established in 2015.

Marstaller said obviously the city has a vested interest in keeping the Red Deer River healthy, especially for those downstream.

The city supplies water to more than 110,000 residents in Central Alberta, including Red Deer, Red Deer County (South Hills) and the North Red Deer Water Service Commission, which includes Blackfalds, Lacombe, Ponoka, Ponoka County and Lacombe County.

The maximum demand on the system is roughly 90 million litres per day and that is expected to grow to 120 million litres per day by 2020. But the city believes with aggressive conservation measures, it can keep demand to 110 million litres per day in 2020, based on its current customer base.

Both the water treatment and wastewater treatment plants are being upgraded to meet capacity needs and licence requirements. Some of the improvements will increase operational efficiencies, functionality, reliability and safety.

In 2013, the city conducted water audits on some of the city facilities. Some recommendations included replacing high-flow toilets with low-flow toilets, upgrading waterless urinals and installation of low-flow aerator or restrictor for pressure and flow reduction at faucets.

A residential water usage baseline of 242 litres per capita per day was established in 2009 for Red Deer residents. For industrial, commercial and institutional (ICI), the baseline is 135 litres per capita per day.

The city’s 2015 target is to decrease consumption by eight per cent, or down to 223 litres for residential and 124 litres for ICI.

Bailey Doepker, city Environmental Program specialist, said the 2014 measurements have not been completed. Residential usage was 204 litres per capita per day and ICI usage was 104 litres per capita per day in 2013.

The city holds both special events and delivers ongoing programs to encourage residents to turn the taps off.

The city will help mark World Water Day on March 22 and a booth will be set up with water-related information at the Eco-Living Fair at Red Deer College on March 21.

Toilet rebate programs — where residents are encouraged to switch out their high-flow toilet with a dual flush toilet — are also offered through the city.

And the Yellow Fish Road program educates residents on storm drains. Doepker said what goes in storm drains goes directly into the Red Deer River. She said there tends to be confusion because people think it is treated by the water treatment plant.

The city also encourages residents to choose appliances such as water-efficient washing machines. They can save 40 to 60 per cent of water compared to conventional washing machines. Older dishwashers typically use between 12 and 45 litres of water per load. The newer water-efficient ones use about 13 litres per load.

While the city is looking at its water supply, the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance is working on an integrated watershed management master plan that addresses surface and groundwater quality issues in the Red Deer River Watershed.

The watershed forms the largest sub-basin of the South Saskatchewan River basin. The Red Deer River originates in the Canadian Rocky Mountains in Banff National Park and joins with the South Saskatchewan River just past the Saskatchewan border.

At the same time, the alliance is working on Project Blue Thumb, a plan that addresses working together to maintain or improve surface and ground water quality in the Red Deer River watershed.

Josée Méthot, an alliance planning co-ordinator, said the plan is a decision-support tool for people across the watershed to use as they work together on issues. The plan has been in the works for five years.

A draft of the first phase is expected to be released some time in 2015.

Covering the entire watershed, the recommendations will touch on areas related to monitoring, management and research. She said the plan is an opportunity to look at the whole picture. In the past, there have been attempts to address various parts of the system but not holistically.

Méthot said there are some challenges related to water quality and water quantity in the watershed.

“We have seen degradation of riparian areas and lands,” she said. “People are genuinely concerned about that so we need to come up with ways to address those.

“And Alberta is booming in many ways. We are seeing population and economic growth, which can be fantastic, but the flip side to that is we need to find a way to manage our resources in a way that can sustain the types of economies and societies that we desire.”

Méthot said there’s a tendency when talking about environmental issues or sustainability to use a doomsday rhetoric.

“In the last few decades, we have done a fairly good job of managing our watershed resources, although we do face some important challenges,” said Méthot.

“It’s really about increasing our collective capacity and learning about what we have done right and what we have done wrong to move forward.”