During a trip to Cape Town, South Africa in January, Susanne Klausen found herself fiddling with the washroom sink at the international airport before asking herself “what’s wrong with this stupid thing?” The woman next to her simply gestured towards a recently installed hand sanitizing dispenser. The taps at the airport had been shut off to save water during the city’s water crisis.
Klausen’s first trip to Cape Town was in 1997 and she travels there regularly to conduct research.
As a history professor at Carleton University, Klausen’s current research focuses on interracial couples during South Africa’s Apartheid era.
Since her most recent trip, Klausen says she has become more aware of the amount of water Canadians use, herself included, due to its seemingly endless supply.
“I’m more concerned about not being in the shower too long because it will dry my skin out in the winter, than I am about where the water goes,” she said.
She says she has become more conscientious about conserving.
“What I’m really ashamed of is that when I’m doing dishes I’ll often have the water running, so I’m washing and rinsing at the same time which is water going right down the sink,” she said. Since returning from Cape Town, Klausen says she has changed how she washes dishes to reduce the amount of wasted water.
Residents in Cape Town are currently limited to 50 liters of water per person, per day. This is about one quarter the amount typically used by Ottawa residents.
And while Ottawa is not likely to suffer from water shortages in the foreseeable future the way Cape Town is now, there are plenty of reasons to conserve the precious resource.
Factoring in the indoor and outdoor use of water for drinking, cooking, laundry, sanitary purposes, and seasonal outdoor water use, Ottawa residents use, on average, 180 to 200 litres of water per day, according to Paul Montgomery, the plant manager at the Lemieux Island water purification plant.
“We have a luxury to provide great access to safe drinking water, and have done so without disruption for many years,” said Montgomery.
The two water purification plants (Britannia being the other one) draw from the Ottawa River as a water source. They reach 90 per cent of the households in Ottawa. In more rural areas of the city, water is received through five groundwater wells. This includes the communities of Greely, Vars, Gloucester, Richmond, and Carp.
Is Ottawa at risk?
According to the most recent city budget, the second largest capital program is ‘drinking water & wastewater services,’ at $156 million (the largest is transit services, at $187.5 million).
“This plant has been restricted in the past, though not shut down in production, so we had to rent temporary pumps and find some deeper water in the river, and pump over land and into the plant to keep it running,” said Montgomery.
Common disruptions to the plant include frazzled ice production creating blockage to the plant during the colder months, as well as water main breaks.
“We had quite a large water main break,” Montgomery said. “It was 48-inch diameter water main heading out to Woodridge, and it was a structural failure of pipe.” To resolve the situation, the water main had to be isolated, and the major feeder had to be turned off. At the same time, water service to the area continued to be provided to residents.
The Ottawa River has a large watershed, much of which originates in northern Quebec.
“There’s not a significant amount of development up there. It is – I don’t want to say protected – but it is a good source of drinking water,” Montgomery said.
There are also plans in place to protect the watershed, developed from the routine monitoring of the source water, according to Tessa Di Iorio, who has worked with the city for 12 years in risk management.
She says there are existing threats to Ottawa’s source water, but they have been identified, including in areas of land that contribute the watershed. Policies would prohibit a significant threat activity. For example, waste landfills, that could potentially leak, aren’t allowed in an area that would contribute water.
“All of those threats are currently being managed,” Di Iorio said. “Or we’re in the middle phases of making sure all of those threats are managed with risk management plans or with existing provincial instruments.”
A recent investigation by CBC found that Vancouver could face water shortages in the coming decades in part because of climate change.
There are also water quantity restrictions in other jurisdictions across Ontario, but Ottawa is not expected to face a quantity challenge. Due to the abundance of source water, water quantity is not considered a threat in providing residents with safe drinking water.
Long-term climate change could potentially affect the amount of water available, says Di Iorio. “Right now, in the projected timelines that we’ve looked at, we haven’t identified any water quantity threats,” she said.
Regular assessments to the current policies in place are performed to account for data gaps, new developing threats, or if there should be a change to existing policies, according to Di Iorio.
The City of Ottawa produced a water conservation guide called “Living in the Zone: How to be a great water resident.” It highlights small things residents – like Klausen – can do to help preserve the water in Ottawa, such as watching what goes down the drain, using environmentally friendly household products and using compost in place of pesticides for fertilizer.
After spending time in a place like Cape Town, which now has to be so conscious about water consumption, Klausen has improved her water resourcefulness.
“That kind of respect for water which is imposed on [Cape Town], has definitely permeated my psyche,” she says.
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