The real price of runoff

By Shannon Frank, OWC Executive Director and Doug Kaupp, OWC Chair and General Manager of Water and Wastewater at the City of Lethbridge. Thank you to Rob Taylor for research assistance!

Humans are ingenious. We can filter almost anything. Even human waste can become safe, clean water when we’re forced to be innovative, like at the International Space Station where urine and grey water becomes a critical source for drinking water. The problem is what price tag are we willing - and able - to pay?

Lethbridge’s tap water recently won an award for best tasting water at the Western Canada Water Annual Conference last fall and that is something to be proud of! But this award doesn’t mean our watersheds are healthy. In fact watershed health continues to decline. What it does mean is our water treatment plant is doing its job.

In Lethbridge you pay $1.22 for 1000 Litres of tap water on your monthly bill - and that amount covers the full cost of water treatment and its delivery to our homes.

This video explains the magic behind how the City turns the wastewater from our homes and businesses into clean water for the river: 


At times, you might notice your tap water tastes or smells differently - often in the Spring. Usually that means runoff from the land is challenging the water treatment plant and the extra contaminants means more chemicals (and dollars) are needed to clean it up and keep it safe.

During times of runoff muddy water clogs filters at our treatment plants. Rapidly changing conditions require frequent adjustments to the chemical processes to ensure that the drinking water remains free of disease causing organisms - like viruses, bacteria and protozoa. In extreme situations, water treatment plants may have to be shut down temporarily, risking the need for a boil water advisory if storage levels get too low. This was the challenge in Lethbridge this past week and the community was asked to reduce water use. You can read all about it here on the City's website. You will remember a similar event happening in March 2014 and our blog Will we have to boil water again? from that time is just as relevant today. 

Alberta’s regulatory system for water treatment plants is strong and highly regulated - with continuous testing and strict guidelines for safety. In fact, DID YOU KNOW tap water is safer to drink than bottled water, which has fewer regulations and testing requirements?

Healthy watersheds naturally filter out many contaminants through lush plant life along stream banks and in wetlands for free. When we destroy stream banks and wetlands, we lose the free services provided by this ‘green infrastructure’.  Regardless of the activity that causes the damage, or how small the affected area may be, the impact of damage accumulates across the watershed - resulting in us having to pay for ‘grey infrastructure’ to provide these services instead. This is especially true at the water treatment plants in our cities and towns.

In fact, with regard to the current debate about motorized recreational use in the new Castle Parks, people have been asking: If spring runoff is normally this bad, how can off highway vehicles even be having an impact in comparison? The answer is simple. Spring runoff is worse than it would be naturally because of ALL the things we do on the landscape. Every action has a consequence. We all must do better. Just because there is naturally more sediment runoff in Spring does not give us a free pass to add to the stress of our rivers and creeks. And stress to our wallets.  

There is only so much the river - and the watershed can bear. It's about making choices in order to support a bustling economy, a growing population, and a sensitive environment. 

There are always tradeoffs and we often make these tradeoffs without even considering all options. OWC’s role is to help people make informed decisions - and that’s why we focus most of our resources on communicating facts and helping educate people about where their water comes from, where it goes, and what happens in between. That way, we can all make more conscious choices about our shared watershed.

There are no free rides! Either we pay to keep source waters healthy - or we pay for ever-increasing downstream water treatment costs.

There are no free rides! Either we pay to keep source waters healthy - or we pay for ever-increasing downstream water treatment costs.

There are successful examples of cities that have chosen to protect their headwaters instead of building new or upgrading water treatment plants.  New York City is the classic example. They have invested millions of dollars to protect their source watersheds in order to avoid having to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on filtration.

The City of Portland, Oregon, is so serious about protecting the source of their water that they restrict public access to the Bull Run watershed. To visit the Bull Run watershed, you have to sign up for a guided tour by Portland Water Bureau. This 102 square miles of state and city owned land supplies the water for nearly a million people, and is only about one percent of the size of the Oldman watershed.  

So how much can we degrade watersheds before the cost of downstream treatment is too high? At what point does it make financial sense to protect watersheds instead of building new or upgrading water treatment plants? Humans have already altered watersheds significantly – is it worth it to restore them or keep paying for increased costs of water treatment?

It's a simple equation: Healthy headwaters = less money + chemicals to treat our drinking water                                                                                                                                                         Photo Credit: Connie Simmons

It's a simple equation: Healthy headwaters = less money + chemicals to treat our drinking water
                                                                                                                                                        Photo Credit: Connie Simmons

Tackling these questions is the next focus of the Southern Rockies Watershed Project. Natural scientists, economists and governments are working together across Canada to investigate these complex issues and help Canada manage a busier and busier landscape with more and more demands on it.

Clean, clear water is only one demand we put on our land - and right now it cannot keep up with our demands. DID YOU KNOW you cannot safely drink the water from any creeks or lakes in Alberta?

Everyone can help keep the costs for drinking water treatment down by maintaining and improving the health of our watersheds. Volunteer. Donate. Make a change.

We are all downstream.