British Columbia

California drought crisis could come to B.C., says UBC professor

A water management expert says B.C. needs to act now to prevent a crisis like the current drought in California.

B.C. is unprepared to deal with a drought similar to California's, says Hans Schreier

A UBC professor says B.C. is unprepared to mitigate a drought like the current one in California. (Rich Pedroncelli/ Associated Press)

A water management expert says B.C. needs to act now to prevent a crisis like the current drought in California.

"The best strategy for you and for the public would be, let's be precautionary and why don't we start conservation measures right now instead of waiting until we have a crisis," said Hans Schreier, a watershed management professor at UBC.

California is now four years into the worst drought the state has ever seen, and water use is under increasingly strict regulation.

Here in B.C., scientists are watching closely.

Unlimited supply of water not a guarantee

"There's the impression in B.C. that we have plenty of water, we don't have to worry about it," said Schreier.

Shreier says British Columbians are some of the biggest water users in the world. According to Environment Canada, Canadians use about 350 litres of water per person per day, whereas Italians use 250 litres, and the French use 150 litres.

Part of the problem, according to Shreier, is that a lot of water is used for non-essential activities like keeping our lawns green. A 2010 study from Natalie Maurer, one of Schreier's masters students, showed that 47 per cent of the Okanagan's potable water was used to water lawns.

Another issue is that many municipalities don't measure residential water use, charging a flat fee instead of charging a rate based on actual use. Shreier says charging a flat fee encourages people to use more water and makes it difficult to analyze usage patterns.

Yet another issue Shreier highlights is that, like California, B.C. has few regulations for groundwater. In fact, the provincial government recently came under fire for charging water-bottling companies only $2.25 per million litres.

Potential consequences of drought includes loss of power source

If B.C. were to experience a drought, one of the biggest issues Schreier foresees is power. He says California's drop in water supply cost the state $1.4 billion in reduced hydro power, which they had to replace with greenhouse-gas emitting LNG.

About 18 to 19 per cent of California's power comes from hydro; in B.C., it's more like 90 per cent, according to Schreier.

It's difficult for scientists like Schreier to foresee whether or not B.C. will have a water crisis similar to California's. He says it's easier to predict rising temperatures than precipitation.

"If you look at our reservoirs, we have reasonable capacity, if we have snow cover and if we get lots of rain," he says. "But that's very hard to predict."

Scientists are already predicting B.C.'s low snow pack could affect the salmon run this summer. And many local ski hills have been closed most of the winter because of lack of snow.

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: UBC professor warns B.C. should prepare for drought


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