British Columbia·In Depth

Why we should use less water in a (normally) rainy region like Metro Vancouver

Metro Vancouver says per capita water use is decreasing but at least one academic says the region could do much better considering Europeans use around 150 litres, per person per day.

Residents use — on average — 270 litres a day, while Europeans use between 140 and 160 litres

Water flows at the Capilano Reservoir. Officials and academics say the 270 litres on average each person uses needs to drop. (Doug Kerr/CBC)

The image Metro Vancouver officials want people to think about for the billion litres of water residents use each day in the region is BC Place filled to the brim — but that amount actually only reflects water use during the coolest times of year.

In summer demand can go well beyond the 270 litres a day each of the 2.5 million residents in the region uses to take a shower, wash dishes, water gardens and do what is increasingly becoming a no-no in the region: sprinkle lawns.

That number, provided by Metro Vancouver, may come as a surprise for many residents. But some say only water meters can provide an accurate figure.

"The big challenge is right now is how do you persuade somebody like the City of Vancouver to install meters," said Hans Schreier, a UBC professor in water resources management. "Their first reaction is, it's too expensive."

Europeans use 100 litres less water/day

Hans Schreier is a professor emeritus at UBC in water resources management who is against watering lawns in the summertime: "The best idea would be to simply say 'look, nobody's allowed to water for two months out of the year, the lawn will turn golden and within the first or second rainfall after the summer, everything is green again.'" (Submitted by Hans Schreier)

Schreier says he believes the actual per capita use per day in litres is between 290 and 320. He adds that, on average, Europeans use between 140 and 160 litres each day while paying up to seven times more for treated water.

"Well you know we are still in this [frame of mind] that we have plenty of water, why worry about it?" he said.

"We tend to think of ourselves as a rainy climate, a rainy city," said Lucy Duso, who works with Metro Vancouver's water services. "I think last year was very eye-opening for all of us, [the] summer of 2015 was much drier and we've certainly noticed that people are more interested, more eager in seeking out information [about conservation]."

Metro Vancouver estimates that per capita water use in the region is up to 455 litres a day when it includes residential, industrial and institutional use. Residents make up 60 per cent of that.

Inder Singh is a director with Metro Vancouver in charge of planning for water use. He hopes residents in the region can continue to curb water use each year. (CBC)

But officials like Inder Singh, the director for policy planning and analysis for Metro Vancouver's water services, says use is actually decreasing.

"Yes, per capita use within Metro region has been going down almost two per cent a year over the past five years with various initiatives that have been in place," he said.

He's talking about all of the advocacy Metro Vancouver has undertaken with social media, education programs for students and even tours of the regions' watersheds.

"It's probably almost fair to use the word epiphany," said Duso. "When you go up to our watersheds on a tour ... it's very eye opening and an amazing resource we have here."

Metro Vancouver hopes the trend of a one-to-two per cent reduction in water use each year will continue for the next three to five years as B.C.'s new Water Sustainability Act has set a threshold for domestic per capita use at 250 litres per person per day.

The idea is to reduce use and slow down the need to find new water sources, and the need for expensive infrastructure to capture and treat it. For example, new infrastructure planned for Metro Vancouver's Coquitlam source has a price tag of $700 million.

Yellow is the new green

Schreier argues though that lawn-watering should be forbidden in the summer to achieve conservation goals, along with a wider use of low flush toilets and water meters.

"We seem to be reluctant to accept a new digital technology when it comes to metering of water, we did this with energy," he said.

Currently only four per cent of single family homes are metered in Vancouver, as only new developments and major renovations done since 2012 require water meters to be installed, meaning unmetered single family homes pay a flat rate for water.

Without the meters, some argue that consumers are oblivious to how much water they are actually using.

Abbotsford has had residential water meters since the 1970s.

"We've cut our consumption since 2007 by 30 per cent, because people ... can see what their consumption is," said Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun.

Braun says the water meters have helped the city discover thousands of leaky toilets by pointing out water flowing in the middle of the night when it's clear no one is intentionally using it.

"And so I'm a big proponent of radio read meters," said Braun. "I know that they cost money but over the long haul I think they pay for themselves and it extends the life of your supply system."

In 2007 consumption per capita was 266 litres per day in Abbotsford, and at the end of 2015 it was 185 litres per day.

Lawn-watering is one of the biggest uses of treated water in Metro Vancouver. Officials hope to change attitudes towards having a lush, green lawn in the summer. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

In the meantime, Metro Vancouver just hopes people will use less water by following the rules. At the moment, Stage 1 water restrictions are in place.

"It's not overly onerous," said Singh. "There are ample opportunities, three days a week for the average person to water their yards and there's not restrictions on Stage 1 on gardens and flower beds and all the rest of it.

"The lawn is the only place that's targeted ... a lush green lawn is not really sustainable if you want to encourage water conservation at the same time."


  • An earlier version of this story said the cost for planned new infrastructure at Metro Vancouver's Coquitlam source was $7 million. In fact, the cost is $700 million.
    Jun 08, 2016 3:02 PM PT