British Columbia

There's rarely a water shortage. So why have water restrictions?

Metro Vancouver's water reservoirs are always full at the start of summer, but with water supply expected to decrease in the coming decades, officials want people to practice better water usage now.

Managing rising demand and decreasing supply key to preparing for uncertain future

The Cleveland Dam, built in 1934, holds back the man-made Capilano Lake. (CBC)

Right now, there are more than 243 billion litres of water in Vancouver's watersheds.

The last census (2016) puts Greater Vancouver's population at roughly 2,463,000 people, which means there are roughly 100,000 litres of water available to use per person.

So how come every year people in the region have to deal with nearly six months of water restrictions?

Two key issues highlighted in Metro Vancouver's climate projections address this question, noting Metro Vancouver's water supply isn't endless. In fact, the snowpack is predicted to shrink by 56 per cent by 2050 and the region is expected to get 13 per cent less rainfall in the summer by the end of the century.

Inder Singh, Metro Vancouver's director of planning for water services, said he understands people in Metro Vancouver will question the restrictions given they live in a rainforest. But he said you shouldn't take the name at face value.

"Unfortunately from a drinking water perspective, that rain comes in the fall through the winter months and then early in the spring, but it significantly drops off with respect to the spring late spring and summer season," said Singh.

"So that's when we have to be mindful of how much water we use."

Inder Singh, Metro Vancouver's director of policy planning with water services, said he believes the region's reservoirs can keep up with demand. (CBC)

Increasing our water capacity

Singh said water efficiency is crucial because Metro Vancouver is expecting another one million people to arrive in the region by 2050. And there are predictions of a water "supply gap" by 2030.

"We need to make sure the water we have will sustain both our uses domestically around our houses… and also that we have enough capacity for firefighting," said Singh.

"If we can control that demand it makes the system much more efficient overall."

With the population expected to increase by 35,000 annually, that means less supply and more demand.

In Metro Vancouver, there is an infrastructure upgrade underway to help increase its reservoir capacity that will allow it to tap into a greater volume of water at the Coquitlam Reservoir.

That reservoir supplies a third of the region's drinking water, but during peak summer demand, that proportion can increase to approximately half of the region's supply.

A second intake project is underway at the Coquitlam Reservoir to improve its capacity. (CBC)

Upgrading the reservoir is a short-term solution however. Singh predicts that into the mid-century and beyond 2070, additional supplies of source water will be needed.

According to Metro Vancouver's website, as of July 7, Metro Vancouver's reservoirs were at 84 per cent capacity, slightly lower than the previous two years, but well above 2015.

Singh is confident the region will have enough water to last the rest of the year despite slightly warmer weather earlier this year.

Watching your water use

Even with watering restrictions, the City of Vancouver says water use in the region doubles in the summer due to lawn and garden watering.

One hour of lawn watering can use as much water as 25 toilet flushes, five loads of laundry and five dishwasher loads combined.

We asked people in Vancouver to tell us what they think are the biggest users of water in our homes. 1:00

In the summer of 2015, Metro Vancouver had a particularly dry summer and the three reservoirs experienced very low water levels due to a lack of precipitation.

When reservoir levels reached a water level that was below its normal range in July, Stage 3 water restrictions were imposed. Watering lawns, washing cars outdoors, and refilling pools were banned.


  • A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that there were roughly one million litres of water available to use per person in Metro Vancouver. In fact, the figure is around 100,000 litres per person.
    Jul 11, 2019 1:41 PM PT

with files from Mike Killeen


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