Montreal·CBC Investigates

As water sources dry up, towns in southern Quebec sound the alarm

As farmers haul water to their livestock and homeowners are ordered to restrict water use, rural municipalities try to plan for a future where the resource is even more scarce. Is the province doing enough to help?

Farmers worry about livestock; municipalities restrict water use and seek help from province

Woman in ball cap stands in a grassy field.
Dairy farmer Rachel Mahannah said people can no longer stay complacent about water shortages and must plan for longer, more severe droughts. (Louis-Marie Philidor/CBC)

During an unrelenting stretch of dry, hot weather last August, Rachel Mahannah and her husband spent two hours a day hauling water from their other farm a kilometre and a half away, to make sure their dairy cows didn't get dehydrated.

The well on the dairy farm, 70 metres deep, had almost run dry.

"That was the first kind of red flag that came up for us," said Mahannah, who co-owns Mahvhays dairy farm in Brigham, Que., about 75 kilometres southeast of Montreal. 

The farm is a modest operation with 65 head of cattle, including 35 dairy cows. Mahannah estimates they need about 4,000 litres of water per day — more than the well could provide.  Mahannah said the farm was in survival mode for about two weeks.

Their home relies on the same well, so Mahannah's family had to ration water, which meant taking their three children elsewhere to shower. 

They plan to dig another well soon, but going forward, Mahannah said, farmers like her need a backup plan, as droughts become longer and more frequent.

"I think the water supply is an issue that we've kind of taken for granted," she said.

Close-up of a babbling brook.
For the last few summers, the Sutton River has been nearly dry in July and August. Sutton's mayor says the nearby Pike and Missisquoi rivers have also experienced low levels. (Louis-Marie Philidor/CBC)

'Tip of the iceberg'

Blessed with thousands of lakes, rivers and streams, Quebec is home to three per cent of the world's fresh water. 

But in southern Quebec, particularly, a growing population, high water consumption and increasingly dry summers are putting a strain on the water supply.

Alain Bourque, executive director of Ouranos, a Quebec research consortium on climate change, blames in part the increased evaporation that comes with warmer spring temperature. 

"If you don't get additional precipitation to compensate for this additional evaporation, then all of the water levels in rivers, lakes, etc., in general will be trending downward."

Because Quebec has historically had water in abundance, Bourque said the economy has come to count on it.

"If you go to California, you will notice that agricultural producers use water a bit more efficiently, and that's because they're adapted to their weather."

That adaptation needs to begin here now, and quickly, Bourque said, beginning with improved planning and better co-ordination between municipalities.

Tempting as it is to increase the property tax base, new development in drought-prone areas must be limited, he said.

A big barn looms over rolling farmland.
Brome-Missisquoi, a regional county south of Montreal, is home to rolling hills and farmland, but more than half the municipalities are struggling with water issues. (Louis-Marie Philidor/CBC)

In Brome-Missisquoi, the municipal regional county (MRC) south of Montreal that includes Brigham, more than half the municipalities are struggling with water issues.

Since the pandemic, the MRC's population has grown by nearly 4,200. 

Francis Dorion, Brome-Missisquoi's assistant director general, frequently hears about farmers needing to truck in water, and he said the demand for new wells has skyrocketed.

"I think it is just the tip of the iceberg," said Dorion.

The region's vineyards and orchards, vegetable farms, and ski hills like Bromont and Mont Sutton all rely on ample water. 

"We need to figure it out. If we have this problem now, what is it going to be like in the years to come?"

Drilling down

Robert Girard lives just outside the tourist town of Sutton, a half-hour drive from Brigham.

His home was built in 1860. For decades, Girard says, he and past owners depended on a surface well, but it ran dry last summer.

"We had very little rain, maybe three times during the summer," he said.

There was no other option except to dig a deeper well, but the drilling company had a long list of clients in the same situation. While he waited, Girard pumped water from his pond to water the garden and lugged buckets into the house so toilets could be flushed. 

Typically, well companies can hit the aquifer in the first 75 metres, but in Girard's case, the workers had to drill down to 120 metres — roughly equivalent to a 37-storey building. Even at that depth, there was so little water, the company had to resort to hydraulic fracking to generate any substantial volume.

"It was kind of scary and a lot more expensive," said Girard. 

A man stands in a rural village, a house in the background.
Sutton Mayor Robert Benoît says many residents who live outside the village had their wells run dry last summer. Some had to drill extremely deep and even do hydraulic fracking to find water. (Louis-Marie Philidor/CBC)

Sutton Mayor Robert Benoît said the town is seeing Girard's problem on a much larger scale, with a significant decrease in the spring runoff it depends on to fill its reservoirs.

In the last few summers, creek beds have run dry. The Sutton River, which meanders through the village, was down to a trickle last July and August.

"This is a big warning about the longevity of the water table," said Benoît. 

There are 3,500 permanent residents in Sutton and another 4,500 seasonal residents. Before the election, a plan was in the works to build up to 1,000 new homes on the mountain, and the former administration planned to pump groundwater up the mountain, at a projected cost of between $20 and $25 million. 

Benoît and the new town council shelved that costly project, worried it could deplete an already vulnerable water supply.

"We can't close our eyes and keep developing when the water table is under pressure," he said.

Under Benoît's leadership, Sutton is spending $100,000 on several studies to find out how much water is available and how quickly it is being replenished.

Until more water sources can be found, development on the mountain is on hold. 

Several studies on Sutton’s water supply will be finished by the end of the year. Until then, development on the town’s mountain is frozen. (Louis-Marie Philidor/CBC)

Benoît says the news was well-received by most residents, as well as the operators of Mont Sutton, the local ski hill which drives the town's economy.

"They've understood that we cannot build a hotel of 200 doors. That's impossible," he said.

A committee is looking at possible measures to lower water consumption, including charging people for what they use.

"You know, when the price of gas goes up, people react to it and take less gas," said Benoît.

Sacrifices to be made

Municipalities both big and small across southern Quebec are grappling with similar challenges. 

Even Quebec City, which sits on the Saint Lawrence River, had to bring in water restrictions last year.

Saint-Lazare, off the western tip of Montreal island, imposed a ban on outdoor water use, prohibiting residents from watering lawns, filling pools, washing cars or hosing down driveways.

"We could see some of our wells were in critical condition," said Mayor Geneviève Lachance.

The pandemic worsened the town's strained aquifers, as many people stuck at home invested in new pools and more elaborate landscaping, flower beds and gardens, she said.

Two young people carrying pamphlets walk down a suburban street.
Marc Chardon and Emmy Leduc, members of Saint-Lazare's Blue Patrol, go door to door to hand out information about water usage. Many residents don't know where their water comes from. (Louis-Marie Philidor/CBC)

This year, Saint-Lazare has put in place set times to water lawns, and homeowners with pools must hire a water truck to fill them, at their own expense.

The town has hired students, known as the Blue Patrol, to roam neighbourhoods where residents are watering excessively. Eventually, they'll visit each of the town's 8,000 homes.

"Without water, you can't have new businesses; you can't have new homes; you can't sustain your current residence," said Lachance. 

Saint-Lazare's population is 23,000 and growing. Lachance said the town's own research has found it has enough water to comfortably grow to 27,000, if residents scale back their water usage.

"The problem is overconsumption during the peak times in summer," said Lachance.

A close-up of a woman in a mayor's office, flags draped behind her.
When Geneviève Lachance was elected mayor of Saint-Lazare, Que., last November, she made the water supply a priority for the suburb just west of Montreal island. (Louis-Marie Philidor/CBC)

Quebec's water conservation strategy, released in 2019, includes targets for a reduction in household water consumption, which fall between 184 and 220 litres per person a day, depending on the municipality. 

Of the 607 municipalities that reported their drinking water savings in 2019, fewer than half reached their objective, said Sébastien Gariépy, a spokesperson for Quebec's Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.

In 2019 and 2020, Saint-Lazare missed its consumption target slightly.

The 2021 numbers will be released this fall. 

If the town has again missed the target, Quebec will make Saint-Lazare install water meters in all commercial, industrial and municipal buildings, as well as a pilot project with 60 homes by 2025.

Lachance says they may end up installing meters throughout Saint-Lazare if that happens. 

"With climate change, we will make a lot of different sacrifices," she said. "We have to change the way we think and the way we live because it's not sustainable."

'We don't want to improvise' 

Thinking about these issues as they apply to agricultural lands, Brigham farmer Rachel Mahannah said municipalities need to consider their aquifer before handing out building permits for new homes or allowing a farm's expansion.

"My reflex would be, let's check the water supply first," said Mahannah."You don't want to throw yourself into an investment where you know you won't have a sufficient amount of water to feed the animals that you need to feed."

A woman stands in a barn, her arm draped over a dairy cow.
The drought last summer put a big strain on the well that serves Rachel Mahannah's dairy farm in Brigham, Que. To make sure their cows didn't run out of water, they had to haul some in from another farm. (Louis-Marie Philidor/CBC)

Last month, Brome-Missisquoi officials met Quebec Environment Ministry experts to discuss the MRC's water woes.

"They don't have any miracle solutions," said Dorion.

The big stumbling block is a lack of data. Better modelling needs to be done, but that costs money.

Still, if municipalities are to know what to do next, they need accurate information.

"We don't want to improvise," Dorion said.

In an emailed response, Gariépy said the Municipal Affairs Ministry has been working since last year to help municipalities come up with plans to improve their water infrastructure. 

He said the effects of real estate development on water access will be part of those discussions.

As more towns grapple with water shortages, Dorion says he hopes the province steps in to help financially. Relying as they do on property taxes for the lion's share of their budgets, Lachance says most municipalities can't afford to commission studies tailored to their needs or invest in pricey infrastructure changes.

"We are going to hit a wall for sure if the government doesn't wake up and help us with that," said Lachance.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Leah Hendry is a TV, radio and online journalist with CBC Montreal Investigates. Send tips to montrealinvestigates@cbc.ca.

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