Good to the last drop.

I had the privilege of attending a “Water Conversation” last night here in Cochrane. It brought together a range of interested folks (from normal citizens to town employees and businessman) to chat about 4 key areas related to water, and was facilitated by folks from WaterSmart. There was also representation from Alberta Energy and the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB)…not surprising given that one of the areas under discussion was hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

I’m not going to be able to encapsulate the whole discussion, but a few interesting things popped out for me.

Water usage: Did you know the average Canadian uses 329 liters of water a day? (The average Albertan uses 350L). Compare this to places like France (150L/day) and Sweden (200L). Same, or better, standard of living…half the water consumption.

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Water cost: How much do those 350L cost you? The answer…not nearly enough.

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So what does this look like for Cochrane? Well, if you’ve been reading the Cochrane Sustainability Plan Progress Reports (which I know you have), you would have noticed that the 2011 average for Cochrane was 203L/person/day! This is thanks in large part to an innovative pricing scheme, where residents and businesses pay a tiered rate for water consumption, along with good educational programs.

For the first 25 cubic meters (25000L!), you pay 1.13/meter ($0.00113/L). For 26-60 cubic meters, you pay $1.51/1000L. Anything over 60,000L/month and you pay $2.25 per 1000L.  This tiered rate is in and of itself pretty innovative, but I argue that it’s still too cheap.

If the goal is to continue to reduce TOTAL water consumption (not just per/capita), then we’re going to have to take things to the next level. The flow of the Bow River doesn’t change, and Cochrane’s population is growing rapidly. This scenario will result in water scarcity issues, regardless of how efficiently we’re currently using water.

A couple of ideas:

  1. Make the first 40L/person/day FREE. Totally free. Water should be a right, just like the air we breathe. 40L should provide for drinking, cooking and basic sanitation. After 40L….charge the hell out of it. Triple or quadruple the current pricing scheme. Make me think about how much water I’m using, and give me an economic incentive to use less. At 1/10th of a cent per liter…I don’t even blink when I flush the toilet. And I drive a truck on vegetable oil.
  2. Create bylaws around grey water recycling. All the water that goes down the sink or the bathtub could be reused to flush toilets, or recycled and used for watering the garden. Using expensive, treated water for EVERYTHING is unsustainable.
  3. Develop a full-cost accounting structure for water, from intake to discharge. Include that price in the consumption of the commodity. Change the tiered structure so that the thresholds are much lower.

There were some interesting conversations around “private management” of water resources here in the province. A lot of us at the table were pretty leery of that idea, although business certainly has a track record of improving efficiency and getting products to markets in the leanest way possible. What about a social business or non profit? Someone tasked with managing the resource, but not standing to make a killing from it?

I highly recommend you get acquainted with what’s going on with water resources in this province, because it’s changing quickly. Check out the water conversation here (you have until FRIDAY APRIL 12th to contribute to the online survey).

Why Cochrane’s 3-tier water rate is awesome…

A recent article in the Cochrane Eagle caught my attention. It appears that water usage and the 3-tier water rate structure is back in the media, championed by Councillor Toews.

Here’s why this “consumption tax” is so awesome (pictures say it best, borrowed from this report);

Typical water rates

And here’s the corresponding graph of usage (take special note of France);

Daily domestic water use

Councillor Toews’ position that the 3-tier water rate is an “attack” (interesting choice of words, very passionate obviously) on families and business is difficult to defend.

Firstly, consumption taxes are progressive, not regressive. Progressive means the more you use, the more you pay. This model is LOVED by environmentalists and economists alike.

Secondly, the base allotment of water (25 cubic meters, or 25000L/month) works out to 833L/day/household at the base rate of $1.07. That means we pay $0.00107/L for those first 25 cubic meters. Taken in the context of what the United Nations suggests as the freshwater required to meet basic sanitation and household needs (20-50L/water/day), suddenly that number of 25000L looks awfully large.

Finally, 89% of the water users in Cochrane fall within the base amount every month. 89%. Who is being represented when the tiered water structure is being publicly questioned? The 11% of the population with an acre of Bermuda shortgrass that they want to keep green and trimmed? Might I suggest xeriscaping (we do live in a semi arid zone, after all).

My solution?

  • Provide every household 50L/day/person FREE of charge. That’s right. Totally free. You’ve got 8 kids? Great, here’s 500L/day for your families needs. Water is a basic human right after all.
  • After that 50L/day is used up…charge the crap out of it. I’m talking 2-3 times what we currently pay. Rates like that of Germany.

What would this accomplish? First of all, everyone’s basic human right to clean water for sanitation and hygiene would be taken care of. This should satisfy those who worry about families under attack. It would also provide a significantly increased economic incentive to cut down on water consumption. What if everyone cut their water usage so drastically that the town stopped collecting water revenue?

You mean, what would happen if we cut our water use from 243L/day in 2004 to 50L/day in 2015? Well, we’d be a model of sustainability for municipalities everywhere on the planet.

Not a bad problem to have.

From a trip on the Athabasca River, where water quality is a much bigger concern than down here on the Bow, where quantity is the issue

You have to start somewhere…

A beautiful double rainbow gives pause for reflection.

…so why not start at the beginning? My journey into a systems-thinking approach to life started in 2004. I was most of the way through an undergraduate degree (Ecotourism and Outdoor Leadership) at Mt. Royal University, and helped plan and participate in a month-long paddling expedition on the Athabasca River (the longest undammed river in the province at 1230km).

Designed as a learning expedition, the objective was to get a first hand look at what was really going on, above and below the surface of this heritage waterway, and to communicate this knowledge to the broader public. To that end, we planned numerous stops along the way, including a festival in the town of Athabasca at the halfway mark (complete with live country music and native hoop dancing!). The trip up to this point had been full of incredible experiences. From wildlife encounters (bears, wolves, eagles, elk, deer), to encounters of the human kind (hitchiking into Hinton in the pouring rain, walking into Tim Horton’s in wetsuits and PFD’s, having the server exclaim “you’re those guys from the radio!” was quite the highlight), the trip had been an adventure of grand proportions. 

Unfortunately this blog post isn’t for telling the story of this trip, but of one peak moment that occurred near the end. A moment that has forever altered my perspective on environmentalism, sustainability and society.

We had just finished paddling through the Athabasca Oil Sands, a journey that took an entire day (we were averaging about 50km/day at that point). Needless to say, us 5 young college students (and one of our Mom’s!) were feeling pretty down and out. The scale of environmental impact was beyond anything we had ever seen or imagined. After 21 days of basically wilderness paddling, entering an industrial complex was a shock to the system. You could smell the diesel in the air from the giant trucks. Heck, you could smell the bitumen. Bird cannons were going off on a regular interval. It really felt like another planet. We were horrified and dismayed.

Not as horrified and dismayed mind you, as when the conversation that evening turned to the reality of what we had seen. With one look at our plastic canoes, plastic paddles, gore-tex jackets, gas-burning stoves and innumerable other plastic “conveniences”, we had the simultaneous realization that we were the problem. Yikes, talk about a reality check. Of course we’re the problem. Suncor and Syncrude weren’t digging that oil out because they thought it would be a nice thing to do. They were selling it, and we were buying it. Faster than they could get it out of the ground and into the pipeline. And for the first time, I really understood that. In a much more than academic sense, I felt it.

The interesting part of this story is where and how this realization came about. It was not in the classroom. It was not at the coffee shop. It was not during one of the many conversations we had engaged in about the oil sands, prior to actually experiencing the oil sands. I’ll be writing a lot about experiential learning, and its role in the change and transformation process. That trip, and the experience of the oil sands, has changed the course of my life and guided many later decisions.

Could I have come to the realization that I did on that trip without viscerally experiencing first-hand the impacts of my action on the land? Maybe. Would I have felt the realization in my gut? Pretty unlikely. Would I be blogging about it? Nope.

Food for thought…when was the last time you felt connected to the land? Where were you? What were you doing?