Metering Time

Call me a conservative, I think this is a good idea.

Water is a subject that raises passions in Canada, partly because we have so much of it, partly because we do such a poor job protecting it. Much like with electricity, good planning decades ago got us used to a plentiful supply of cheap water, and now to suggest we can’t have all we want, or that we might have to pay more for it? Well, that is the kind of thing that loses people elections.

But I’m not running for anything, so I’ll say it: we need to start paying for our water.

It is true that Metro Vancouver has a large supply of very well protected water in our reservoirs, and on most years, have enough to serve the current population very well. Even with the large anticipated growth in the Lower Mainland over the next 50 years, our existing reservoirs (barring significant climate change or natural disaster) should serve us volume-wise. However, volume is not the only concern.

Every drop of water in your house has to be filtered, has to be treated, and has to be delivered to your house through a finite infrastructure of pipes, pumps and valves. The managing of this water is energy-intensive, and expensive. It’s not the water you pay for, it is the treatment and delivery system.

Our water is of spectacular quality, partially because of the quality of the source and the investment in watershed protection the region has made, and partly because of the systems to filter, treat, inspect, test, and manage the water. Metro Vancouver does this one thing very, very well (which probably means the Province will come in an muck it up, or try to privatize it, but I digress….)

What do we do with this valuable resource, after we spend all that time and energy making sure every drop meets high drinking water standards? During the summer months, we put about half of it on our lawns to keep the grass from going dormant. We use about a third of the remainder to flush out toilets. On Sunday I watched a neighbour with a garden hose spending the best part of an hour washing leaves off the back alley behind my house.  We do things like wash cars on the streets or our driveways, which has the double benefit of wasting hundreds of litres of water, and washing soap, oil grease, and other stuff into the adjacent storm drain where it impacts the fish in the River.

Part of the reason we waste this resource is that we don’t value it as a resource. Metro Vancouver charges every City for their water use by the cubic metre. Some Cities charge their customers per cubic meter, some charge a flat rate, some do some combination of both. It is only fair of all Cities start charging the users per cubic metre.

The City of Surrey has had a “voluntary” water metering system for several years. Far from a “cash grab”, the metering system provides incentives to those who choose to conserve water, and has been popular enough that 27,000 households have signed up. They pay $0.75 per cubic meter for water, and $0.63 per cubic metre for sewer, or about a thousandth the cost of bottled water. As the average Canadian household uses about 400 cubic metres a year, so their bill in Surrey would be about $500/year (Note the Average Surreyite still uses more than the Canadian Average) . In New Westminster, the “flat rate” for water and sewer is $851/year, so we would probably have to charge a little more than Surrey, unless the metering lead to conservation. Of course, it has led to conservation elsewhere, so there is every reason to believe it will here.

How would metered water at similar rates as Surrey impact your lifestyle? Using a typical 400L of water to wash your car would cost you about 50 cents. Watering your New Westminster 250 square foot front yard with a typical weekly 2” of sprinkling would cost you about $1.50. Flushing your 13L toilet 5 times a day would cost you about $30 over the year. Switch it out for a low-flow and you can cut that to less than half. I have no idea what it would cost for you to wash the leaves off my back alley with your garden hose, but it would cost you, which is better than it costing me.

Multi-family dwellings in New Westminster are already metered. Where is our voluntary metering program?

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