It was a shock when most of eastern Vancouver Island entered Level 4 drought conditions in the very first week of summer. This was unprecedented in BC. In Courtenay and Comox, Stage One watering restrictions had already been put into effect a month before,. The Sandwick Waterworks District in north Courtenay had moved quickly to Stage Three. It’s a certainty that the watering restrictions will remain in place through September.
Unfortunately, restrictions have a limited impact on consumption habits. Many people still fail to grasp that this precious resource is becoming scarcer in the face of climate change. In fact, Canadians are still among the biggest users of freshwater in the world. Call it denial, entitlement, blind ignorance, or what you will — we’re leaving a pretty poor legacy for future generations, and the “why” no longer matters. It seems that some people can only measure the value of something by its price tag, so let’s get serious about universal water metering.
This subject never fails to raise people’s ire. Some argue that metering is a frivolous expense because there’s plenty of water around, replenished by heavy rainfall during the cooler months. This flies in the face of empirical fact: reduced winter snowpack and increased summer drought are becoming the norm; wildfire outbreaks are on the rise. In 2014, the Times Colonist reported that the Comox Lake reservoir inflows were at their lowest in half a century.
On the other side of the metering debate, smaller households and/or people who already conserve water at home don’t necessarily want to pay the same flat rate as larger households or those sprinkling lawns and washing cars with abandon. Metering would certainly introduce rate parity, but remains unpopular– perhaps for that very reason. Politically, the subject can be toxic to those seeking to gain or keep a municipal council seat.
However contentious, there are compelling reasons to adopt universal metering. In Canadian cities where it’s been implemented, water consumption has dropped by 40-45% per person. Since metering helps to detect leaks in the delivery system, it saves both water and service costs. The Comox Valley Regional District conducted a 2012 study in selected neighbourhoods where it metered homes and generated mock bills based on actual consumption. An independent consultant studied the results and concluded that (a) metering helped reduce demand, and would continue to do so; and (b) base and residential tier 2 rates could be reduced while still supporting service delivery.
While acknowledging the financial incentives, Environment Canada points to other benefits: ensuring an adequate supply for all users; preventing the concentration of pollutants in lakes and streams; limiting the need for new infrastructure; and saving energy costs associated with delivery and treatment. According to their website, “…in 2009, Canadian households with meters on volume-based water pricing schemes used 73% less water than unmetered households on flat-rate water pricing schemes.”
Some Canadian cities only mandate the installation of meters on new or renovated single or duplex homes. But this only accounts for a small percentage of housing stock, while older homes continue to go unmonitored. It’s time for this to change. It’s also time for all of us to accept that a return to our former level of resource abundance may no longer be possible. Environmentally, economically, and ethically, we need to accept that universal metering may just be what it takes to ensure a liveable future.