‘Astonishing how ill-prepared we are;’ Ravages of drought underscore the need for fundamental change

Water levels have dipped in the Coquitlam reservoir. photo supplied Metro Vancouver

It’s a cute video – until you think about it.

Like a shopper picking through the dregs of the produce section, a river otter sweeps through the gentle stream near Mossom Creek Hatchery.

“This time of year, they are looking for spawning coho salmon,” explains a tweet accompanying the video. “So is everyone else.”

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Over 74 days spanning the end of summer and the beginning of fall, Metro Vancouver’s watersheds got about 50 millimetres of rain – approximately one-thirteenth of the rainfall over the same period in 2021. Meanwhile, water use is up by 20 percent.

It’s crucial to examine what’s driving the pattern we’re seeing, explains Zafar Adeel, a professor at Simon Fraser University’s school of sustainable energy engineering and the executive director of the Pacific Water Research Centre.

“It’s a little bit astonishing how ill-prepared we are,” he says.

Reservoir logs

Since May 17, water levels at Metro Vancouver’s three reservoirs have fallen by about 56 percent – far more than typical. As of Oct. 16, water levels sat at 120 billion litres. That’s down 23 billion litres compared to 2020 and down 41 billion litres compared to 2015.

“It’s a pervasive problem that people think that Canada is water rich,” Adeel says.

On paper, there’s enough freshwater for everyone in the country, he explains. “But that water doesn’t sit where people are and where the congested urban populations are. . . . The result is that we continually increase our demands on those limited water supplies.”

Coquitlam reservoir. photo supplied Metro Vancouver

Besides the ecological damage, Adeel says he has concerns about energy insecurity given B.C.’s reliance on hydro power.

With more people switching on air conditioners in dry, hot weather, the province tends to see more demand in periods of limited supply.

“There have to be impacts on energy generation as a result of what’s happening to our water resources,” he says. “Those kinds of discussions are not taking place to any significant extent.”

Short supply

After enduring for about 2,500 years, the Coquitlam Glacier is expected to turn into water and slush by 2050.

The glacier has shrunk and flattened over the years, giving it the appearance of slouching.

A shot of the glacier in 2021. photo supplied Metro Vancouver

Speaking to Tri-Cities Dispatch earlier this year, Metro Vancouver geoscientist Dave Dunkley likened the glacier to a canary in the coal mine when it comes to climate change.

Speaking to CBC recently, Dunkley affirmed that the glacier – which helps top up the Coquitlam reservoir – likely has a few decades left.

“This ice is thinning and it’s going to decay fairly rapidly,” he said.

Incentives, not restrictions

While footage of receding water levels can provide a “very sensational backdrop,” Adeel emphasizes the importance of having a broader conversation about water conservation and personal consumption patterns.

It’s important that cities incentivize water conservation, Adeel says, noting the way some cities offer a rebate for installing a water efficient toilet.

Adeel also advocated for water metering as a way to reward households that are diligent with water use.

“By getting water to people at a flat rate, you are providing a disincentive for conservation.”

In general, incentives are more effective than restrictions, Adeel explains.

“Restrictions on their own have limited effectiveness,” he said, noting a few of his neighbour have managed to maintain “lush green” lawns during the drought. “The messages are not being received well or people don’t care.”

Paying for it

While Port Coquitlam residents are set to pay about $17 more for water and sewer this year, Coun. Steve Darling warned about “massive increases” in future years.

Metro Vancouver has projected a 4.1 percent increase to water rates and a 4.6 percent increase to sewer rates for 2022. However, both those numbers are expected to rise in 2023, with Metro Vancouver estimating a six percent increase in water rates and a 17 percent jump in sewer rates.

While Metro Vancouver has previously come in under their forecasts, staff at the regional authority indicated there are hard costs that simply can’t be outrun, Mayor Brad West explained during a meeting earlier this year.

“The era of deferral is coming to an end,” West said.


With rain set to start falling Friday, Coquitlam reminded construction crews to ensure catch basin filters are cleared and erosion and sediment controls are implemented.

A few weeks of rain can banish worries about drought from people’s minds.

“It’s only human that when you’re seeing rainfall you tend to forget what you’ve encountered over a three-month period,” Adeel says.

However, it’s Adeel says it’s crucial we have conversations about conserving and managing water – hopefully before the next drought.

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