Canada’s municipal water systems are facing challenges that will only intensify as systems age, populations grow, regulatory requirements become more stringent and the effects of climate change overburden stormwater systems.

The general public appears to be unaware of the gravity of the situation. A March 2013 Canadian Water Attitudes Study from RBC showed 78% of Canadians believe their municipality’s water infrastructure is in good condition and does not require investment in upkeep. Yet the Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimates the cost for replacing drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructures in fair or very poor condition will reach $80billion or beyond.

“In most cities across Canada, infrastructure is crumbling and in urgent need of replacement or repair,” says Bob Sandford, chair of the Canadian Partnership Initiative in support of the United Nations’ Water for Life Decade in Canmore.

Many of the water systems in major cities across the country date back a century or more. A good portion of more modern infrastructures were built in the post-Second World War era and are in need of upgrades or replacement.

Canadian consumers’ wasteful water usage habits are another factor compounding the problem, he says. “Wasteful water use has become a social norm in Canada. But there’s an enormous cost to supporting that norm.”

What is needed today, experts say, is a combination of planning, fiscal management and conservation innovation so communities can sustain healthy water supplies at a manageable cost.

Part of the planning involves getting a clear picture of what lies below ground, says M. Saeed Mirza, professor emeritus of civil engineering and applied mechanics at McGill University in Montreal. “Prior to 1995, very few municipalities knew what they had underground and were managing by the seat of their pants. A number have done surveys in recent years and know exactly what they have and the condition it’s in, so management can be much more scientific and optimal with limited resources.”

Toronto has done the math based on the assets it has in place today, says Lou Di Gironimo, general manager of Toronto Water. He estimates that the city’s backlog for repairs is sitting at about $1.5billion, two-thirds of which is attributed to the underground infrastructure. The total asset value (i.e. replacement value) of the entire system is $28billion.

“The good news is, the backlog in 2005 was actually $1.8billion,” he says. “At that point we weren’t spending enough to deal with aging assets. Council embarked in a long-term term financing strategy of 9% rate increases for nine years in a row, which allowed us to reverse the backlog trend by 2009 to the point where we have reduced it by $300million.”

Despite appearances, Canada is not immune to water shortages, Mr. Sandford says. “A recent U.S. study projected certain regions will face water scarcity by 2050. We will see that in the Prairies here if farms and cities do not take advantage of water conservation activities.”
Conservation has been on the agenda for the city of Calgary for some time, given the South Saskatchewan River basin was closed in 2007 – a move that effectively means there will be no additional water licenses for the region’s communities.

“The only way we could grow as a city was to be more efficient in the way we use water,” says Paul Fesko, manager, strategic services for water resources. “Those rivers aren’t getting any bigger and no extra money is coming in. We just have to keep getting better at reducing per capita demand.”

Initiatives include fixing leaky watermains and installing residential water meters (metered residents use 50% less water than unmetered). Mr. Fesko says the city population has grown by 500,000 since the late 1980s. Over that time, withdrawal from water reserves is the same or less than it was 25 years ago.

Portions of Edmonton’s water infrastructure are 60 to 70 years old, says Stephen Stanley, senior vice-president for Epcor Water Canada in Edmonton.

“The challenges are the same across the country: increasing regulations that require upgrades, population growth and getting water to the extremities of the city.” Epcor is unusual in that it not only supplies the city of Edmonton but also 50 communities within a 100-kilometre radius.
Its operational model is also a departure from the norm. While the city is a 100% shareholder, Epcor operates as an arm’s-length business operation. “That means the rates we charge customers have to pay for our operating costs, upgrades, etc., so we engage in a lot more longer-term business planning,” Mr. Stanley says.
He estimates pipe replacement costs are running about $40million a year. Epcor is also working with new approaches such as in-situ coating of older pipe interiors to avoid digging up streets. Its Gold Bar wastewater treatment plant also supplies partially treated wastewater to the nearby Suncor Energy Edmonton Refinery oil refinery to reduce demand on the North Saskatchewan River.

A critical challenge that is adding sizeable pressure on water systems in many communities is the increased devastation caused by intense wet weather events.
“We’re seeing problems of those overwhelming the system,” Mr. Di Gironimo says. “Water getting into the stormwater pipes too quickly creates overflow issues and impacts homes and the overall system infrastructure.”

Newer guidelines and policies are dictating alternative approaches to managing rainwater so it does not run directly to sewers, but what can be achieved differs depending on population density and the age of the area, he explains. “There are lots of techniques you can use from reuse to stormwater ponds that will hold heavy flows and release the water in a controlled fashion. Older cities were developed without these stormwater policies so now we’re trying to build as we go along and squeeze things in where it makes sense.”

Mr. Fesko relates his recent experience of flying into the Island Airport in Toronto recently, where he got a bird’s eye view of the Don Valley Parkway flooding. “I saw all that silt and sediment and imagined all the stuff on the road getting washed into the river. It made me realize we have to look after water resources at a higher level than in the past.”