Monday, June 17, 2024

The water thing

Let's start with the prominent hydrological feature of Calgary, (for now at least) the Bow River, downstream of 22X.

And the Elbow River, upstream of the reservoir.

And just for fun, Fish Creek, upstream of bridge 8.

All of these are recent long exposure photos.

So first of all, you know about the water main break, but it would be ok to stand downwind of me or Linda. Showers have been really quick. If I'd been on the ball I'd have taken a water meter reading at the start of the water main break, when we were first asked to dramatically reduce consumption. Then I'd know how much we use, but then again, I don't know the day to day consumption before the restrictions. All I know is we used 12 M3 water for the last  billing period.

Linda has been a bit worried about the hanging baskets, but the full rain barrels carried us over to the rain fall last weekend. Right now we have 2 full white barrels, a full Barcelona barrel, a full blue vase, two full 20 L pails, and full green and black carts, plus a half full blue cart. The blue one leaks around the bar that some trucks use for a lifting system. No idea how many litres of water that is overall. 

Since they were in the water main anyways to fix it, they had a more detailed look at at least some of the rest of the pipe and found 5 more trouble spots. The original leak is fixed, and repairs are now happening on the other spots, so we can't go back to full blast on the taps yet. At least they know where to dig to repair these, where part of the delay on the first was all the thousands of cubic meters of water in the way. I'd suspect the city has been terrified of the possibility the main wouldn't be repaired before Stampede. All those people coming into town aren't likely to buy into water usage restrictions. They're here to party.

My concern is that there are 11 Km of that pipe in the ground. If 6 portions of it are failing now, what about the places in between the current failures? Are we in for a recurring series of failures over the coming decades? Or a planned series of outages as chunks are replaced?

One of the comments lately has been that the City skimped on procurement and maintenance. I've seen this again and again. They buy from the cheapest vendors, because taxpayers complain about all taxes. If they don't buy the cheapest, they're accused of gold-plating the project. The accountants hate spending money on maintenance because the results are invisible. A pipe didn't break, but all they see is the inspection cost. Well, now a very large, very expensive pipe broke, and there is no choice but to pay for the repair, plus all the overtime, plus the priority shipping of parts and equipment. Someone on City staff is going to be arguing with the insurance companies for years over this, to say nothing of the claims from businesses and citizens.

Why did we have to get that chunk of pipe from San Diego? Because the accountants said we didn't need it in stock, because it's expensive to buy it and have it just sitting there. No doubt San Diego is shuffling around their maintenance and repair schedule and have their fingers crossed that nothing breaks till they get another chunk of pipe.

Earlier in the year I was working on a water related blog, but never hit publish. I'm going to revisit portions of that here. 

Looking at our last bill from the City. Water costs us $1.4643 per M3, plus another $1.6905 per M3 for 88% of the water supplied for a wastewater charge. We used 11 M3 from mid Jan to mid Feb, so our fee is 
11 x $1.4643 = $16.11 (rounded up to the nearest cent)
11 x .88 x $1.6905 = $16.36 (rounded down to the nearest cent)
Total of $32.47, or $2.95 per cubic meter, or .3 CENTS per litre. Less than a third of a cent per litre for potable water supplied, and wastewater taken away and treated. That's a great deal! No wonder people leave their taps on. Except people don't understand how historically recent it is to have potable water piped directly to our homes.

Except we're not done. There's a water service charge of $12.61 and a wastewater service charge of $23.87 on top of the meter rate. There's more stuff on the bill for storm water runoff charges, and a fee for the Black, Blue, and Green carts, but we're going to look past those.

So the actual total cost to us for water supply and removal is $32.47 for usage costs, plus 36.48 for service charges = $68.95, which for 11M3 comes out to just over .6 cents per litre. Still a good deal, especially when you think about what bottled water gets sold for at outdoor festivals.

Except, I've no idea how they came up with the service charge amounts, and they just went up dramatically this month. My problem is that I remember Calgary pushing to get water meters installed in all residences, with the idea that people would pay for the amount they used, and fair enough. Except now, as near as I can tell, with the service charges adding up to more than the usage, there is no incentive to save water.

Could we use less than 11 M3 of water in a month? Almost certainly, and we are during the water main break. But say we cut our water use by 10%. That saves me a whole $3 or so, out of a total water related bill of $70 or so. Big whoop, as we used to say. Or lets say we really crack down and cut our water usage to 5 M3. Repeating the above calculations:
5 x $1.4643 = $7.32
5 x .88 x $1.6905 = $7.44
Total of $14.76. 

Plus the service charge of $36.48 is a total of $51.24. Big picture, we cut water usage in half, and the bill goes from $68.95 to  $51.24. Not a lot of incentive to cut water usage. 

The bill says the service fees are to cover administration costs. Bah! Things like this are why the populists always howl that they can come in and cut the fat. If the administration costs are more than the cost of the service, I get their point.

The classic economic solution to a shortage of a product is to raise the price to reduce demand, and you keep doing that till demand equals supply. That's fine for many products, but we're talking water here. Essential for life and all.

Just for comparison, when I go to Co-op to buy water for making wine, they charge me $1.99 for 11.3 litres, or  17.6 cents per litre. Supposedly is purified and whatever, but they start with the same water I get from the tap. Some of the bottled water companies start with the same water, don't do anything to it but put it in a plastic bottle, and charge multiple dollars per litre. The plastic in the container, and shipping it to market is the expensive part.

Where was I? Oh yes, using less water. The water meter isn't smart like some of the new electricity meters. They can track power from the grid into the house, and from the house into the grid, at multiple price points. I'm pretty sure they can raise the price of power during peak periods to discourage usage. We can't do that with a water meter.

All the City could do is ask people and businesses to cut back, and even then, some people screamed at having to reduce their water usage. They feel they should be able to use as much of it as they want. That's what happens when something is supplied for (nearly) free in apparently unlimited quantities. Don't get me started on the conspiracy theory fruitcakes that think it's all a Trudeau plot to inconvenience them and somehow bring about the New World Order. Or something.

Maybe the city should say each person gets some amount of water per month at current prices, and anything over that at much higher price, to start building a reserve for future spending to supply water. Think about it, how would your water usage change if the City were to charge, say, 10 times as much, a whole 3 cents a litre for water? Or (gasp!) the same price as Coop at 17 cents per litre? Or (clutch those pearls HARD!) the same price as gasoline, currently $1.50 a litre? 

But let's look ahead a little bit. Calgary gets much of its water from the Bow River, which is fed from the meltwater from the Bow Glacier. It's melting faster than it can be replenished by snowfall, and it's estimated that in 80 years or so, it will be gone. The Bow river will dry up. 

The other source of Calgary water is the Elbow River which is fed from Elbow Lake. Not sure where that water comes from, but nearby glaciers seems like a safe bet. Just yesterday I was walking in South Glenmore park near the west end of the reservoir. It's down many feet. Where I was is normally under water or is a marsh. Now it's bone dry. I mean fluffs of dust coming up with every step, and that's after a good rain shower. There's going to be more of that.

A human lifetime is about 80 years and it seems like a long time, but it isn't really in the great scheme of things. I'm not likely to still be alive, but plenty of young children alive now will be then. The time to start doing something about it is any time now, because this is a big hairy ugly problem. But that won't happen. The only politicians that care about anything beyond their current term are hoping to be re-elected, and even they don't care about the term after that. 

And really, the problem is bigger than one glacier melting. They're all melting, world-wide. One climate projection I saw for the prairies suggested the Dirty 30's were a temporary slightly dry spell during an overall historically wet period. We could be going into times where the Thirties look wet in comparison, and it could last generations.

So where will Calgary get water? It's easy to say drill a well, and right now that works fine. Except ground water and river water are related to one another. When the river is gone, it seems reasonable to assume the groundwater table will be a lot lower. 

Will we pipe water from northern Alberta? How big of a pipe does it take to deliver about 500 million litres of water a day? How much would it cost to build such a pipe, or a pair of pipes just in case? How much to provide the electricity to run the pumps to push that much water that far? 

Hmmmm. If I did the math right, we'd need 5 pipes each .6m (2 feet) in diameter, each delivering 100,000 cubic meters a day, that barely covers our current city usage with most people cutting way back. That is a lot of pipe.

Even the cities on a seacoast will have a problem. We can't drink seawater, and desalination is a complex expensive technology, and the brine has to be disposed of. Pumping it back into to the sea changes the saline content and will kill sea life. 

Will we do as Bermudan's do, and capture rainwater in home cisterns? I'm not sure if a city lot in Calgary gets enough rain for a person to live on. What will climate change do to rainfall patterns?

Lots to think about.

Of the Day
Driftwood (NZ)


Film (new) All the long exposure photos above are new film, but I'll give you another, just because you're my faithful readers. From the +15 walk last February. I'm not sure if this is intentional mural art, or a free lance effort.

Michelle X2

1 comment:

  1. Once again, another fine post.

    Of the first three photos I find the first one the most successful, as I really like the tonal range and composition. There isn't enough tonal range in the second one, and as a result the image appears dull to my eye. I find the contrast in the third one a little harsh.

    Regarding water, I find it interesting that you and I have reached the same conclusion and that is we need to place a higher value on water. Furthermore some sort of a base allotment seems reasonable and price escalates as that allotment is exceeded.
    Another element to infrastructure is that we as a society must change our attitude and start openly committing to paying for it. Cheers, Sean


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