Taking the challenge: Yorkton’s water

By Kathy Morrell

Staff Writer

This is the first in a two-part series. 

Washing clothes at the turn of the last century was arduous work. Make the soap.  Carry the water from the well.  Watch as the water slops over the edge of the pail, muddies the path, and wets a long skirt and ankle high boots. 

In the winter, washing clothes meant carrying great mounds of snow into the house, filling the boiler on the wood range, and melting enough snow to fill the wash and rinse tubs.  This was the reality of a time past – a reality we don’t know today because for us, the turn of the faucet means the immediate flow of both hot and cold water.  For us, water is a reality we take for granted. 

            The first step in my reality challenge – and I hope yours as well – is to learn about water – not the droughts of Africa or the melting of the polar ice caps (although these are important, too), but our water, the water that comes from our taps every day. 

First, we need to know the basics:

  • where our water comes from,

  • what pipes and pumps carry it to our homes,

  • what methods of treatment are used to ensure its safety,

  • what portion of our taxes goes to ensure the safety of this precious resource,

  • what levels of governance are involved in its protection.

Finally, we need to take a look at local issues involved in our water.  Knowledge and awareness are, after all, the basis for a citizen’s commitment to water protection.

 

The Basics 

Geological formations that contain water are called aquifers. The water within these aquifers is called ground water. The water in the aquifer is considered a renewable resource because surface water or recharge can permeate through porous rock to enter the aquifer.  

 The City of Yorkton monitors the four main aquifers from which our water is drawn.    Water is taken from 130 observation wells on a regular basis. Tests are done on the water to ensure that it is safe.

Water from the 15 city wells is transferred via pumps for water treatment at one of the City’s three water treatment plants.  (The complicated treatment of our water is described in detail on the City of Yorkton website.)  After treatment to remove unwanted gases and minerals such as hydrogen sulfide, iron and manganese, chlorine is added to the water as a disinfectant.

After the water is treated, it is pumped to reservoirs and stored until needed. The City of Yorkton has three reservoirs with a total capacity of 3,300,000 gallons, enough for two days at average consumption.

The water tower acts as a reservoir taking any excess water once the water lines are full. This reduces the number of water main breaks.  It also guarantees a supply of water during an emergency such as a major fire or a failure of the pumps because of a power failure or a mechanical breakdown.  The water tower provides consistent water pressure for our homes’ water supply. 

Under our city streets is a complex system of pipes that carry the water to our homes.  For the most part, we are unaware of this part of the city’s infrastructure – at least until something goes wrong like a mid-winter water main break.

“We have an aging infrastructure,” commented Mayor Chris Wyatt.  “Many of our lines are forty to fifty years old.”

In the proposed budget, the City has set aside a major portion of the tax increase to address the problem of aging infrastructure.

“Pavement will be torn up to replace the water lines,” the Mayor explained, “and then the street will be repaved.  The two City Departments, Public Works and Water Works, will work together.”

“The completion of the new water treatment plant, however, is our most important concern around water infrastructure,” Mayor Chris Wyatt commented. “The new plant will allow the city to grow.”

Planning for the new water treatment plant began in 2000. Construction, begun in 2005, is expected to be completed by the end of 2009.

“There’s a rumour out there,” Mayor Wyatt continued. “Some people think that the water plant was attached to the Yorkton canola crushing initiatives of Louis Dreyfus and James Richardson.  That’s not true.  Planning for the plant began in 2000.”

The final element in our understanding of water is governance.  Governance in regards to water is very simply who has responsibility for what.  Governance is a complicated question because water is the responsibility of all three levels of government.

The City of Yorkton is an important stakeholder in the water piece.  It is responsible for the infrastructure: the wells, the pumps, the water mains, the water treatment plants, the reservoirs - in other words the flow of water into our homes, our offices and our businesses.  Provincial governments are responsible for providing for the safety of the drinking water. SaskH2O.ca , a Government of Saskatchewan website, is a useful reference because it provides all the information and services available from the Government of Saskatchewan that relate to water.

 Health Canada, working with provincial governments, sets guidelines for safe drinking water. Guidelines make it possible for drinking water to be tested at various points along its journey and analyzed to determine whether it is safe to drink.  This multi-barrier approach is preventative.  It identifies potential hazards and makes sure barriers are in place to reduce or eliminate the risk of contamination.

This approach was a response to the water crises in Walkerton and North Battleford.  In Walkerton, seven people died and 2000 became ill as a result of e coli contamination.  In April, 2001, the residents of North Battleford were ordered to boil their drinking water after the protozoan parasite “Cryptosporidium parvum” was detected in the community’s drinking water system.  Six to seven thousand people became ill after consuming water, but no fatalities were attributed to the outbreak

The Assiniboine Watershed Stewardship Association is important in our area.  This Assiniboine Watershed Stewardship Association (AWSA) is dedicated to protecting and enhancing our source water.  The work of the organization is guided by two plans, the Assiniboine River Watershed Source Water Protection Plan and the Yorkton Area Aquifers Source Water Protection Plan.  These two plans were developed by committees made up of local representatives from rural and urban municipalities, First Nations, as well as stewardship, agricultural and other interest groupsThe Yorkton Aquifer Plan is the only one yet developed in Saskatchewan. 

The Association works at providing local solutions to local problems. The Association, with its office at Yorkton City Hall, provides a place people can call for help with their own water-related issues This office also helps sort out the complicated question of governance when it comes to water.   For example, one woman wanted to have her well tested.  Aron Hershmiller, manager of the AWSA, explained that the woman could contact Saskatchewan Health or the Saskatchewan Watershed Authority.  Both have responsibilities in the testing of well water.

“If we can’t help, we can direct the people with questions to the correct place.” Hershmiller explained. 

Issues

Prevention of contamination of our ground water is the greatest concern we face in the protection of our water supply.  Once there is contamination, remediation of the ground water is usually not economically feasible and in some cases, it is impossible.

  The first issue in protecting our water is the proper closure of wells and gravel pits. Both remove the protective layers over the aquifer, thus opening the ground water to contamination from above.  It is important to seal wells so that contamination cannot enter the aquifer.  It is equally important to restrict public access to gravel pits because the pits are often seen as suitable sites for garbage disposal. Pollutants from that garbage can then enter the ground water because the protective layers of soil and gravel have been removed. Once the gravel pit is no longer in use, it must be reclaimed.

  A second issue in the protection of our water is the draining of wetlands.  Wetlands encompass many different habitats including ponds, marshes, and swamps. They are areas where land and water meet.  Wetlands act like giant sponges, soaking up rain and snowmelt and slowly releasing water into lakes, rivers, streams and aquifers. Draining wetlands then may provide less recharge for the aquifers lowering the water table and even drying up wells.  

Wetlands also filter out sediment and pollution from the surrounding environment so that the water seeping into the aquifer is cleaner than that which entered the wetland. . For example, when there is a storm in Yorkton, the sewage treatment plant cannot handle all the runoff from the storm sewers and a portion of that water empties into Yorkton Creek and eventually into the Assiniboine River.  This water contains contaminants from the oil, pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals used in the city.  Wetlands would help to filter out these contaminants.  

To prevent the contamination of aquifers, farmers are encouraged to complete and follow an Environmental Farm Plan.  The plan is a voluntary, confidential self-assessment the producer uses to plan for sound environmental practices.  One of the issues to be considered in the plan is the distance from the well of such sources of contamination as a septic system, lagoon, pesticide storage and fertilizer storage.

Experts also suggest soil testing in sensitive areas above aquifers. If soil testing is done, then farmers can match their inputs of nitrogen to crop requirements.  Proper fertilizer application rates are especially important in minimizing the movement of nitrates into water. 

The issues of contamination from Yorkton’s storm sewers and from agricultural runoff are problems for everyone in the area. This contamination can affect the aquifers that extend for miles underground – aquifers from which the city and many, many municipalities draw their water.

“We have to appreciate that what happens above the aquifer affects the ground water in it,” Hershmiller explained.  “We might be drawing our water from an aquifer that extends three miles in one direction and 200 metres in another.  What happens some distance away then may affect the ground water, the source water that the citizens of Yorkton and other municipalities use for drinking.”

The third issue in the protection of our water is zoning.  There are parts of the city where the aquifer vulnerability is rated as extremely high.  There are others where the vulnerability is rated as low.   Obviously, it is better to allow for the placement of high risk activities such as chemical storage in an area of the city where the aquifer vulnerability is low.  The Yorkton and District Planning Commission does this kind of planning through zoning.   

Another important city planning consideration is the provision of green spaces.  Pavement in cities creates more surface runoff, thus decreasing the amount of water available to recharge the aquifer.  This can affect the quantity of ground water available for our water supplies.  Parks and green spaces allow for greater recharge to the aquifer.

Quantity raises a serous question.  In the 1930s the city used 400 decameters of water.  Today, with an increased population and increased water usage, that number has ballooned to 2700.  At present, there is no way to know when an increasing draw on the ground water will be no longer supportable.

There are many initiatives government can take to encourage the reduction of water consumption.   The most important stakeholder in respect to water, however, is the individual.  We need to be aware that we enjoy a gift that many in this world do not have – the gift of safe, affordable water.  Our water provides us with the means to a sound economy, a healthy environment and a quality way of life.  Protecting that resource is responsibility we all share. 

 

Taking the Challenge: Yorkton’s water

This is the second in a two-part series on Yorkton’s water.  This article deals with ideas about water conservation and protection.    

We assume the turn of the faucet means the immediate flow of water in unlimited quantities, that water will always be there. We have grown up with the mind-set that Canada, home to the largest freshwater lakes in the world, has unlimited fresh water. Water is a reality we take for granted.  As a result, the average Canadian uses a staggering 329 litres of water per person per day when the resident of France uses half that amount.  Our increasing consumption of water and the rising cost of its treatment and delivery make a strong case for conservation.

Efforts at water conservation are based on a two-pronged approached.  The first is the education of the public. Knowledge and awareness are the basis for a citizen’s commitment to water protection. This is – if you will – the carrot approach. The second approach is the stick.  In some communities, “encouragement” to conserve water is based on an increasing rate of assessment as water usage rises

Recently, Environmental Services of the City of Yorkton received a grant from the Community Initiatives Water Conservation Program of the Saskatchewan Watershed Authority.  The program aims at “a measurable reduction in per capita water use in our cities and towns.”  The rationale behind the program is two-fold.  First, a sufficient quantity of water allows for economic expansion within the city.  Secondly, a decrease in water consumption reduces the costs of operating the water and sewage systems and the demand for capital money for infrastructure.

In Yorkton, Environmental Services will use the grant to concentrate on public education about water conservation.  The first initiative is a move towards using less water in the garden.  The second is a voluntary household audit to show people that even minor changes can result in a significant reduction in water use.  The third is a booth at the Yorkton Exhibition to spread the word about water conservation.

In last week’s edition of Yorkton This Week, columnist Debbie Hayward of the Yorkton and District Horticultural Society reported that “lawns are the highest consumers of water in our yards, and quite often use up the largest proportion of our home landscape.” Hayward reported that there are water conservation options to a large expanse of grass around the family home, options that Sara Williams described in a xeriscape workshop sponsored by Leisure Services and Environmental Services of the City of Yorkton. 

The options include reducing lawn area, leaving grass clippings on the lawn and planting drought resistant ornamental plants and plants native to the prairie landscape. In some yards, grass is replaced by an attractive blend of rock and plants. Information about xeriscape gardening is available through the Yorkton Horticultural Society or through  Sara Williams’ books. 

 “We are developing a xeriscape garden on a lot along Wilson Crescent,” said Glenda Holmes, Water Works Foreman.  “The plot will demonstrate the use of mulches, drought resistant and native plants and the use of aggregates or rock.” 

“This kind of landscapes requires much less water and much less maintenance,” she added.  “We want to promote the kind of gardening that promotes water conservation.”

“In the next few weeks, we will be asking residents of Yorkton to participate in a household audit,” she continued.  “The audit will be voluntary, but it will be very helpful in promoting the wise use of water.”

The audit will ask about your current water use practices, make suggestions for changes aimed at conservation and then indicate the volume of water your household will save. Obviously, consumers will also note the savings on their water bill.   

“The audit will help the individual,” Holmes said, “but it will help the community as a whole, too, because it will reduce our municipal consumption of water.” 

“We are partnering with Leisure Services to have an information booth at the Yorkton Exhibition,” said Michael Buchholzer, Director of Environmental Services with the City of Yorkton. “At the booth we’ll have more information about water conservation.”

Education is one step in convincing Yorkton of the need for water conservation.  There are other communities, however, that have found that education has not been enough to drive change.  Those communities have moved from a flat rate for water to a rate based on an increasing rate of assessment as water usage rises.  In addition, a few communities have assessed charges for discharge of waste water into the system.

In Yorkton, the water assessment rate as of June 1, 2008 will rise to $9.30 per 1000 gallons for residential, industrial and commercial users. This amount represents an increase of 10.7%, an increase required in order to finance the new water treatment plant and to replace aging water mains.  Large scale users face a rate of $4.65 per 1000 gallons of water.  These water assessments are flat rates. The rates do not increase as consumption of water increases.

A 2001 study showed that 43% of cities in Canada use a flat rate to assess water rates.  Some cities, however, charge an increased assessment for volumes of water consumption that exceed a basic amount.  This kind of rate assessment encourages conservation particularly during the summer months when water use is much higher because of lawn watering and car washing.  According to the Environment Canada website, “in 1999, water use was about 70% higher when consumers faced flat rates rather than volume-based rates.”  Moving away from a flat rate encourages conservation of water. 

“Historically, Yorkton has always based its water assessments on a flat rate,” said Michael Buchholzer.  “When you play with the figures, it doesn’t change the big picture.  The taxpayer still needs to pay for the water and sewage plants, the water mains, the maintenance. How you do the assessment doesn’t change all that.” 

To date, only large scale users in Yorkton face a charge for their discharge of waste water. Environment Canada suggests that assessments of waste water discharge is another important way to encourage conservation among all consumers.  The sewage treatment plant incurs more cost if there is a greater volume of waste water.  That is why it is a good idea to reduce the waste water entering the system. In other words, less waste water saves tax dollars and in turn lowers utility bills.

 “Humboldt,” Mayor Chris Wyatt explained, “has paid for six-litre flush toilets and their installation as well.  On average, this saves 25 litres per day per household – a saving to the individual and to the town in reduced water treatment costs.”

In fact, toilets account for 30% of water used in the home. Because toilets consume such a large volume of household water, the Saskatchewan EnerGuide now includes low flush or dual flush toilets as installations qualifying for a grant under the program.

Decreasing the volume of waste water is one issue.  The other is dealing with the content of some waste water.     

“We have the responsibility to test and then to assess surcharges on industries and individuals that discharge chemicals and other materials that exceed set standards,” Buchholzer commented. “The reason behind the surcharge is that it costs more to treat this kind of waste water.”

These are some of the initiatives government can take to protect our water. The most important stakeholder in respect to water, however, is the individual.  That is why the initiatives around public education that Environmental Services will undertake in the next few months are so important.  We need to be aware that we enjoy a gift that many in this world do not have – the gift of safe, affordable water.  Our water provides us with the means to a sound economy, a healthy environment and a quality way of life.  Protecting that resource is responsibility we all share.   

Water Conservation - so where do we start?

In the home…

  • Don't use the toilet as a wastebasket or flush it unnecessarily.

  • Take short showers – five minutes or less should do. If you prefer baths, fill the tub only one-quarter full.

  •  Leaking faucets are often caused by a worn out washer that costs pennies to replace. Most hardware stores will have faucet repair kits with illustrations showing how to replace a washer.

  • Repair a toilet that continues to run after flushing. If the leak is large enough, it can waste up to 200 000 litres of water in a single year! To find out if your toilet is leaking, put two or three drops of food colouring in the tank at the back of the toilet. Wait a few minutes. If the colour shows up in the bowl, there's a leak.

  • Install low flow shower heads and faucets.

  • Research the EnerGuide Program in order to consider the installation of low flush or dual flush toilets.

  • Don’t leave the water run while you shave or brush your teeth

  • Replace laundry appliances and dishwashers with Energy Star rated models.  Be aware that scrap metal businesses will pay you for your old appliances. These appliances should not find their way to the landfill. 

  • Save your hazardous waste materials for Hazardous Waste Day.  An announcement as to date and time will be announced soon.    

Outside

  • Partially fill a bucket with soapy water to wash your car and then use a spray nozzle to rinse.

  • Use a broom instead of water to clean your driveway or sidewalk.

  • Move towards a xeriscape garden.  Visit the City’s demonstration site on Wilson Crescent.  Realize that for some people a xeriscape garden means no grass, while for others it simply means a significant reduction in lawn area.

 

Healthy lawn watering tips

·        Lawns require only 1” of water, once a week

·        Over watering can cause damage

·        Keep track of rainfall. Only water your lawn if rainfall is not enough

·        Water early in the morning or evening to avoid evaporation

·        Keep grass cut a minimum of 3” to prevent evaporation, crowd out weeds,

and promote deep roots

·        Aerate compact soils for better water infiltration and increased oxygen

exchange with grass roots

·        Limit or eliminate chemical pesticide and fertilizer use. These can lead to a poor lawn.  Pesticides and fertilizers can also infiltrate aquifers – the source of our drinking water. 

Much of this information comes from the websites of Environment Canada and the City of Hamilton. They are excellent sources for information about water conservation. 


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