Public lacks water management, infastructure cost information

Few Canadians know what they pay for their household water: survey

Few Canadians know how much it costs to deliver their water.

An annual water survey by the Royal Bank of Canada found that Canadians are confident in the safety of tap water in their homes, but those in rural communities were less confident than those living in large urban centres with more than 100,000 residents.

The online survey, which polled about 2,250 Canadians in January, also found that while most Canadians know their household electricity costs, they are less aware of water costs. About a third have a water meter, so they know the cost, while the rest said they do not.

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Included in those water costs is the expense of upgrading infrastructure across Canada, which could reach as high as $80 billion on a national scale.

“These are some of the most expensive things we do in our entire society,” said Bob Sandford, Epcor chair for the Canadian Partnership Initiative, which is part of the United Nations Water for Life decade.

“The fact that we have the water infrastructure we do in Canada is a triumph. We just do it so well that it becomes invisible.… We have reached the point now where the public has to know about the comprehensive nature of the investments that have been made and what needs to be done in future.”

Small communities face the greatest challenge because water projects are long term and expensive, Robert Haller, executive director of the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association, said during a webinar about the survey results.

“Smaller communities are looking at $20 million projects, that can break them,” he said.

Municipal councillors understand what needs to be done, but these projects are often 50 year programs that go beyond a politician’s election cycle.

He said more work is needed to explain water bills so people understand what they use as well as the costs involved to maintain or repair a system. There are fights for government grants, he added, which forces communities to decide whether to build new hockey arenas or fix leaky water pipes.

Sandford said people do not think much about water, but they expect government to do something when a severe flood occurs.

The survey found that 70 percent of Canadians do not think they are in a flood zone and 80 percent do not think they are in a drought prone area. Many do not realize these events are increasing in frequency.

“Weather related disasters have increased threefold since the 1960s,” said Sandford. “Most Canadians don’t know that our hydrology is changing, so we can’t expect the past to be applicable to the future.”

Climate change has affected the hydrological cycle, and local infrastructure is damaged and costly to repair when a catastrophe hits.

Sandford said these extreme events have hit Canadians from coast to coast and are going to continue.

Only seven percent of Canadians have suffered a direct hit from flooding, but more are aware of the problem and say they have taken steps to flood proof their property.

About 50 percent of those surveyed said they think they are prepared to handle a flood, but far fewer believe they have adequate insurance coverage. Uninsured losses are eight to 10 times higher than the insured losses. Economic measures cannot fully address what needs to be fixed, he added.

“Costs can go beyond what money can fix.”

He said more work is needed at the source, such as riparian management and wetland restoration for natural flood control.

Significant policy changes are also required.

Sandford said the $5 billion floods of 2013 made Alberta recognize it did not have the ability or policies to deal with an incident of this magnitude.

“Sooner or later we are going to have to realize we are going to have to move out of vulnerable floodplains because it is simply going to be too expensive to keep repairing the damage,” he said.

Contact barbara.duckworth@producer.com

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