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Summer water restrictions could be a harbinger of Calgary conservation to come

Calgary's Drought Resilience plan outlines a goal of reduced water demand in the city.

One need only scan the 282 pages of public responses to the city’s Drought Resilience plan to pick up on a common theme: Lawns.

In fact, when searched, the word ‘lawn’ comes up 678 times. Landscaping is referred to in one way or another in dozens of other verbatim comments recorded by the City of Calgary. Dozens more that raise the issue of watering. There are 585 mentions of ‘grass’.

While the City of Calgary’s Drought Resilience plan, delivered and approved by the Community Development Committee this week, covered a wide range of areas, it focused on two primary goals: Reducing water demand and protecting the water supply.

“The drought resilience plan envisions a future where Calgary’s people, ecosystems and businesses are prepared to withstand and recover from drought and adapt to the increasingly dry conditions the city is likely to experience,” said Pamela Duncan with Climate and Environments at the City of Calgary.

Duncan said they have completed technical studies on Calgary drought vulnerabilities, they’ve looked at best practices and gathered feedback from residents, community groups and businesses.

Of the two primary goals, Duncan said they would be looking at reduced water demand.

“Over this business cycle, actions under this goal will be a priority,” she told councillors.

“This includes revisiting our water efficiency plan, including targets, tactics and programs to demonstrate that the city is a responsible steward of the water we use as a large municipality in Alberta, is financially stable during times of drought, and has an updated water restrictions bylaw.”

The other part of the plan is to ensure the protection of the water supply, particularly upstream flood protection and water retention west of Calgary on the Bow River.

Water restrictions and the traditional lawn

Calgary is in the middle of its first-ever, drought-related water restrictions. They went into effect during a particularly hot, dry part of the summer (August) and haven’t yet been lifted.

It’s the first stage of four, and still allows for lawn watering one day a week depending on odd/even number address ending. It also allows for hand watering of flowers, shrubs, trees, watering new sod, filling outdoor pools, and some business exemptions.

According to the City of Calgary, thus far more than 1.1 billion litres of water (440 Olympic-sized swimming pools) has been saved (compared with normal consumption) in the 50 days it’s been in effect.

For other cities and towns, this type of Stage 1 water restriction is the norm. In Okotoks, for example, these water restrictions are in place automatically from May to October.  It’s contemplated in the city’s drought strategy.

“Approaches such as outdoor watering schedules would move The City closer in line with other regional and leading drought prone communities such as Airdrie, Chestermere, Okotoks, Vancouver and Denver,” the drought strategy states (page 25).

When asked, Duncan said that the City of Calgary would be looking at that as a part of the demand strategies.

“A permanent water schedule would build in that conservation ethic that we could have that schedule all summer long so that we can see behaviour change around better times, more efficient times to water,” she said.

The report does note, however, the financial impact of reduced water use through restrictions. Water Services has a budget based on projected demand and water use throughout the year.

Several groups expressed support for the drought strategy, with some making special mention of lawns and landscaping. The Alberta Low Impact Development Partnership (ALIDP), a non-profit group that advocates for ecologically functional landscapes, said the strategy provides an opportunity to look at what’s considered “normal” landscaping.

They said a shift away from the traditional lawn for many contexts, “should be a given.”

“For too long the practice of irrigating lawns with potable water has been considered the ‘right thing to do’. Healthy lawns have been equated to green lawns,” read their letter of support for the strategy.

Public support for changes?

The City of Calgary is urging citizens to restrict unnecessary water use. LIVEWIRE CALGARY FILE PHOTO

The City of Calgary said they appreciate the efforts of Calgarians to help reduce water demand this past summer.  

Though it’s a limited cross-section of Calgarians, the vast majority that responded to the What We Heard part of the drought strategy – specifically on lawns and landscapes – supported some sort of restrictions, incentives, or education to reduce tapped water use for lawns.

Ward 11 Coun. Kourtney Penner, chair of the Community Development Committee, said she believes more people are aware of the resources they’re consuming, whether that’s water or electricity. She was asked if Calgarians would buy in to automatic water restrictions – like Stage 1. Penner said there are already a number of City of Calgary resources dedicated to helping citizens be more water-wise.

“I think it is a conversation that we should be having with Calgarians, for them to think about and be aware of their consumption and how they can contribute to positive outcomes for the city long term,” she said.

The comparison to other communities is a bit challenging, as other markets, like Okotoks, have a different watershed and a far more limited supply of water.

“We’re drawing off of two rivers, they’re drawing off a singular river,” Penner said.

“So, some of those challenges that they face may not be what we face just based on size, population, all of those other things, too. So, that’s most likely why they’ve been more proactive than we’ve had to be.”

Some of the concerns raised by citizens in the public feedback also centred around the city’s water use, and water use of places that relying on greening, such as golf courses.

Penner said regulating water use in those types of private locations is a challenge and often falls under provincial jurisdiction. Still, she said better policies around reuse, recapture and storage, along with having willing water conservation partnerships will help.

The strategy, approved by committee, will still need final approval at a full meeting of Calgary city council.