Drinking the hard stuff

Does Waterloo Region need a water pipeline to get softer lake water?

Mark Shiffer

Every time I lift a 20 kg bag of water softener salt pellets and carry it to the basement, I’m faced with the reality that Waterloo Region has harder water than most other large population centres in Ontario.

This is because our water comes mostly from underground sources as well as from the Grand River. The Region is again looking at long-term plans for water. There are two solutions: to improve efficiency and conservation and to eventually build a pipeline from Lake Erie.

Construction of a pipeline to Waterloo Region has been under consideration for a long time, but has not yet become reality. Lake Huron was once the Region’s favoured source for lake water. However, since a Great Lakes agreement was reached between Canada and the United States, Lake Erie has become the only possibility. This may be a difficult solution as it’s a relatively shallow body of water and subject to problems like pollution.

The good news is that the Region’s water conservation efforts have been a big success. It is estimated that Waterloo Region is currently using 209 litres per capita per day compared to an average 291 in Canada and 260 in Ontario.

Due to our limited water supply, local government has been strongly pushing conservation for many years.

I dropped by a water symposium in Cambridge and discussed the potential pipeline with Bob Burtt, a writer with a particular interest and expertise in water issues. He firmly believes that, with further efforts, Waterloo Region will never need to access lake water.

Burtt suggests that consumption can reasonably be dropped to 137 litres per capita per day within the next 35 years. He claims it has already been done in parts of Europe. Even with rapid population growth, Burtt believes that emerging technologies and practices can continue to cut water use.

Waterloo Region is addressing conservation in various ways. There are incentives for lower flow toilets, faucets and showerheads. Rain barrel distribution harnesses rainwater. An outdoor water use bylaw is in effect during the summer months, limiting watering to once a week.

All of these measures have helped reduce demand significantly.

Water conservation policies and practices seem to have deferred the need to build a pipeline in the short term. It is likely that construction can be delayed until decades after 2035, the date once thought to be when a lake water connection would be required. Environmental groups are hopeful that a pipeline, with its estimated cost of over $1 billion, will never need to be built.

As I hoist that heavy softener pellet bag, part of me wishes that we already had access to softer lake water. It would certainly be gentler on our pipes and our backs.

Mostly, though, I am impressed that water use is decreasing and that Waterloo Region is showing leadership and progress in conservation. With further efforts and new technologies we can ensure an abundant and stable supply of local water for many decades.