Environment File

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Albertans should tap into rain and snow if they want to help head off the coming water crisis, says a water conservation advocate.

Rene Michalak of the Canadian Association for Rainwater Management spoke Thursday at the first annual Alberta Green Homes Summit in Edmonton on how Albertans can save water by harvesting rain and snow.

“We are one of the most gluttonous water consumers in the world,” Michalak says of Canadians. Each Canadian uses some 2,048.9 cubic metres of water a year, reports by the Alberta Water Portal, compared to just 1,393 for Australians and 1,223 for Netherlanders.

But that water is in short supply – some 80 per cent of Alberta’s water demand is in the south, a place with just 20 per cent of its water, Michalak notes. Water also takes energy to pump, contributing to climate change, and pipes to transport, straining infrastructure budgets.

The province has brought in the Water for Life strategy to encourage water conservation in response to these and other pressures.

Rainwater harvesting is one way to save water, Michalak says. Albertans have legally been allowed to collect and use rainwater for irrigation and toilet flushing since 2010. It’s still outlawed for clothes washing and drinking, but that could change, as Health Canada is working on regulations for these uses.

Edmonton’s Epcor Tower has cut its water use by about 63 per cent in part by harvesting about 725 cubic metres of rainwater a year for its toilets, Michalak notes. The Enjoy Centre stores rain and snow from its roof in a 500,000-litre tank and uses it to water its plants and flush some of its toilets.

Enjoy Centre co-owner Jim Hole (who was not at the conference) estimates that the facility uses about 80 per cent less water than the old greenhouse as a result.

“I kind of inherited my mom’s intolerance for wasted water,” he muses.

While rain barrels are common, Michalak says more complex rainwater harvest systems are relatively rare in Alberta.

One big reason is the cost: most range from $6,000 to $14,000.

“Water is cheap, so it’ll take many, many years to get a return on your investment,” he says. Most people who build them either use enough water to make a profit on the systems or are anticipating stricter water rules in the future.

Another is awareness, he continues. Despite the presence of provincial guidelines, many municipalities don’t have policies for rainwater systems, or think they’re illegal.

Any business that uses a lot of water should consider adding rainwater harvesting to a new building, Hole says. Retrofits are much harder to justify, as it’s tough to add a big tank in after the fact.

St. Albert plans to test drive two electric buses this winter instead of just one.

St. Albert Transit director Bob McDonald gave the Gazette an update on the city’s ongoing electric bus trial this week.

The city test-drove an electric bus last August in order to see if the technology worked on Alberta roads. The bus, made by BYD Motors, turned out to be about 78 per cent cheaper to run in terms of fuel than a conventional bus.

The city plans to hold a second month-long trial of the bus this winter to see how it handles cold conditions, McDonald says. This trial will happen sometime after mid-February once the City of Edmonton gets the bus.

The department also plans to test-drive a second electric bus this winter made by New Flyer – the company that makes the city’s current buses, McDonald says.

“It’s important we see different ones so we can make an informed decision.”

Winnipeg has used this particular bus since mid-December and hasn’t had any issues with it, McDonald says. It does, however, have less range than the BYD Motors model.

The New Flyer bus will be in town for a three-week trial in mid-March, McDonald says.

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