Hindsight is 2020 – now.

This past year has lead to designs that include underground concrete cisterns, integrated rainwater/well water systems, a small water system for a community serviced by well, bylaw writing for a municipal government, discovering contamination of an aquifer,  and ended with the beginning of a new project that puts us in the belly of commercial buildings in Metro Vancouver in an effort to help develop a non-potable water reuse guidebook.

A wide array of interesting jobs each with their own unique learning opportunities.   This is a quick review of these jobs and highlights the diverse  and enticing challenges that make working with water so enjoyable.

Aquifer Contamination

While working with a customer, trying to ascertain if their well water quality was good enough to filter, we encountered a drastic change in water chemistry within a one year period.  Initial testing a year ealrier had lead levels that were considered extremely low (a good thing), and was not in need  of any focused attention, not until the second sample came in.  

I had requested a second test 12months after the first and found levels had jumped 37 fold, levels not normally associated with groundwater, and changes so dramatic that such is abnormal within groundwater.    I discreetly engaged the Province of BC and the Health Authority having jurisdiction as the other water users (families with children) would unknowingly be consumingly dangerous water.  The industrial site, upslope, is the most likely culprit  in this rural area – I likely will never know the outcome but am comforted to know families were being contacted two days after the report.

Another two stories of potential contamination comes from my own community and as a role as a municipal coucillor. Stories I am not particularly proud to tell but speak to what indifference looks like compared to the above story.

 In researching a community water system for a client, it became evident that a community hall would not be able to discharge fireworks at celebrations due to the high levels of contamination that come from them.  The science has become strong on this issue.   So when faced with the decision to have a fireworks display at our own community hall in the District of Highlands, despite me bringing this to the attention of council, all but one of my colleagues voted in favour to continue with fireworks, and not to test either the soils or the water after the event.

The following month, we had a family who lost their home to fire.  Again my role and research places science at my fingertips, providing useful information showing extreme spikes in contamination in groundwater after residential fires.  After speaking to this at the council table, and to our municipal staff about engaging the owners and surrounding neighbours to recommend they test their wells, it did not occur. In good conscience I had to reach out to them and suggest they do.

The takeaway point for me, and for anyone, is to take water contamination seriously – don’t put blinders up if you suspect impacts to others, and as a homeowner spend the time and the $200 to test your water annually for metals and microbiology.

Small Water System

This water system began as a rainwater harvesting design for eight individual residences on a strata lot. Upon my site assessment, concerns about water quality made me lean towards using the pre-existing well.  

In a community with eight homes, it would have been simpler for each home to have its own independent water system.  There would be no requirement for monthly testing and all the rigours that are attached to community (Small Water Systems). In this case there was a high likelihood of risk due to a variety of factors including farm animals and unacceptable roof materials.    This being the case, we had to approach the system completely differently as a regulated Small Water System (serving two or more connections and under 500 people in a 24 hour period).

In doing this, the rule book is the Drinking Water Protection Regulation and a series of other regulations.  I like policy, but this is a lot to learn.   In a nutshell we had to verify the well recharge, take multiple samples throughout the year before doing the design – then design to meet the risks.  In this case, despite being a deep well, I concluded we had surface water infiltrating the well due to colour and turbidity.  This classifies the well as Groundwater at Risk of Pathogens (GARP), and comes with a stiffer set of regulations.    On this system four forms of treatment had to be designed inclusive with media filtration, cartridge/sediment filtration, chlorination and UV treatment.   Also included were plans for wellhead protection, monitoring, emergency, water safety, logbook for each device, design drawings and 12 other documents as part of the application.

Timeframe to assess water and do the design was 24 months.  The takeaway point is that if you are planning on a development that requires a community water system, you will need to allow for the appropriate timeframes to assess, design and receive approvals.

Municipal Rainwater Harvesting Bylaw

I sit as an elected  councillor for my municipality, and deliberate on a lot of bylaws, but this year was tasked with consulting for a different municipal government.  Quite simply stated, the task took no more than an hour of time.  The reason why – the CSA B805-18 Rainwater Harvesting Standard released in 2018 sets requirements for all aspects of the design requirements to ensure that safety, quantity and quality are all accounted for.  

Oddly in the same municipality before this bylaw was written the Building Official had wanted us to design outside the CSA standard.  He was informed that though we could do this, it would be noted in the file submission and that we would waive our responsibility for insufficient storage, and note the municipality’s request of something that contravened the standard.

Municipalities can achieve efficiencies and reduce costs by not recreating  the wheel. In this case the simple reference to the standard likely saved the local government $10,000, and this bylaw will never be outdated as the standard will always be reviewed and revised and relevant.

Concrete Underground Cisterns

Most of my design and installs are for new builds (new homes being built).  One home this season utilized a sizeable 30,000 gallon cistern poured in place – the foundation to a workshop.  Despite a good design by the structural engineer, and hiring of a highly respected contractor things can go wrong.  

The cistern evolved over 4 separate concrete placements; the base, the sides, the ceiling and the cap seal.   Concrete work is not forgiving, and when a cement truck rolls up and the pumper truck begins, it is an anxious ride, and no room for errors.  Even good contractors have issues, and in this case the contractor had a water stop shift during the placement of the 8′ wall (at 10″ thick) onto the slab.   Remediation… clean, mortar patch and seal with Xypex (or seal whole tank with an NSF 61 flexible sealer).

Moral of the story – have a backup plan and perhaps a scotch.

Large Scale Policy

My weakness is to say no to challenging jobs, and the year ended up with a yes.  Over the next 18 months I will be installing  datalogging equipment on water systems (rainwater, greywater, stormwater) for three large commercial projects to monitor water in, water used, water out.  As well I will be working with a very bright team to use this information, as well as other technical resources to design a Non-Potable Water Re-use Guidebook to be used by 19 municipalities.

One building owner was reluctant to participate, as they had a chlorination system issue that had evaded their engineering contractors attempts of repair, and were understandably were discouraged. With the suggestion that I would look at their chlorination system and perhaps find the issue, we were able to wiggle into the building.  After 7 minutes of inspection, the issue was found, a leaking $7 part causing the chlorine solution to leak into a spill containment pan.   A nice way to finish the year.  At the end of this project when the report becomes public, it will be posted (sometime in 2021)

As we move into an era where we view water with much more respect, we are seeing a cultural shift in water policy.  It is a privilege to partake in informing the direction of this shift, and to design and install safe systems that add resiliency, from single family homes and beyond.  In every aspect of our lives we need to consistently keep in mind the we are the source of contaminants of our water, we are also the protectors of it… and recognizing this incongruency between our actions and desires hopefully makes us more responsible.

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