Code Blue: Shifting toward water efficiency in Canada

Photo © Terry Lam
Photo © Terry Lam

By Anthony Watanabe, PhD
Increasing urbanization, industrial growth, aging infrastructure, and the growing effects of climate change have made water issues a much more important item on the Canadian agenda.

As the built environment expands, so does its impact on the country’s many watersheds. Pressure is mounting through various policy vehicles and guidelines for architects, engineers, and builders to play a larger role in addressing the impact of new projects on the hydrological system. Demands will continue to mount as jurisdictions put up barriers to new developments that do not meet rigorous design standards.

To prepare for this pending reality, industry professionals should be aware of the primary water issues affecting development, what regulations and guidelines are emerging, and the different design approaches that can be adopted.

Emerging water issues
There are two overarching issues that have been exacerbated by urbanization and climate change: water quality and supply. Jurisdictions across Canada are moving to mitigate the impacts of development on these areas.

Water supply to meet the needs of industry and cities depends not necessarily on the overall amount of water that exists in the country, but where it is located.

In Alberta, 80 per cent of the water supply lies in the northern part of the province, while 80 per cent of demand comes from the southern half. (See “Water for Life: Facts and Information on Water in Alberta 2002” by the Government of Alberta. Visit www.waterforlife.gov.ab.ca/docs/infobook.pdf). As climate change makes hydrological patterns less reliable, cities and business may have to go farther away to get the water needed to maintain economic productivity. One of the ways to mitigate this cost and uncertainty is to make existing water systems more efficient and to develop land-use planning mechanisms that employ local water more sustainably.

This requires a significant overhaul of treatment and distribution infrastructure, at an estimated cost of $90 billion across the country. (For more, see the November 2007 report for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, “Danger Ahead: The Coming Collapse of Canada’s Municipal Infrastructure,” by Saeed Mirza, PhD, Ing. Visit www.fcm.ca/Documents/reports/Danger_Ahead_The_coming_collapse_of_Canadas_municipal_infrastructure_EN.pdf). Since there is scarce funding for this recapitalization, new approaches are required to supply clean water to people and businesses. These are likely to involve increasing the rate at which water is treated onsite, within closed-looped systems.

A bioretention cell drains the 2061-m2 (22,184-sf) parking lot at the Earth Rangers Centre in Vaughan, Ont. Photo courtesy TRCA
A bioretention cell drains the 2061-m2 (22,184-sf) parking lot at the Earth Rangers Centre in Vaughan, Ont.
Photo courtesy TRCA

The other key issue increasingly affecting developers is water quality expectations. Pressure is mounting to adhere to emerging requirements for treating water and using stormwater runoff more efficiently.

Pollution in Canada’s freshwater resources is widespread and initiatives are underway to mitigate further degradation. Stormwater runoff from residential and industrial buildings is a huge contributor to water pollution and there are numerous emerging regulations and guidelines to transform the way water flows through communities.

Emerging regulations and guidelines
The Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes (CCBFC) has launched an initiative to include water efficiency in the 2015 National Building Code of Canada (NBC) and National Plumbing Code of Canada (NPC). A report endorsed by the commission concluded building regulation to be a suitable vehicle for addressing water use. (See the article, “Consideration of Water Use Efficiency Objective for National Building and Plumbing Codes Moves Ahead,” (vol. 16 no. 4) by the National Research Council of Canada (NRC-CNRC). Visit www.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/eng/ci/v16n4/8.html).

A joint task group was formed to determine the extent to which the water use efficiency issue will be addressed in the NBC and NPC. Completed in December 2011, this work paved the way for development of technical requirements, which started in January. The ultimate outcome of these activities will be the publication of functional statements and technical requirements for public review next fall, leading to implementation in the 2015 codes.

The current NPC references standards for water-efficient fixtures with maximum flush volumes and fixture flow rates that include:

  • 13.2 L (3.5 gal) per flush for toilets;
  • 8.3 L (2.2 gal) per minute for kitchen faucets; and
  • 9.5 L (2.5 gal) per minute for showerheads.

These flush volumes are likely to be reduced to fall in line with similar provincial rates. The NPC allows non-potable water sources to be used with dual plumbing for fixtures other than sinks and faucets, and rainwater to be employed for underground irrigation. (For more information, see “Province Information–Ontario, Canada” (no. 6) by the Alliance for Water Efficiency. Visit www.allianceforwaterefficiency.org/ontario-canada-province-summary.aspx#question6).

Faucet flow control is a highly refined technology, delivering a balance between user comfort and water conservation. Photos courtesy Sloan Valve Company
Faucet flow control is a highly refined technology, delivering a balance between user comfort and water conservation.
Photos courtesy Sloan Valve Company

New regulations will build on these specifications and will likely look to more innovative ways to improve water efficiency. Provincial and regional governments have been leading the way to improve the impact of design and planning standards on water quality and supply in Canada. Some of the most pervasive trends are the reclamation of water and low-impact development (LID)—a stormwater management strategy that mitigates the impacts of increased runoff and pollution by managing runoff as close to its source as possible.

Reclaiming wastewater in Alberta
Alberta’s government is showing increased interest in using reclaimed wastewater for domestic applications. As it stands, the Alberta Building Code (ABC) and NPC require:

all plumbing systems, including the drains from every sink, bathtub, shower, and washing machine, to be directly connected to a sanitary drainage system. Every sanitary drainage system must be connected to a public sanitary sewer or an approved private sewage treatment system. (“Reclaimed Wastewater” by the Government of Alberta, Municipal Affairs, Codes, and Permits is at ww.municipalaffairs.alberta.ca/1176.cfm).

These regulations are in place because there are health and environmental risks associated with using reclaimed wastewater.

These high-efficiency toilet (HET) systems use 4.8-L (1.3-gal) per flush flushometers to ensure water efficiency.
These high-efficiency toilet (HET) systems use 4.8-L (1.3-gal) per flush flushometers to ensure water efficiency.

To address these health issues, four ministries (i.e. Environment, Health and Wellness, Municipal Affairs, and Transportation) within the Government of Alberta have established a Reclaimed Water Working Group to facilitate the safe use of reclaimed water for domestic applications such as toilet flushing and landscape irrigation. This framework includes new standards and guidelines to mitigate the risks associated with using reclaimed water for domestic applications and will establish:

  • approved uses for reclaimed water;
  • water quality and technical standards or guidelines; and
  • a management system for approvals, monitoring, and reporting requirements.

The Reclaimed Water Working Group is part of Alberta’s Water for Life Strategy, which commits the province to improving the overall efficiency and productivity of water use by 30 per cent from 2005 levels by 2015. (See “Reclaimed Water Working Group” by the Government of Alberta’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs, Codes, and Permits. Visit www.municipalaffairs.alberta.ca/1171.cfm).

As reclamation becomes safer, the expectation to incorporate the method into design and building will grow. In his recent book, The Future of Water, Steve Maxwell speaks to a future where the distinction between water, wastewater, and greywater will blur to the point of disintegration. Water of any kind will simply be seen as a valuable resource, to be rethought, repriced, and reused as citizens, businesses, and ecosystems see fit.

High-efficiency urinals, such as these two low-flow models (left) and the waterfree urinal (right), offer substantial water savings.
High-efficiency urinals, such as these two low-flow models (left) and the waterfree urinal (right), offer substantial water savings.

Water opportunities in Ontario
Ontario has set water efficiency as an objective under the Ontario Building Code (OBC). Water use standards are listed below, as well as the future potential changes according to the Ministry of Affairs and Housing (MAH):

  • 6 L (1.6 gal) per flush for toilets (proposed change to 4.8 L [1.3 gal] per flush);
  • 3.8 L (1 gal) per flush for urinals (proposed change to 1.9 L [0.5 gal] per flush); and
  • 9.5 L per minute for showerheads (proposed change to 7.6 L [2 gal] per minute).

While these changes are a positive step in the right direction, solutions already exist for single-flush 3-L (0.8-gal) toilets and for bathroom faucets pumping a very effective rate of 2 L (0.5 gal) per minute. With several northern Ontario regions seeing double-digit rate increases in water for the foreseeable future, such innovations will increasingly become common.

The 2006 OBC introduced measures that allow for the use of storm sewage or the reuse of greywater or rainwater for certain applications, such as toilet flushing. (For more information, see “Appendix A: Water Conservation” by the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. Visit www.mah.gov.on.ca/Page9296.aspx). The potential changes would introduce:

The Earth Rangers Centre’s green roof helps keep the building cool and acts as extra insulation. Photos courtesy TRCA
The Earth Rangers Centre’s green roof helps keep the building cool and acts as extra insulation.
Photos courtesy TRCA

new and clarified requirements for the design of non-potable water systems…and would require these systems to be designed, made, and installed in accordance with good engineering practice as described in various documents, such as Canadian Standards Association (CSA) B128.1, Design and Installation of Non-potable Water Systems.

Regulations around the use of rain and stormwater are emerging across the country as legislators explore how people can rely less on groundwater and better manage stormwater, and they are not just relying on the OBC.

More significant regulatory impact on water efficiency in the province will come from the 2011 Water Opportunities and Water Conservation Act. According to the Ontario Ministry of the Environment (MOE):

The act enables the authority to require municipalities and other water service providers to prepare municipal water sustainability plans. These plans will promote water efficiency as a cost-effective way to generate additional water and wastewater capacity.

Municipalities are going to have to take a harder look not only at the efficiencies of their operations and water treatment and distribution processes, but also at how land planning contributes to the overall health of their water systems.

York’s dry swale is a preferred alternative to both curb and gutter and storm sewers as stormwater conveyance systems because of development density, topography, and depth to water table permits.
York’s dry swale is a preferred alternative to both curb and gutter and storm sewers as stormwater conveyance systems because of development density, topography, and depth to water table permits.

Controlling the rate of runoff from developed sites into stormwater systems and natural waterways has a huge impact on ecosystem heath and seems to be an emerging area on which municipalities and conservation authorities are focusing.

In Ontario, for example, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) and Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) are putting the final touches on a set of design guidelines for low-impact development in the region. Developers who cannot meet these new rigorous design standards may be barred from developing if they are unable to adapt their plans.

The shift toward low-impact development
The rise of LID demonstrates a shift away from conventional approaches of land-use planning toward options that better protect watershed health and improve watershed resiliency. (For more, see Sustainable Technologies Evaluation Program’s (STEP’s) Low-impact Development (LID) Stormwater Management Planning and Design Guide. Visit www.sustainabletechnologies.ca/portal/alias__Rainbow/lang__en/tabID__578/DesktopDefault.aspx).

Vegetated open channels were designed to convey, treat, and attenuate roof, road, and parking lot runoff from small drainage areas at York University. Vegetation in the grass swale slows the water to allow sedimentation, filtration through the soil and root zone, and infiltration into the underlying native soil.
Vegetated open channels were designed to convey, treat, and attenuate roof, road, and parking lot runoff from small drainage areas at York University. Vegetation in the grass swale slows the water to allow sedimentation, filtration through the soil and root zone, and infiltration into the underlying native soil.

In 2010, Ontario’s MOE completed a policy review that recognized “municipal stormwater management adaptation to climate change based on best available science is a priority for Ontario.” (See “Policy Review of Municipal Stormwater Management in the Light of Climate Change—Summary Report” by the Government of Ontario. Visit www.ene.gov.on.ca/stdprodconsume/groups/lr/@ene/@resources/documents/resource/stdprod_082453.pdf). While some LID practices are already used in British Columbia and Ontario—such as green roofs, bioretention, permeable pavement, and grass swales—it appears these measures are paving the way for the enforcement of best practices.

Municipalities across the country are working with conservation authorities to review stormwater management plans, which has resulted in more complex plans and designs that aim to address environmental issues. Provinces and municipalities recognize and rely on the expertise of conservation authorities, which have the power to:

  • make regulations in their geographic area;
  • require their permission for development if control of flooding, erosion, or pollution may be affected; and
  • act as advisors on planning matters, stormwater management, source protection, and conveyance controls.

Building developers and land use planners are impacted by conservation authority decisions when their permit applications are assessed to determine if their proposed development affects their jurisdiction. For example, in Toronto, TRCA reviews and comments on all environmental assessments within its jurisdiction, often during the design stage of infrastructure projects. Incorporation of LID into their expectations via new guidelines will have an impact on the approval of development projects.

There is a general consensus climate change will continue to impact the hydrological system. This requires adaptation, which provincial, municipal, and conservation decision-makers seem to be doing.

Recapping the horizon
Climate change and urbanization will impact water’s reliability, quality, and availability in the coming years. To this end, developers will have no choice but to adapt their expertise to reflect this new reality in their project designs. Architects and engineers ahead of this curve who develop expertise early will be at a competitive advantage as guidelines and regulations are enforced.

York University’s bioretention area contains excavated cells with shallow surface depressions that can be used to capture, treat, and infiltrate roof, road, and parking lot runoff from small drainage areas.
York University’s bioretention area contains excavated cells with shallow surface depressions that can be used to capture, treat, and infiltrate roof, road, and parking lot runoff from small drainage areas.

With building and plumbing codes identified as the most effective vehicle to enforce waste efficiency, standards and changes are already underway in many Canadian jurisdictions. Conservation authorities are moving into more powerful roles looking to enforce low-impact development standards for new projects.

Regulations are being drafted in Ontario, explored in Alberta, and other guidelines are being developed at the local level across the country. Most jurisdictions taking action on land-use planning and building issues as they relate to water efficiency and conservation are in the early stages.

Industry professionals have a unique opportunity to reshape the way water flows through communities by adapting projects to emerging trends. By improving water system reliability and efficiency throughout Canada, the future of those who develop urban infrastructure and those who inhabit it can be secured.

Anthony Watanabe, PhD, is the founder and CEO of the Innovolve Group, the consultancy behind the Canadian Water Summit. He received his PhD from the University of Toronto (U of T) and has worked in the sustainability field for more than a decade. Watanabe also sits on the Water Partnership Advisory Committee of the Council of the Federation’s (COF’s) Water Stewardship Council (WSC), which provides information and strategic advice to Canada’s premiers on key trends, issues, and opportunities related to water resources. He can be contacted via e-mail at anthony@innovolve.com.

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