One of the things I love about visiting the Pacific Northwest is the endless sea of green. The trees, plants, grasses, moss … everything is green.
Except this summer. On a trip to Vancouver, where I looked forward to cooler, rainy weather, what I learned instead was a new mantra. Brown is the new green.
I work for Denver Water, so I got curious. This year, it was as if Denver and Vancouver had traded places. While Denver’s spring and early summer saw extremely wet conditions, Vancouverites have been dealing with hot, dry weather.
“We’ve had the perfect storm of conditions,” said Bill Morrell, spokesman for Metro Vancouver, the government agency that works with municipalities to provide core services, including drinking water. “We had an almost nonexistent snowpack, below-average rainfall in the spring and very hot weather. It was putting a high demand on the system.”
In July, the demands of the area’s 2.4 million customers drained the local reservoirs to lows they don’t usually see until the end of August. And with little summer rainfall to fill up the reservoirs, capacity was draining fast.
And that’s when water restrictions kicked in.
In a typical year, Vancouver encourages outdoor watering during morning or late evening hours, and only three days per week (sound familiar?). This summer, lawn watering, personal outdoor vehicle washing and the refilling of pools, ponds or hot tubs has been prohibited for the first time since 2003.
“Really, we have a first-world problem,” Morrell told me. “We have reliable, high-quality drinking water, and we will continue to deliver that. What we are asking residents to do this year is cut back on nonessential water use, such as watering lawns and washing cars.”
By the time I visited the city, outdoor watering had come to a halt. The beautiful greenery had turned brown, which felt oddly familiar. Weeds became the new badge of pride. People even got a little surly (for Canadians), referring to homeowners with green grass and vibrant plants as “grass-holes.”
Public fountains were turned off, and public showers at the beach were limited or unavailable.
All of this in a city that typically sees rain 168 days a year. Curious to hear from the residents themselves, I took to Reddit, a social networking, community news website. The responses ranged from disgust to denial.
Reddit user Tallmiller wrote: “Hasn’t really made a difference. It’s only really dried out our very small lawn and I had to cut a bunch of flowers back to shrubs. … we still shower, drink, cook the same as before.”
Another user, Esclean, shared: “I have a friend who’s (sic) sole business is pressure washing apartment/condo buildings. He’s had to shut down his operations and lay off all his employees.”
OGdinosaur, “Car is looking pretty dirty…”
AdiposeFin: “Vancouver has never had a drought. Sure, we might have extended periods without rainfall. But there is no drought.”
There it was. The dreaded “D” word.
So who had a worse water year?
Still, it’s hard to talk drought in a city known for near-constant rain. So Metro Vancouver is gearing up to educate its customers by focusing on new water conservation messaging.
In 2016, the campaign will target both indoor and outdoor water use, said Heather Schoemaker, senior director of external relations for Metro Vancouver. The goal, she said, is “for residents to embrace water conservation as a key value and action to ensure the future livability of our region.”
Coloradans certainly understand that. “Warming of the planet is our (humankind) greatest challenge,” said Laurna Kaatz, Denver Water’s climate adaptation program manager. “We know the atmosphere is warming, we just don’t know exactly how it will play out in our local watersheds.”
In the Canadian Rockies, for example, the snowpack melted a month earlier than usual, adding to Vancouver’s problems. “Warming is not a one-time, one-season event,” Kaatz warns.
Each year, Denver Water monitors snowpack, stream flows, storage capacity and the state’s overall drought outlook to determine the appropriate water management programs for the summer watering season.
“Our role is to help our customers be efficient with their water use at all times, regardless of the supply conditions,” said Greg Fisher, Denver Water’s manager of demand planning. “During times of drought, we do have to ask them to cut their water use beyond normal, efficient practices.”
During a potential year of low snowpack, Denver Water looks to maintain three to four years of storage to weather a multi-year drought. “After the drought of 2002, we learned the importance of updating our drought response plans more regularly,” said Fisher.
If there is anything I have learned this summer, it’s that weather patterns are changing and we cannot only use average historical snowpack and rainfall to plan for the future. We have to adapt and change our perceptions of sustainable water use, whether we live in the semi-arid climate of Denver or the oceanic climate of Vancouver. Conservation is not about cutting back, but about using water efficiently.
Residents from both cities can follow these simple tips:
- Reimagine your landscape from water-thirsty grass to beautiful low-water-use plants.
- Replace old toilets with high-efficiency toilets; some use as little as 0.8 gallons per flush.
- Retrofit your faucets with an aerator. They’re inexpensive, easy to install and available at most hardware stores.
- Use only what you need. Turn off the faucet while brushing your teeth or hand-washing dishes, and use spring-loaded spray nozzles when watering trees and gardens.
And a little rain dance now and then might not hurt either.