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Vancouver Out of (Bottled) Water

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What do you do, if you’re supposed to boil (and cool) all tap water that you want to drink? You buy bottled water. What happens if 2 million people want bottled water? Demand gets bigger than supply. I guess, before it can get more expensive, stores run out of bottles. Run out of bottles of water, milk, juice, everything. No more coffee either. Starbucks shot their coffee brewing business pretty much down, and everybody else followed suit. Is this not a clear sign for how important drinking water is? Is this not a clear sign how much people are willing to pay? Does this mean that companies that sell one liter of drinking water for ten dollars are doing the right thing? And does this mean that drinking water coming out of the tap is too cheap? Hotels announce that they put extra bottled water into rooms so their customers can use that for brewing their coffee. Where do those hotels get those bottles from? What do people do who can’t go to supermarkets to get bottled water (because they’re ill or have to work or are too poor)? I guess in crises like this the necessity of drinking water for every human being becomes crucially visible. All these sort of philosophical questions “boil down” to the one question if drinking water is a public good or not, with all its consequences.

Leaving the philosophical question, turning to a practical one: Why is all this happening? Vancouver relies entirely on surface water for its drinking water supply. This surface water (rivers) is collected in reservoirs, and from there transported in pipelines directly into the distribution system. Usually, this is pretty nice in Vancouver, because the rivers start in the mountains with lots of snow-melt water. So usually, the quality is good and the water feels “fresh”. In the last couple of days, it rained a lot, the rain triggering mudslides into the reservoirs where the water is being collected. The material of those mudslides is often very fine, so the particles are small, and do not settle down in the reservoir, but stay in the water and hence might get transported through the pipes and appear at the tap. If those particles are inorganic and really small, this is not a problem. However, if organic, or viruses or bacteria are coming with / are attached to the particles, this might lead to health problems. It is hard to predict if this happens and to what extent. So this boiling water advisory is a cautionary measure. First it was issued on thursday for about 2 million people, and since friday afternoon it is still valid for about 700,000 people

Here is the text of the articles:

Bottles fly off shelves; order lifted in part

PETTI FONG

VANCOUVER — There was water, water everywhere, as the rain continued to pour down outside, but inside, on Vancouver store shelves, there was not a drop to spare.

At the downtown Costco, Elsa Marqvard grabbed one of the last flats of Perrier after the warehouse sold out of bottled water by noon yesterday.

Retailers swiftly ran out of bottled water after a massive boiling advisory was issued for the Greater Vancouver area as a result of mudslides in the region’s three main watersheds.

Ms. Marqvard boiled water for brushing teeth and making coffee yesterday morning and searched for bottled water for drinking. “I asked someone where they had the Perrier and people around me started heading that way when they heard what aisle,” she said.

“I felt I had to get at least one when I realized there was a big rush when people heard there was Perrier left. People were taking two to three cases each and then it was all gone.”

With a preteen and two teenagers at home, she was stocking up on milk at Costco and plans to limit the use of the sparkling water. It will be for drinking and not for brushing teeth, she said.

For Ms. Marqvard and another 900,000 residents in Vancouver, Burnaby and the North Shore, today will be the third day of the boil-water advisory. But for about one million others in the region, the advisory was lifted just before noon yesterday.

The water woes in Vancouver prompted a response from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was in Vietnam yesterday. “We’re watching the Vancouver situation closely,” he said, before meeting with New Zealand Prime Minster Helen Clark. “I was a little concerned about what occurred there, and we’re hoping it will resolve shortly.”

Réka Gustafson, medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, said there have been no reports of gastrointestinal illnesses directly linked to the brownish water coming out of taps.

“The water advisory was because we wanted to get ahead of things and provide an advisory that people should boil their water,” she said yesterday.

Dr. Gustafson said the province is preparing a larger collection of data from illnesses in recent days to determine whether there were any health issues related to the tap water.

The advisory was enough to keep the demand flowing for bottled water.

Stores posted signs on their doorways, like the one at the Buy-Low Foods on Alma Street, that bottled water was all sold out. At the Safeway store on Macdonald Street and Broadway Avenue, a notice was put up by the empty shelves saying more water was on its way.

Six empty containers for the store’s filtered water were quickly snapped up when a store employee walked by with them. Pam Bryden took one and lined up to fill the container.

“All of a sudden, my kids want to drink water,” said Ms. Bryden, who has two children at home. “When there’s no water out of the tap or water to buy, they’re thinking it’s a novelty to drink it out of the bottle.”

Another customer who managed to get a container, Catherine Lambert, said she uses a filtered system at home, but wanted the added assurance of bottled water.

“I never felt I had to think about water here in Vancouver. I just took it for granted that the water is fine. But this just adds more work and preparation,” she said.

With a 10-month-old at home, she said, she is used to boiling water.

“We had two bottles of water at home and it went really quickly,” said Ms. Lambert, who also said it took 11 minutes to fill each container and 33 minutes to wait in line behind three people.

The bottled-water rush was a bit too much for Mary Remedios, a retired daycare worker who is now a nanny.

“We tend to overreact a little. I’ve travelled to different places in the last four years and I can see how dirty water elsewhere really is,” she said.

At schools, hospitals and seniors residences signs were put up telling people not to drink tap water.

Although the boil-water advisory was the biggest issued for a municipality in Canada, many rural places have been dealing with the issue for years.

Yvonne Basil, who lives in the Lower Nicola Indian Band east of Vancouver by Merritt, said there has been a boil-water warning in place there for more than a year.

“I sympathize with what they’re going through down there, but this has been happening in reserves all over Canada,” Ms. Basil said yesterday in a phone interview from Merritt.

“What’s happened here, not a lot can be done about it, but the situation in Vancouver was quite different because it was an isolated storm. We’ll have boiled-water warnings here again, but it may never happen again in Vancouver.”

A $600-million filtration system, half-completed and scheduled to go online in 2008 for Capilano and Seymour watersheds, will prevent any need for future advisories, said Johnny Carline, chief administrative officer for the GVRD.

In October and November of 1995, logging in the area was cited by environmentalists as the cause of landslides in the region’s water district on the North Shore. The turbidity was worse than it is now was the turbidity in the water now, but Mr. Carline said there has been changes in the public’s attitude toward water. In 2000, people living in Walkerton, Ont., had to boil or buy their water for seven months after their supply was found to be unsafe.

“Walkerton and North Battleford and Milwaukee raised the public’s sensitivity to water quality and the risks inherent in them. None of those particular incidents really have any parallel or relevance to our situation, but they raised public sensitivity,” he said.

“The public says we want really, really, really wonderful water.”

The tests conducted have found no levels of bacterium or viruses that raise concerns, he said.

Coffee culture grinds to a halt as shops adjust

VANCOUVER — Three forlorn-looking employees were the only people in a downtown Vancouver Starbucks outlet yesterday morning, as potential customers streamed past its door without venturing inside.

The U.S.-based chain was, in that instant, essentially out of the coffee business, having stopped selling coffee as a result of a boil-water advisory in Vancouver. And while Starbucks pitched its pastries, sandwiches and other beverages, other restaurants were scrambling to adapt to running a business without potable water, taking steps that ranged from sending employees out to snap up every bag of ice they could fine to setting up water boiling and cooling assembly lines.

“We took some of our salads off the menu yesterday, but now we are putting them back on,” said Philip Meyer, general manager of the Wedgewood Hotel, home to the high-end Bacchus Restaurant.

The restaurant yanked its salads and stopped serving tap water as soon as it learned of the advisory, which was issued Thursday afternoon. By yesterday morning, it had revamped its prep routine to include a couple of constantly replenished pots of boiling water and cooled water set aside to wash salad greens and vegetables.

The hotel is also putting extra bottled water in its rooms to allow guests to use in-room coffee makers, Mr. Meyer said.

The Milestones restaurant chain rolled out a response as soon as hearing about the advisory, marketing director Cathy Tostenson said yesterday, ranging from posting advisory signs at restaurant entrances to briefing staff on what they could and could not serve.

While some items, including salads, have been removed from the Milestones menu, there are still plenty of dishes and drinks available, Ms. Tostenson said.

The decision on whether to sell coffee in Vancouver yesterday appeared to depend on the way water is distributed to coffee machines.

Starbucks and Blenz, which also decided not to sell coffee or tea, have central distribution systems that send water directly to coffee machines. Employees are not able to boil water and then manually add it into the top of a coffee maker in the stores.

A spokeswoman for Vancouver Coastal Health said yesterday it is safe for cafés to sell coffee and tea, although the taste could be affected by sediment in the water supply, even if it is boiled.

And in a statement late yesterday, Starbucks said its decision came down to taste.

The high temperatures required for its systems mean there is no risk in serving hot beverages in its Lower Mainland locations, the company said. But “this does not guarantee the quality of the beverages with respect to taste.” It said its stores would resume hot-beverage service only after beverages meet an internal quality standard.

Mario’s Coffee Express owner Mario Trejier said yesterday was one of the busiest mornings in recent memory at his café. It uses a traditional commercial-style espresso machine to make its coffee, with a filter system that Mr. Trejier said is safe for customers, even with the boil-water advisory. Café Artigiano was also doing a brisk business at its outlet near the Vancouver Art Gallery.

The Second Cup chain, meanwhile, closed three of its outlets in Vancouver yesterday afternoon as a precaution.

For Tim Hortons, it was business as usual, with pots of coffee brewing and long lineups at its Vancouver outlets.

While it uses a central water distribution system, it can be bypassed with a “pour-over” into individual coffee pots, spokeswoman Rachel Douglas explained. The chain is using bottled water at all of its Vancouver locations to make coffee and will continue to do so while there is a boil-water advisory, she said.

Mother Nature was in charge

ROBERT MATAS

VANCOUVER — Four days before the rains came down, a huge water main that connects the Seymour reservoir in the North Shore mountains to a wide swath of homes and businesses in the Vancouver region sprung a leak.

Crews from the Greater Vancouver Regional District, which runs the water system for most of the Lower Mainland, had to shut down the water main later that day and drain the pipe. They made arrangements Saturday evening for a switch to the nearby Capilano reservoir to provide water to parts of North Vancouver, Vancouver and Burnaby.

They did not anticipate what happened next. An extraordinary storm brought 100 millimetres of rain Wednesday, before repairs to the water main were completed.

The storm hit the Capilano watershed, which normally has dirtier water in its rivers, much harder than the Seymour watershed. As water experts watched helplessly, the murky flow into the Capilano reservoir increased to 10 times its normal rate; at the Seymour reservoir, the river flow increased by only five times.

Unlike major cities across Canada, water in the Vancouver area is sent out to homes and businesses without filtration. Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Calgary all have filtration systems.

So the murky water went to the taps and a boil-water advisory was issued for two million people in Vancouver and the region surrounding it.

While that boil-water advisory was lifted in some parts of the region yesterday — although it was still in effect for 900,000 people — questions arose about whether anything could have been done to reduce the flow of the brown-tinted water. Many water experts said no.

“There wasn’t anything that anyone could have done,” Lois Jackson, chair of the Greater Vancouver Regional District, said in an interview.

“A lot of us were watching the weather. But there is nothing you can do to stop the weather,” she said. “It was like trying to hold back the tide.”

Paul Archibald, division manager of water supply operations for the regional district, said they were not able to take much water out of Seymour as the storm raged on. But the switch to Capilano water from Seymour made no difference.

The water in both reservoirs was terrible, he said.

“It was pick your poison. Neither one was at all anywhere where you would want them to be,” he said.

“There is nothing you can do about a reservoir — where we get our water from — filling up with silt and sand and lots and all kinds of things that come down the mountains,” Ms. Jackson said.

“There is nothing you can do to stop the water from coming down those big walls of mountains into our lakes,” she said, adding that she had no qualms about how staff had handled the crisis. “There wasn’t anything anyone could do.”

A $600-million filtration system for the Vancouver region is currently under construction. The new plant and related construction is slated to be completed in 2008.

The storm this week proved the necessity for filtration. “We are really at the mercy of Mother Nature until we get the filtration plant,” Mr. Archibald said. “But once the filtration plant is built, these kinds of events will be a thing of the past.”

The water was discoloured by an unusual number of mudslides in the watersheds. The only physical barrier to the murky soil flowing into the drinking water under the current system is screening on the water mains, Mr. Archibald said.

Water in the Greater Vancouver region comes from melted snow and rainfall flowing into creeks and streams in three watersheds: Capilano, Seymour and Coquitlam. The Seymour and Capilano watersheds supply between 70 and 80 per cent of the Lower Mainland’s drinking water. Water from Capilano and Seymour is disinfected with chlorine. Water from Coquitlam is ozonated as well as chlorinated.

Meanwhile, repairs on the Seymour water main were finished Thursday, enabling more water from the Seymour reservoir to flow into the system.

With a report from Petti Fong

Written by Claus

November 18th, 2006 at 2:20 pm

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