No Filter: Is Vancouver Wasting Its Water?

Most of Vancouver’s immense amount of rain ends up in storm drains, while our world-class drinking water is being used to water plants, wash driveways and fill toilets. Can developers and city planners work together to get water smart?

Take a stroll past the newly built custom home on the corner of West 21st and Quesnel—designed by architects BattersbyHowat and built by Natural Balance Homes—and you’d see a sleek variant on West Coast modernism. What you wouldn’t notice is the attention paid to something not often considered by builders and architects: water.

“On this project we’ve really dived deeply into water conservation and water pollution issues,” says Nick Kerchum, head of Natural Balance, who’s been building homes that minimize environmental impacts for 10 years. “In the past we’d used low-flow systems and efficient appliances, among other water management strategies, but on this one we took it much further.”

The property not only has a green roof and native drought-resistant plants but it also manages all its stormwater on-site. That means that all rain that lands on the property is captured in an underground retention tank, where it’s either used for watering the plants or allowed to slowly percolate back into the water table. No city water is used to keep grasses or plants alive, and no rain ends up going down the city’s stormwater drains.


Why? Kerchum and BattersbyHowat’s answer might be summed up in one word: waste. They did their research before building the West 21st house, and they got radicalized by what they learned.

Take the water that comes out of your tap, hose or showerhead. According to their rough calculations, only a very small percentage of the highly filtered water that enters homes and businesses in Metro Vancouver—produced by a recently completed filtration system that cost, at last count, over $800 million—is actually used for drinking or food preparation. Kerchum believes that well over 90 percent of what the City of Vancouver calls “world-class drinking water” ends up watering lawns or doing laundry.

“In Metro Vancouver, there’s no delineation between drinking water or water used for food and all the other water that we use for other purposes,” says Kerchum. Instead of using a massive network of pipes to deliver all our water from three North Shore reservoirs (Capilano, Seymour and Coquitlam), says Kerchum, we should be designing homes and buildings to utilize our legendary amount of rain.

“In order to build a condo building or commercial space in the city of Vancouver, you have to capture rainwater anyway, but instead of using it we’re shooting it down the storm drain. All we need to do instead is store it and put it to use.”

Use it how? To water lawns. Flush toilets. Kerchum believes we could even filter rainwater on-site—it’s a heck of a lot cleaner than the water that comes through an aging network of pipes—and drink it.

But there are bureaucratic roadblocks—some of them bizarre. “The City of Vancouver will allow you to capture rainwater for irrigation, but they won’t let you use rainwater inside the house. It’s common in other parts of the world,” says Kerchum with some exasperation. “The City told us, ‘We won’t allow the use of rainwater in our toilets because we’re worried that somebody might drink from the toilet and get sick.’ That’s pretty much verbatim.”

It’s enough to drive a progressive builder crazy. Patrick Condon, a professor of urban design at UBC’s Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS), knows Kerchum’s pain. Condon has spent decades trying to accelerate adoption of new building technologies, and helped design water-smart neighbourhoods in Surrey at East Clayton and Amble Greene.

“The East Clayton project was built in the mid-’90s. That’s over 20 years ago, and I had expected the standards of water management we set there to be universal by now. But it didn’t happen, and it’s a shame.”   

As to why water-smart buildings and neighbourhoods aren’t already the standard, Condon believes much of the resistance lies with engineering and permitting departments that are afraid of backlash.  “When we build pieces of the city, it’s an enormously risky enterprise, and people are very risk-averse. People consider these strategies untested.”

Even in a setting as progressive as the CIRS building, that conservative wariness lingers.

“CIRS is a sustainable building where they use rainwater collected from the roof to flush toilets, which is a great system, but on each one of the urinals they have a sign that says, ‘Do not drink water.’”

Stormwater going down the drain is one kind of water waste that builders like Kerchum and designers like Condon would like to fix. There’s another: wastewater.

In 2017, Metro Vancouver dumped over 39 million cubic metres of untreated sewage mixed with rainwater runoff  into local waterways. Due to E. coli bacteria and other pollutants fouling local beaches and rivers, these overflows have potentially serious health consequences for people across the city. And it’s a lot of overflow: for a visual comparison, the amount of untreated sewage and runoff dumped into local waters annually in Metro Vancouver is the same volume as 37 Empire State Buildings. This immense volume has helped make B.C. the worst provincial offender for raw sewage dumping in the country, responsible for 40 percent of the national total.

Raw sewage flooding into the city’s waterways is the result of Vancouver’s outdated system for dealing with stormwater runoff and sewage: in most neighbourhoods, they both go into the same pipe. In heavy rains, massive amounts of untreated wastewater overflow into Burrard Inlet, False Creek and the Fraser River. 

The City of Vancouver knows this is a serious issue and has been trying to mitigate it for decades,  separating sewage lines from pipes that carry stormwater in neighbourhoods like Mount Pleasant, Fairview, the West End  and many others. They have plans to continue separating stormwater from sewage via separated pipes, but it’s a monumental task that will cost billions, with an estimated completion date of 2050—over 30 years from now.

Kerchum thinks that’s too long to wait. He notes the major gains made on energy efficiency through revised building codes, and wants to see Metro Vancouver do the same with water management practices. Instituting codes that require not just capturing rainfall but also keeping it out of storm drains altogether would reduce the amount of sewage overflow going into Metro Vancouver waterways, he says. But getting there will take a push.

“It’s easier to keep doing things the way we’ve always done them. In order to do things differently you have to go against the grain a little bit. Someone has to stand up and be willing to do some extra work to make something better start to happen.”